Next to the (almost) unconscious act of breathing and drinking water, the other thing that we do almost as much, and one that is equally critical, is the process of eating. At its basic level, this is the act of ingesting materials that provide nourishment and keep us alive. The Oxford dictionary defines food as “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.” Food essentially is parts of the planet that are merging with you to help the body become nourished, grow, and maintain itself. Whether the food is animal, vegetable, seafood, or whatever else, it is a life onto itself that is becoming a part of you. In that sense, our body is nothing more than an accumulation of food that we have eaten to this point in time. Our body comes from the planet via our parents, and it most certainly is going back to the planet in one form or another (ash or manure). For centuries, people ate what they could get, and their only aspiration was for stuff that was harder to find and cook, like meat. Bread was the staple diet of millions across cultures in the west as was rice in the east. People ate whatever was grown locally or could be transported to cities from surrounding farms and forests. Hence people in cold climates ate whatever was grown during harvest in the winter and pretty much the same in the summers, along with summer fruits and vegetables. Those in tropical climates were luckier in that they had an abundance of fruits and vegetables that grew naturally. As time passed and technology came about to do the hard work of farming and the transport of food, things began to change in the way humanity approached food. Much like sex, man moved far away from food-for-living to the far more fun, food-for-pleasure. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the Roman orgies, especially in the time of Nero, where the ruling class gorged themselves on lavish food and drink to the point of death in some cases. There are even rumors of Vomitoriums, a room adjacent to the dining room with basins where guests could empty themselves of what they had eaten so they could go back for more. Nowadays, with the corporate takeover of the food industry nearly complete, what passes for food in America is horrific. The same is happening globally, just at a slower pace. Based on the single mandate to provide what tastes good at the cheapest possible price, almost all food is processed in some way using all manner of chemicals like Monosodium glutamate, Disodium Guanylate, Butylated Hydroxytoluene and the ever present High-Fructose Corn Syrup. There is an entire industry dedicated to making a chemical version of every taste and smell found in nature, because it is a bit cheaper and can be mass produced. And chemical companies finding new ways to keep food on the shelf far, far longer that it would have lasted naturally. Anyway, I digress, as this is not a blog about how bad food in modern societies is.
Given the almost limitless variations of food on offer in modern supermarkets, the choices one makes have also evolved to match this variety. In the animal world it is quite simple; carnivores eat meat and herbivores do not. But for humans, we have sub-divided what we eat based on general groupings as follows.
Vegetarian: Vegetarians do not eat animal products like red meat, fish, crustaceans, poultry, etc. This also includes food that contains by-products of meat or seafood production. Subcategories include Lacto-ovo-vegetarian (egg and diary allowed), Lacto-vegetarian (no egg, but dairy ok), and Ovo-vegetarian (egg ok but no dairy) or Eggatarian.
Vegan: This is a much stricter version of a vegetarian which eliminates dairy, egg, and other animal-derived products, such as honey, gelatin, collagen, and other types of animal protein (stocks or fats derived from animals). Many followers also will not purchase products made from animal products.
Pescatarian: A pescatarian is similar to a vegetarian, but with the addition of fish and other seafood like shrimp, mussels, salmon, crabs, and lobster.
Omnivore: Most people fall into this category, which is the consumption of meat, seafood, vegetables, dairy products, and just about anything that can be eaten. Another name for this, that sounds nicer, is Flexitarian.
Using the above baselines, there are many, many different diets that have been invented over the years, many originating from America. That is perhaps because this is the only country where people are so obsessed with health and companies are ready to provide for the fad-of-the-month. Mediterranean, Keto, Whole30, Paleo, and Atkins are just a few examples of diets that have come and faded to some extent. The problem is there is too much focus on weight loss and not nearly enough on health and vitality, the reason we should be choosy about food to begin with. Because most have become slaves to their tongue, the rest of the body has been forgotten till it’s time to show it off in some manner. I know people who go on crash diets because they have to go to a party or on holiday and to a pool.
