Foods R Us – and An Alternative Perspective

An occupational hazard of being a doctor is to be asked, à tout bout de champ, whether such and such food is good/bad for this and that disease – of which a list will be rolled out, so knowledgeable about ailments the layman has become nowadays – or whether it contains such and such a vitamin or nutrient. This takes place whenever one happens to be enjoying some activity, taking part in a social gathering, or for that matter even while having a meal in company. 

In the latter scenario, the immediate effect is to cut the poor doctor’s appetite, especially when the query becomes persistent. The doctor is supposed to provide instant answers, irrespective of the reality that he may be a specialist who has not more much to do with the science of nutrition – like me, for example – and is only peripherally interested in the latest nitty-gritty that is being propagated about such and such a particular molecule found in a given food item (pomegranate, chocolate, etc).

Besides, unless one is dealing with the subject on a regular basis, such as counselling on the matter or treating patients with nutritional disorders (not such a big issue in Mauritius), one is long past the physiology days in medical school when one had to learn about these things in great detail. Much of which, as time goes, one has forgotten unless it is relevant to one’s daily practice and one has therefore to keep up with the latest in the field.

In other words, many a doctor may well be taken unawares when faced with these questions on the part of zealous enquirers, and may need to go fish for the information from the right sources before he can provide reliable answers. He cannot afford to give an approximate one, obviously. An incident that comes to mind is being asked by a clever guy about the vitamin content of acerola. Acerola what? The clever guy, who wanted to be smart – and failed – ought to have addressed this, if he was intelligent, to someone versed in agriculture instead. Which shows that being clever and smart does not necessarily mean one is intelligent, nor is being intelligent sufficient to be successful in dealing with other human beings. Rather, trying to be too smart exposes one to the risk of covert ridicule from the interlocutors who may know better. But that’s another debate of course…

To come back to our topic: for the person who is suffering from some disease in which what he eats has a role to play, such as an allergy or high blood pressure, he’d better abide by whatever medical advice he is tendered. This point needs to be stressed because there are many people who default, despite advice and despite knowing for themselves about what to eat and what to avoid. It’s part of what is known as the ‘know-do gap’, like you know very well that smoking is bad for your health but you still do it.

For the normal, healthy person, however, it is no use being obsessed about exactly what substances foods contain, especially at the time of their consumption. This is more important to scientists (as an article in last week’s issue of this paper observed – ‘7 Rules for Eating’ on page 9), and the concerned health and medical practitioners, but to be paranoid about what nutrient(s) each food item is made up of every time one is about to take a mouthful will make eating, and life, truly miserable.

This does not mean that one should not bother to have a reasonable amount of information about foods and their nutrients, through reading or listening, and make sound choices accordingly well in advance – but having done that, for heaven’s sake when it comes to eating the meal, it is best to keep in mind a few simple things:

Food is meant to be enjoyed – no to be fretted about;

Too much of a good thing is bad;

Stop when you feel you could take a couple of more mouthfuls to feel ‘fully full’;

Take only so much that you don’t have to throw away: nearly one third of the world’s population – that’s 2 billion people nearly – goes to bed on an empty or half-empty stomach;

Give a silent thanks to all whose efforts make it possible for you to have your daily meals;

Just as you eat everyday, similarly you must exercise daily to burn the calories that food adds to your body. Otherwise the excess calories will turn into unwanted, toxic (at certain sites e.g. the abdomen) fat whose ugly contours around the body are most difficult to get rid of. (And may even to lead to death when this is attempted by those with dubious skills.)

The Spiritual Dimension of Food

There is a saying that we are the food we eat, and we become what we think. True, food is about building and sustaining the physical body, but food and love – especially mother’s love – go together, and that is why the eating of food is not a mere physical act. Eating together and sharing in a convivial atmosphere build bonds that bridge divides and enhance empathy, intimacy and mutual understanding. That is because the body, made from and of food, is also of a continuum with the mind.

In fact Indian sages long ago analysed the individual as made up of five koshas, roughly translated as ‘sheath’, of which there are five: the food and vital sheaths make up the ‘gross body’, the mental and intellectual sheaths make up the ‘subtle body’, and the bliss sheath or anandamayakosha is the ‘causal body’ which in fact is the ‘cause’ of the other two bodies.

This perspective can be referred to, depending upon one’s depth of appreciation, as either ‘metaphysical’ or ‘spiritual.’ This goes much beyond the limited view of the individual solely as a physico-chemical entity, and requires equally detailed and patient study for all the aspects to be clearly understood.

The intimate relationship between the food we eat and what we (want to) become is briefly clarified in the words of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji in part of an article subtitled ‘Is Vegetarian Food Compulsory for Spiritual Progress?’ It reads as follows:

‘The issue is this: “Life survives on life” (Manu Smriti 5.28), that is, whatever food we take to live will have life. This cannot be avoided. But spiritual progress demands that we develop compassion. So, strictly speaking, the desire to live and the desire to develop compassion are opposed to each other. So, all civilized societies make compromise at different levels. No civilized society tolerates cannibals; they are shot down. In the next level some societies abstain from killing horses because they are used for ploughing their lands.

‘Sailors abstain from killing albatross birds because they have been guiding them in their long voyages. Their compassion is a result of their gratitude to these creatures. In India, cow and its progeny are not killed. It is not only because they are used in agriculture. The cow feeds us all through life with its milk, yogurt, butter and ghee. Its urine and dung are extremely useful as medicine and cleansing agents respectively. So, we are not only compassionate towards it; we love and worship it. Apart from this, the scriptures advise specifically to abstain from eating the meat of some particular animals like cats and dogs.

‘But some people go even beyond this to show compassion. They only take vegetarian food. Of course, it also has life. But according to the Vedic scriptures, vegetation has only prana (life breath) and not the mind. So, it does not experience any pain on cutting and cooking. So far so good – as they say. Some go even further and take only milk and fruits. Some saints still go further, and at the end of their life, giving up all violence, however subtle it may be, they take only water. They are prepared to end their life without food. But they die with the satisfaction that they have finally practised compassion to its maximum extent. So, the scriptures leave it to us to decide our level of compromise.’

We need food laced with love to live a loving, beautiful life. But to make the leap beyond the physical, we have to let go of love for food in stages and climb the ladder of compassion. No easy path, but eternal life is less about food than about transforming our attitude to it.

Nevertheless, bon appétit!


* Published in print edition on 30 August 2013

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