[Editor’s note: You should consult your doctor and qualified nutritionist prior to making any changes to your diet. The article below is a personal account of, and reflection on, diet in the modern age. It does not constitute medical advice.]
While thinking about writing this article on what I’m calling “the radical, traditional diet,” I happened to come across SkinnyGirl “guilt free indulgence bar[s]” — “high fiber,” 180 calories, and “natural.” And it pretty much sums up the negative side of the issue for me. Some of the “guilt free,” “natural” ingredients, in a very long list, include dextrose, Inulin, sugar, fractionated palm kernel oil, lactose, cellulose gum, salt, Glycerin, high oleic sunflower oil, and sodium acid pyrophosphate.
Such ingredients no longer come as a shock to me.
I meditate. I stretch. I exercise regularly. And I’ve endeavored to eat a healthy diet. However, just a few surprises I’ve discovered over the last year or so include: “Healthy,” twelve grain bread filled with high fructose corn syrup. Uber-“healthy” cereal (and I mean those breakfast cereals advertised as heart healthy, etc., not Cocoa Puffs) with sugar, brown sugar syrup, and other sugars in them. And a can of sweet potatoes: other ingredient, high fructose corn syrup. Mmm, mmm, good.
To Change Your Diet You Have To Transform Your Mindset
So horrified has reading the ingredients on “healthy,” “100% natural” foods made me that over the last few months I’ve made some changes to my diet. But, what I’ve discovered is that that really isn’t enough.
Sugar is packed into a very large percentage of our “food” today. Other things, that you wouldn’t put in your mouth if someone paid you, are staples in most processed or packaged food.
Eating “diet food,” “low calorie brownies,” vitamin chocolate shakes, etc., isn’t going to work. Because it locks you into the same erroneous mindset about food, i.e., I can eat candy and I can eat processed food, and never suffer any adverse effects. I wish it were true, but it’s not.
What needs to change is not just our diet. It’s our mindset. We need to find the forest passage out of the stacked supermarket isles.
When I cut refined sugar from my diet (not so easy since it’s in almost everything) I felt that I was in a strange environment, in which nature itself had been pushed to the margins in favor of manufactured, chemical food substitutes. Ninety percent of the supermarket aisles were suddenly useless — including those that hold the “healthy” yet still sugar-laden cereal and 12 grain bread with high fructose corn syrup — but the mind grasps the hegemonic nature of consumerism, not just in food, but in entertainment, journalism, etc., which is to avoid, through various methods, the substance of life.
Regarding sugar, for me, the only way to cut out sugary foods was to look at its flavor as, essentially, the cheese in the mousetrap, i.e., as the thing that was enticing me to put something in my mouth that was ultimately bad for me. Instead of imagining the flavor, I thought of the product as akin to rat poison. (Dramatic, maybe, but on that note, you might like to know that Aspartame — the artificial sweetener in many diet foods and drinks — was formerly produced by Monsanto, one of the companies that created the deadly nerve agent, Agent Orange. Says so right on their website.) Of course, one might find parallels in other areas of life.
Paleo and Sattvic Diets
Diets come and go, but those that are seen as part of a higher way of living, and as an expression of the higher man, are of great value to us. Even if we do not follow them to the letter, they offer signposts on the way.
The Paleo Diet seeks to emulate the diet of the Paleolithic period, while making it somewhat more modern in terms of how ingredients are mixed together and cooked. The staple of the diet is meat, fish, leafy green vegetables, fruit, seeds, and nuts.
The basic premise is that man has not evolved to digest and process the foods created over the last few hundred years (if not a longer period), and, as such, we need to return to a diet that our body is still designed for, or, as one site puts it, that “works with your genetics.” Out, of course, is refined sugar, but so too are grain, alcohol, and dairy, among others.
Vegetarianism is likewise often seen within a bigger context, either that of the ethical treatment of animals, living with nature, or developing oneself into something spiritually higher (usually in regard to Buddhism or Hinduism, or Dharma).
