Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Plee for Dietary Sanity

It’s ironic that I should be writing this. A few years ago I would look at people eating white rice and think they were slowly killing themselves. I would watch what the children I taught yoga to ate at lunch, and wonder how their parents could be so clueless and cruel.

Today, I see things differently. I am constantly seeing articles claiming to know what foods are toxic, what foods are carcinogenic, high in anti-oxidants, rich in calcium, why wine is good for you, etc., etc. While I understand the good intentions behind the research and the people writing these articles (hey, I’ve been one of them!), isn’t there something kind of neurotic about having to validate our every food choice with scientific, or (even worse) pseudo-scientific research? Does anyone else feel that when their aunt/uncle/brother/sister/mother/father/friend starts up a conversation about the arthritis-causing effects of tomato sauce at the dinner table, that it removes a little of the magic of sitting down to eat with loved ones?

Can we tone it down a little?

There is an old saying attributed to Alexander Pope that goes like this: “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” It alludes to the idea that learning little facts here and there about something can give us the illusion of being more expert than we really are. Most of us base our understanding of nutrition off of a popular article in an online blog, or a best-selling book, and feel guitly when we knowingly “disobey” the rules. In a world where media is constantly shifting the health paradigm, we can either develop an intuitive understanding of our body and food, or feel our head constantly spinning from contradicting information overload.

Let’s bring fun back to the dinner table!

Our body is an elaborate system of gross (and subtle) elements that should be known to us. So long as our body remains mysterious to us, we will seek advice from others rather than turning within for the answers. One of the reasons the yoga craze is so needed in the West is that it is helping our puritanical society, once afraid of their own physicality, to develop body-awareness. Hatha yoga especially, is concerned with movement of the more subtle, less frequently noticed muscles. In a hatha class, the teacher might ask us to fill our kidneys with breath, raise the arches of our feet, or inwardly rotate our upper-arms. These may seem like fairly useless abilities to cultivate, however, if we were able to bring awareness and mobility to every part of our body, no matter how small, how often do you think we’d need to see a physician?

Food is a touchy subject. Most people would sooner convert to a new religion than change the food they eat. Whether we follow an ominivorous diet, a vegan diet, a macrobiotic diet, an ayurvedic diet, a primal diet, a Mediterranean diet, or a colorie-restriction diet, the same rule applies: if we know our body, we will know if we are in good health. There are so many ways to self-evaluate: our energy level, our mood/emotions, our stamina, the depth of our breathing, the kinds of thoughts we attach to, the health of our skin, the amount of times we get sick in a year, the brightness of our eyes, the depth of our meditation, and more. Note how most of these do not include looking in a mirror! As we move deeper into the Aquarian Age, we must learn to look inside for the answers. That cannot happen without the self-knowledge that comes from neutral self-evaluation.

Beyond the gluten-free, the vatta-pacifying, the high protein, the low calories, the good fat, or any of the other ways we categorize good nutrition, is a very basic question: am I eating ACTUAL FOOD? By “actual” food, I mean, was it created in a science lab, or did it grow on a tree, a wine, or in the ground? Our processed food machine has become so clever than even the strictest dieters can still eat “junk” (i.e. gluten-free cake, or raw vegan cookies) that at least somewhat meets the qualifications of their manifesto. If we evaluate our ratio of processed to fresh—“actual”—food, what might we come up with? If it looks something like 20:1, it might be time to pick smarter snacks. My point here is we can start to evaluate our food intake through a very simple lens. It doesn’t have to be so complicated that we must rely on an encyclopedia. As our awareness develops, so will our subtle understanding of what different foods (even “actual” ones) do to our constitution. However, simple is a powerful place to start. 

George Dennison said it perfectly:

“What some call health, if purchased by perpetual anxiety about diet, isn’t much better than tedious disease.”

Saaaaaaaaaaaaat Naam.

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