Nutrition has always been my thing. My true love. What I find most fascinating about being in a body. “We are what we eat” is such a no-brainer, yet nobody knows what to eat anymore. Literally 85% of my patients have no idea what they should be eating to feel their best and avoid or cure disease. For myself, I recently revamped my vegetarian diet to stop with the dairy and eggs that I was continually feeling yucky about. What I didn’t realize when I made that shift in my diet is that the change was part of a larger awakening I was experiencing to the sentience and plight of animals altogether. I’ve always been an animal lover (and kind of a dog whisperer!), but more and more I’ve begun to literally feel their suffering. My heart breaks every time I hear, see, or think about what animals are enduring so that people can eat them. So really this nutrition post is more about compassionate food choices and mindful eating. It is my sincere hope that the good intentioned mindfulness many people apply to their daily behavior and relationships will someday direct their food choices as well.
Why the dilemma about what to eat? Endless well-qualified experts appear to be offering contradictory, yet scientific proof that we should eat meat or not, grains or not, fat or not, etc. People see their friends at the gym losing weight eating lots of meat, so it must be good for you, right? And isn’t grass-fed beef humane? When my patients show up confused about what to eat, I offer them what I believe to be true about the uncompromising importance of green veggies, or how they could cook wholesome meals instead of fast food, or if they are leaning away from meat how to do it with grace and good nutrition. I can cite the research, the ethics, the energetics, the environmental toll, but ultimately it comes down to a matter of personal choice. But one which I believe should be based on the open-hearted exploration of what kind of energy is going into our mouths. If we turn our mindful eye to where our food truly comes from, we make different choices, don’t we? Why is it so scary to so many people to actually look at where their food comes from? Because there are stories and emotions intimately, and I mean intimately, tied to that fried chicken or cheeseburger or poached salmon. That’s why. (A great book on this subject is Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.)
But consider that times have changed. The world we live in is not the sames as that of our Paleo ancestors. Nor is it Vedic India, where the cow was sacred and the general lifestyle revolved around meditation and the path to enlightenment. We live in the here and now, which on the level of form, in the physically manifested world, means that wheat is no longer our grandparents’ wheat, and dairy is not that of the sacred cow that feeds Krishna, and industrially growing animals to feed meat to our obese population three times a day is quickly causing planetary and personal health destruction. In the here and now, our oversaturated minds and bodies don’t need more animal foods. In fact, it’s what is killing the majority of us in the industrialized countries. And now we are finding that animal agriculture is the leading producer of greenhouse gases and the largest contributor to climate change. Even grass-fed cattle ranches require running off or killing the wild animals in the area, contribute to pollution, and in the end the animal still feels fear and desperation as they are cruelly slaughtered. Believe it or not, we have a choice.
I have been vegetarian since I learned about animal cruelty in college, with vegan times here and there. Experimented with meat while nursing my first son to see if I’d have more energy, but guess what, when you’re not sleeping all night, nothing you eat will make you feel like you are. Now I’m back to being vegan, but I prefer to call it “whole-foods-plant-based.” While there’s no short way to say it,that accurately describes the lifestyle that I’ve made into my new norm. I get to eat like a gorilla ((mounds and mounds of greens), enjoy the genuine taste of whole foods, experiment with legumes and nuts in whole new ways, and shed a few pounds in the process. I honestly feel like I’m finally living in integrity with what I always felt but wouldn’t admit. If I had allowed myself for a millisecond to consider where the cheese on my green chile came from (most likely a commercial dairy farm where those poor cows are hooked up to machines for their whole, short life), I surely wouldn’t have eaten it! But now I look back and realize that I absolutely did not consider it. My taste buds, habitual patterns, and general sensory override of my heart won out every time. I experienced that denial to an even great degree when I started eating farmers’ market, local, organic meat during that nursing time in 2003. I rode that slippery slope from the farmers’ market meat to the restaurant meat, and enjoyed the new found variety of menu choices, ease of fitting in with the family and friends, etc. Then I literally woke up one day thinking, “What the hell are you doing???” It wasn’t sitting right with me all along but my sensory gratification overrode the ethical dilemma within myself until that point. And I’ve never missed eating an animal since that moment. The desire evaporated. But like I said, I kept eating dairy and eggs until it hit me the same way this past August.
My two lineages, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, have quite different takes on eating meat. During the Vedic Era in India, when Ayurvedic medicine was divined by the sages because their physical bodies were beginning to experience disease, it was a vegetarian culture based on their adherence to non-violence of body, speech, and mind. (Of course there is harm to the plants, but we have to eat something and it’s far less cruel than what’s done to loving, sentient animals.) However milk and butter and ghee were held in the highest regard as highly nutritive tonics that kept a skinny yogi pliant and grounded. Ayurveda still teaches that today. In the Charaka Samhita, the 2500 year old Ayurvedic medical text, the attributes of all foods they had at that time are itemized. Dairy is recommended for certain types of people, eggs rarely are, and meat only for specific ailments. A varied diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts were and are predominant still in India. In China, however, meat was and is considered a staple when it can be had. That used to be not very often. China has a long history of famine. It’s also a very Yang culture in terms of their styles of government. So it comes as no surprise that TCM teaches that the best way, perhaps the only way according to some, to build strong qi and blood is to eat meat. (They didn’t have examples of plant-based endurance athletes and body builders like Rich Roll, Brendan Brazier, and Patrik Baboumian) Yet the reality for them was that it turned out to be a fairly rare occurrence. And it’s fair to bet that it was local and organically raised farm animals. Not factory farmed meat. Not cheeseburgers. Now it may be in urban China, but not when they wrote the medical books.
Modern society has taken this theme – that you need to eat animals because our ancestors did and it’s the only way to have strong qi – and gone totally over the top. Animals are raised, tortured, and slaughtered in horrific conditions, without any regard for their sentience at all, with disastrous effects on personal health and the earth’s environment and atmosphere. All of our most chronic, expensive diseases– diabetes, heart disease, and cancer — are directly linked to the excess consumption of a high fat, animal protein diet. Yet because of people’s attachment and addiction to eating animals, even mindfulness practitioners and environmental activists don’t want to look at it. I personally couldn’t hide from the reality of the animal cruelty anymore. And I feel that as a doctor, I have a duty to my patients — a duty to find an opening in my their hearts to have this conversation about mindful eating. For their own individual health and to alleviate the mass suffering of over 56 billion animals each year. It’s a win-win.
This is a tough subject for most people. And it’s not always so easy to make the transition away from animal foods if that’s what you’re inclined to do. But these days there are so many resources and recipes to make eating still fun and yummy. Click on any of the highlighted words above to link to articles explaining my point.