In the latter case, food is categorized as either Sattvic, Rajasic, or Tamasic. In the latter case, this refers to foods that are rotten, “left-overs,” stale, etc. (the website Original Christianity and Original Yoga sees “Fast food chains [that] pack their food–especially meat–in bags of formaldehyde and other [such] horrors” as Tamasic.
Rajasic foods are excessively spicy, hot, burning, salty, etc. And Sattvic foods promote “life, sattva [or: light], strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction, which are flavorful, smooth [or: oleogenous], firm, and hearty,” according to the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita. There also tends to be an emphasis on milk and dairy as beneficial.
A Radical, Traditional Diet
While not strictly adhering to either of the above diets, my belief is that we need to adopt a diet that is both radical and traditional. Radical, because it embodies a conscious break with the “mass” or “lowest common denominator” elements of modernity. Traditional, because it takes into account both our physical needs, history, and limitations, and our higher, spiritual endeavors. In other words, a diet that it provides a way of shifting from quantity to quality, from the processed to the natural, from the material to the spiritual, and from dependence on enormous corporations to self-reliance and self-care (we should not forget that greek physicians first prescribed diets, and tried to cure with food, before turning to medicine).
Number one priority: cutting out refined sugar and processed foods — a task that will prove something of a (positive) shock to the system. (I can honestly say that I noticed physical improvements in only a week of completely cutting out refined sugar — my skin improved, and I felt I looked a few years younger, among other things.)
Number two: eat fresh, natural foods as much as possible. My diet consists largely of fresh vegetables, fruit, milk, almond milk, soft cheese, nuts, oats, couscous, and some pasta. (And, of course, I’m reevaluating my diet as I go.)
According to Livestrong.com, “the acidic nature” of the last of these ingredients “may be very hazardous upon skin or eye contact, inhalation or ingestion, causing severe inflammation.” However, “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers if safe for human consumption […] in its dispersed state as a food ingredient.” (And I know that you wouldn’t mind putting something in your mouth “in its dispersed state” that, in its regular state, burns your skin, eyes, and lungs.)
Number three: endeavor to choose food that is as ethical as possible — e.g., organically farmed, pays farmers a fair wage, does not depend upon exploitative practices.
Some Diet Tips For Body and Mind
Breakfast: I’ve been eating plain, whole oats with fruit (fresh or dried) and almond milk instead of sugary, “healthy” cereal. Organic muesli can be purchased from some supermarkets, but you can easily (and much for cheaply) make your own by mixing whole oats, flakes of almond or other kinds of nuts, raisins and other dried fruit. (There are plenty of recipes, if you want to follow one) If you really need the sugar, add a small amount of unrefined honey.
Instead of eating regular bread, eat unleavened, German-style bread. Most US supermarkets carry a range of this type of bread by Mestemacher, an ethical German bakery. And, having been eating their organic Rye and Spelt bread I can attest to the fact that even a single slice keeps hunger away a lot, lot longer than toast or bagels. And, yes it really is a lot healthier.
You can also cut up the bread into little squares and spread them with peanut butter for snacks. Just make sure the peanut butter has all healthy ingredients. I’ve been eating Smuckers Creamy, which is inexpensive and is made from only peanuts and salt (less than one percent), but there’s also Smuckers Creamy Organic.
Snacks: Eat fresh or dried dates instead of candy. (You can get fresh dates from Middle Eastern food stores, and they taste very sweet. They’re a lot better for you than chocolate, but, obviously consume in moderation.)
Drink tea instead of coffee. Black tea still has caffeine in it (quite a lot, in fact) but black tea has also been shown to help lower stress (cortisol) levels, including stress naturally induced through sport.
Drink plenty of water (not “flavored water” drinks, which contain chemicals and, sometimes, sugar).
A Forest Passage From The Processed Food Aisle
Today there is a hegemony of processed food, that forms the basis of the diet for many people, affecting their bodies and minds more than they imagine. As I’ve suggested, by returning to a more traditional diet, and understanding this as one way of making manifest our higher values, then not only do we find some of the most unhealthy and lowest aspects of modern life exposed to us, but we also begin to see a way to the higher grounds of nature and spirit, while helping ourselves (and perhaps others) to live a healthier life.