Meat Or Not
This is one of those great debates that has become even more heated in recent years as vegetarian and vegan options have grown significantly and there is more global awareness around the benefits of a plant-based diet. I will start by saying I am a vegetarian and almost vegan (can't give up cheese and chocolate completely, yet 😊), so I may have a slight bias in my views. Growing up in India in the 1970s, I did not have a choice, as being vegetarian was just the way of life in those days. Since traditional Indian food is designed to be vegetarian and hundreds of millions of Indians are, there are many, many choices in dishes and variety. After we moved to the US, my parents gave my brother and I a choice but we both chose to stay vegetarian. It is only in later years, when I was living in Florida, that I tried chicken but gave it up after about a month. It was partially driven by peer pressure by my gym friends who claimed I could never "bulk up" till I ate protein, specifically chicken. In those younger years, such things mattered, and I gave it a try but gave it up after about a month. I state this to show that I don't necessarily have a moral position towards eating meat. I do have a profound love of animals and cannot bear to see them suffer for me to eat so there is that. Modern day raising and slaughtering of livestock is terrible, with the animal suffering from birth right through to death. Just look up the many horrific videos on YouTube if you want to see the reality of the meat industry. But plants are also sensitive and suffer death, with the only difference being that we are unable to see or hear it. It's been shown by many experiments and scientific methods that they do react significantly and directly when they know they are going to die. One example is experiments done by Frank Kühnemann at Germany’s Institute for Applied Physics at Bonn University that shows that plants whimper in pain when a leaf is cut, or vegetable harvested. Another example is when elephants enter an area of forest and start eating the leaves of a few trees. These trees immediately communicate this to other trees which start to produce a kind of poison that makes their leaves bitter to the elephants who will not eat them. Awareness of death is not just limited to humans, animals, and sea life.
It is only after the survival period of man mostly ended that we were able to reflect on what we should eat and why. For millennia, it was to eat whatever was available or die of starvation. This is why even cannibalism has its place and cannot be discarded as an aberration. India, long before the days of overpopulation and destruction of the environment, was a rich land that provided ample food in the form of fruits and vegetables to its inhabitants. Because of this, survival was not an issue for centuries and people could think about what they should be eating and why. An entire science of Ayurveda was created to explore the energy composition of the body and recommend dietary and medicinal approaches specific to that particular body. But this only happened after the need for survival (brawn and physical power) was removed and people could explore the intellectual and spiritual paths to determine how food affects their body and life. It was this exploration that led to the determination that our bodies are designed for a vegetarian diet, specifically raw food that has life. The following is a summary of an excellent explanation by Sadhguru in his fantastic book, Inner Engineering, on this subject. In the animal kingdom, there are fundamental differences between the design and capabilities of the bodies of herbivores versus carnivores. Looking at the digestive system, which is most relevant for food, the focus is on the alimentary canal, which is the entire digestive tract, from the lip where food enters the body to the anal outlet where it exits. First is the teeth where, for carnivores, the design is only to cut whereas for herbivores and humans, it is to cut and grind. The reason for this is that the digestive process for herbivores begins in the mouth through a process called Mastication which involves grinding the food and mixing it thoroughly with saliva. An enzyme called Ptyalin found in saliva starts converting carbohydrates into sugar, an essential part of the digestive process. This is why if you place uncooked rice in your mouth, it turns sweet after about a minute. If done properly, about 50% of digestion should complete in the mouth via Mastication. So, herbivores have to grind their food and keep it in the mouth for a bit while carnivores just cut it into smaller pieces and swallow it.
Next, if we look at the length of the alimentary canal, in all carnivorous creatures it is approximately 2-3 times the length of the body and in herbivores, it is 5-6 times the length of the body. For humans, the alimentary canal ranges from 24-28 feet which is in the range of herbivores. This difference gives a great indication to the type of food each species was designed to consume. Raw meat takes about 72 hours to pass through the human system while cooked meat takes about 50 hours. Cooked vegetables take about 25 hours, raw vegetables take 12-15 hours while fruits are done in 1.5-3 hours. Raw meat begins to putrefy if left outside for more than 70 hours and far faster if the environment is hot and humid like in the summer. Our stomachs are a veritable tropical environment and the perfect place for meat to putrefy quickly. This creates a lot of bacterial activity which the body must use a lot of energy to contain it so as to not cross that fine balance between health and disease. This is also because putrefaction releases toxic chemicals such as ammonia which destroys the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Given that our gut biomes contain around 10 times more cells than our body from all the microbes living there, one can argue we are our gut. And because some 80% of our immune system is also in the gut, it is critical to feed and nourish that system for our own wellbeing. Finally, carnivores do not eat everyday (definitely not 3 times a day) and many not for weeks. A lion or tiger eats once every 6-8 days and then either sleeps or lazes to digest the meat consumed. This is because the food moves very slowly through their tracks and requires a large amount of energy to break down. From looking at all the above, one can easily conclude that the human alimentary canal was designed like that of herbivores. This is why one feels light and full of energy on a plant-based diet versus a meat-based one. There are many documentaries showing the benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet versus a meat one. People have overcome chronic illnesses, fatigue, mental issues, and a host of other ailments by simply switching to a plant-based diet.
The Energy of Food
All of creation is made up of vibrations and the different combinations of these vibrations make up the stunning number of things we see (or not see) in the cosmos. Every living being has some level of energy within it, typically being made up of a higher level of vibration than say, a rock. Different cultures have different names for this energy like ‘Prana’ in Hinduism or ‘Qi’ in Chinese. The “western” religions don’t really have a word for this nor do they attribute any energy to living beings other than humans (but no other life form) having souls. Regardless, this energy is the life force that keeps a being alive and healthy, can weaken due to sickness, and leave when the body dies. When we consume something, be it plant or animal, there is a level and type of energy that enters our body. Just as the physical part of the food is broken down and absorbed as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, etc. into our cells, so too is there an absorption of energy that is not necessarily tangible at the physical level. And it is really a fusion of the food with our body as, after all, it is nothing more than an accumulation of food. This is really important as we really are what we eat, at the physical and energy levels. Food that is alive such as plants have far more energy than food that is dead, like meat, or even overcooked vegetables. But meat is the worst in terms of energy as the animal that was killed had gone through severe trauma and suffering prior to death. This is especially bad in modern meat “factories” where animals are lined up by the hundreds all day and slaughtered right in front of all others in line. There are many YouTube videos on this if you want to see for yourself. Almost all conscious creatures, especially the larger ones, know what is coming and their bodies release all manner of acids and chemicals into the physical system, while their energy body transforms based on their terror and suffering. Worse, their living conditions are also terrible such that their entire lives are one continuous stream of suffering. When this meat is consumed, all those things enter the body and fuse with our own self and thus we ingest all that negative energy. At a vibrational level, live food such as fruits and plants have a much higher level of vibration than meat. At an experiential level, eating meal of mostly plants and no meat makes you feel more energetic after versus eating meat or vegetables that have been cooked to destroy all their energy content. This is why most people after a meal of meat, feel lazy and want to sleep.
What, When, and How to Eat
With today's busy and hyper-connected lifestyles, most people either treat eating as an annoyance or, at the other extreme, as a means of "reward" for the stressful day. How many times have you just wolfed down your lunch or dinner while on a work call or focused on getting something done? There is almost no attention paid to eating other than how it tastes and when it fills you up. One issue with this lack of attention is that we eat far more than is required because it takes some time for the mind to recognize when no more food is needed. A second issue is that almost no Mastication happens in the mouth, thus sending the stomach nearly undigested food. Worse, as stated earlier, most of the food is processed in some manner as to destroy almost all the nutritional value it once had. Given the major issue of soil-quality depletion, most do not get near the amount of minerals and vitamins needed to sustain a healthy life. On the other extreme, many turn to food as a means of resolving stress or as a path to pleasure. A common example of this is food loaded with refined sugar (ice cream or chocolate) which has been proven to be terrible for the body and more addictive than cocaine. At least in America, added refined sugar is everywhere and, in many cases, in obscene quantities. An obvious example is a 20oz bottle of Coke which contains about 65 grams of sugar, which is over 2.5 times the daily recommended amount. Potentially healthy foods such as yogurt, cereal, soup, coffee, bread, and many others have been poisoned using large quantities of refined sugar such that even small amounts have 25%-50% of the DAILY recommended amount. And worst of all, much of the sugar is in the form of High Fructose Corn Syrup that has been linked to all kinds of disease and inflammation. Salt is another ingredient that is used in significant amounts in food, often along with sugar. Overall, the lowered quality of the food due to soil depletion, chemical processing, quantity, and addition of obscene quantities of sugar and salt have led to never seen before levels of chronic diseases such as diabetes, liver disease, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. While the epicenter of this phenomenon is the US, the issues are global due to the proliferation of cheap, processed, and over sugared/salted food around the world.
I finally realized that my relationship with food had to change because I stopped viewing it as something I put in my body, and it just uses it to live. I also realized that I too was a slave to my tongue as who does not love things like potato chips, chocolate, or the myriad of snacks available everywhere. I began to understand, almost all of it through experience and trying things, that food has to be treated as a part of myself and not some foreign entity. Based on this, I came up with a list of the ‘what’, ‘when’, and the ‘how’. First and the most important thing to realize is that whatever it is you are about to eat, it is/was a living being and is in the process of becoming part of you. It is literally life-making material for your body and the most valuable thing (next to water) in order for the body to continue living. To this end, approach the food on your plate with gratitude and some level of respect. After all, whatever is there is about to become a part of you and hence it benefits you to treat it as part of yourself. And in some way, this is the ultimate feeling of the unity of everything because something that is a plant, fruit, animal, fish, or nut is about to become a human being. This is the miracle of life and the hand of the Creator in everything that is. I do this before every meal with an utter focus on the food and giving it love and thanks for becoming one with me. I also communicate what I would like the food to do once it becomes me, things like heal, nourish, or protect. Our consciousness has a deep and direct impact on all we connect with and giving this engagement to food will have a positive benefit once that food becomes you. Here are other things to try to see if they work for you.
If you are under 35 years of age and an active person, 3 healthy meals a day is great and needed. But after about age 35, unless you are very active (run, bike, etc.) or spend a lot of physical energy on work, two meals a day is better for you. This is because, as we age, the body’s ability to integrate food into itself becomes weaker and it is no longer growing, at least in the vertical dimension. Feel this out for yourself and adjust down as needed. If hungry between meals, eat nuts and fruits. I eat more carbs and protein on the days I bike and far less on days when I only walk. Fruits and vegetables, mostly raw, are a majority of what I eat every day.
One important aspect of right-sizing eating is to pay attention while eating and not be distracted. I have a terrible habit from my childhood where I must read a magazine during dinner. I have done this since I was 10 and only recently gave it up. There are multiple reasons for this, the first being quantity consumed. We should take 20-30 minutes to complete a meal and pay attention to our bodies the entire time. Each bite should be chewed slowly and ground before you swallow it to get it pre-digested and to also let the stomach know what is coming. When you first get the feeling of getting full, stop. This is your mind recognizing no more food is needed and sending the signal. Paying full attention to the body is important as there may be days when you are not hungry at all. If so, don’t eat as it is completely ok not to do so and very beneficial to the body. In fact, look to see if you can fast (just water or with fruits) once a month or even once a week, if possible. There are many, many benefits to fasting with the main one to give your body a rest from all the many processes around consumption and digestion.
There must be at least 3 hours (ideally 4) of time between dinner and bedtime and that includes snacking. One great thing to do is a light walk for about 15-20 minutes, 30 minutes after having dinner. The key word being ‘light’ as the goal is not to exercise. Another issue if you go to bed with a large amount of food in the stomach, it puts pressure on other organs in the abdomen. It is very important that before going to bed, food you have eaten has moved out of the stomach.
Eat stuff grown locally if possible. The energy and vitality of fresh food drops off very quickly so eating food that is fresh from the earth is best. There is also a school of thought that our bodies are in some way connected to the earth in the geographical area we live in and eating local strengthens this link.
Eat with your hands and touch the food before it enters your mouth. There is a profound interaction between our body and the food and touch is the medium to get it started.
Eat different kinds of grains and mix it up often. Anything that can sprout is full of life and should be eaten in that manner (soak in water for a night, then wrap in a cloth for 2-3 days). The energy density of sprouted food is high and serves as great fuel for the body.
Cut out refined sugar and all processed food except maybe on occasion. If you need small amount of sugar for coffee or tea, use either raw cane sugar or honey. The Keto movement is brilliant for this as you can even get no-sugar or very low-sugar items that were previously loaded with refined sugar. Note that I avoid artificial sweeteners altogether as they cause far more harm than refined sugar, just in a different way.
If you just don’t like eating fruits or vegetables in whole form, make a smoothie. You can consume and absorb an incredible amount of both when it is liquified and things that taste good to you added to the mix. There are a million recipes on the Internet so just go find ones you like. I drink one every other day and it is a meal onto itself but is digested and gone in about 2 hours.
While the above is a summary of what has worked for me, each one of us has a unique body and should experiment to see what works best for us. The end goal is to find the right combination of things that leaves you alert, agile, active, and with a feeling of vitality. The key is to be conscious of your body and pay attention to what it is telling you every single day. Yes, this means putting aside the phone, laptop, TV, or whatever and focus on yourself, if only for a bit. For me, a mostly vegan diet with a lot of raw food gives me the highest amount of energy, feeling of vitality, and general wellbeing. But I also love cheese, wine, (very low sugar) chocolate, popcorn, and a few other things that don’t fit into that bucket but that is ok. Also, the depth of flavors I have discovered in food I have eaten for years, and never noticed, is truly eye opening. Now that my full focus is on the food and it stays longer in my mouth, I notice far more dimensions than before. A side note on this flavor discovery is to try it on wine (or Scotch), as the results are mind blowing. Eliminate the visual and aural senses and the senses of smell and taste rise to a new level altogether. For you hardcore foodies, try this on your favorite dish and see what new flavors you discover. Finally, paying attention to my food and its impact on my body has significantly changed my distance workouts. I used to eat a lot more for my 25+ mile bike rides and still feel hungry during the ride and experience the quick drop off in energy towards the end. But, after I started eating slowly and significantly increased raw foods, they dynamics have changed radically. I eat less on these long-distance exercise days but feel more energetic, aware, and there is no sharp drop of energy. I have gone over my self-imposed limit by 2-5 miles with no issues because I can feel my body telling me it’s fine. I truly believe if you can form a connection with whatever it is you are about to eat and consume it with gratitude and focus, it will work well for your body at multiple levels and have a significantly positive impact on your overall wellbeing.