— By Deborah Kesten, VIP Contributor at Thrive Global
“Italians do not regard food as merely fuel. They regard it as medicine for the soul…”.1
—Essayist, journalist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison
How would you eat if you knew that infusing meals with ‘spiritual ingredients’ could enhance your health? Prior to the evolution of nutritional science in the 20th century, for thousands of years humankind turned to ancient food wisdom—from major world religions, cultural traditions (such as Yogic Nutrition), and Eastern healing systems (such as India’s Ayurvedic Medicine)—for guidelines about both what and how to eat.
When I researched this ancient food wisdom,2 I discovered that it guided us to relate to food for physical nourishment (I call this Biological Nutrition), but also for its influence on emotions (Psychological Nutrition), community (Social Nutrition), and the life-giving mystery inherent in food (Spiritual Nutrition). Discovering these ‘4 facets of food’ led behavioral scientist Larry Scherwitz, PhD, and me, to create our science-backed Whole Person Integrative Eating® (WPIE) model and program, which is based on the ‘whole person’ influence of food not only our physical health, but also our emotional, social, and spiritual well-being.3-5
The trilogy of timeless ‘ingredients’ that work together, which comprise the Spiritual Nutrition facet of Whole Person Integrative Eating, are mindfulness, gratitude, and love. And more and more studies are verifying that eating with awareness of these three elements influence health and healing.
Accessing these healing ‘nutrients’ calls for shifting your attention from the ‘in your head,’ 21st century relationship to food and eating—for instance, counting calories, carbs, and fat grams (I call this “eating by number”)—and instead, ‘flavoring’ your dining experience with the ancient ingredients of in-the-moment mindfulness, heartfelt gratitude, and loving regard. When you infuse both yourself and food with these three ingredients of Spiritual Nutrition, WPIE research revealed that not only are you likely to eat less and weigh less—without dieting,3-5 other studies suggest that each of these elements has a profound impact on the way in which food is metabolized and in turn, diet-related chronic conditions—from heart disease6 to Type 2 diabetes7and more.
The Life-Giving Meaning in Meals
Most of are familiar with the decades-old analogy: Food is fuel, the body is a machine. Nutritional biochemist and exercise physiologist John Berardi, PhD, CSCS, takes issue with this outdated, inaccurate belief. “No, food is NOT fuel,” he writes. “And, thankfully, you’re not a Ferrari.”8 I agree. The three timeless ingredients of Spiritual Nutrition tell us that food is more, much more, than fuel. Here’s why.
Plant-based foods (fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and beans and peas), and animal-based foods (fish, poultry, meat) depend on the life-giving elements of air, water, earth, and sunlight—as do we human beings. If we do not become one with food, and it with us, we cannot survive. In other words, both food and human beings contain the mystery of life, and becoming one with food allows us not only to survive, but to thrive. And the three timeless ingredients of Spiritual Nutrition—eating with mindfulness, gratitude, and love—give us the tools we need to infuse meals with meaning, and in turn, benefit from their healing properties.
Clearly, food is more than “fuel” and today’s calories in/calories out “think.”
The Healing Power of Spiritual Nutrition
The three ancient ingredients of Spiritual Nutrition provide a broader vision of nutritional health because they provide insights into harder-to-measure ‘nutrients’ in food that can enhance health. Here are some studies about the healing power that is set in motion when you eat with in-the-moment mindfulness, heartfelt gratitude, and loving regard.
A mindfulness meditation mentality when you eat is the opposite of the WPIE overeating style Task Snacking—doing other things such as working at your computer or watching TV while eating.
WPIE mindfulness guideline
Bring moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness to every aspect of the meal.
Researcher Donald Morse, MD, asked one group of female college students to meditate for five minutes before eating cereal (a food high in carbohydrates), and another group to distract themselves with mental arithmetic before eating the cereal (a form of Task Snacking). When he measured both groups’ saliva (where the metabolism of food begins), he discovered that those who meditated mindfully before eating produced 22 percent more of the digestive enzyme alpha-amylase. Writes Morse:“The decrease in alpha-amylase production is just the tip of the iceberg. When you gulp down your food, your entire digestive system is affected.”9
Another study reveals that practicing mindfulness meditation reduces binge eating episodes,10 while Dean Ornish, MD, and his team discovered that heart patients who did the most meditation every day were the ones who lost the most weight.11
Recognizing and giving thanks for food—from the heart—is the opposite of the WPIE overeating style Food Fretting—defined as dieting a lot, and obsessing about the ‘best’ way to eat.
WPIE gratitude guideline
Appreciate food and its origins—from the heart.
“An appreciative heart is good medicine,”12 says the HeartMath Institute, a research lab that studies interactions between the heart and brain. Indeed, gratitude brings a bevy of benefits both to physical and mental well-being. For instance, there’s evidence an appreciative heart can lower blood pressure and improve immune function and sleep quality. And those with a gratitude-outlook experience increased happiness and less depression.12-14
How might an attitude of gratitude bring so many mind-body benefits? When you think about what you appreciate, you activate the “calming” part of your nervous system (the parasympathetic), which in turn increases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone.
‘Flavoring’ food with loving regard has traveled through the centuries in most cultures worldwide. After all, haven’t most of us heard the expression “cooked with love?” Eating with loving regard and with your six senses—such as savoring the scent and flavors of food—is the remedy to the WPIE Sensory Disregard overeating style.
WPIE loving regard guideline
Savor and ‘flavor’ food with loving regard.
When researchers fed rabbits a high cholesterol diet to see if they would get heart disease, the rabbits that were held with care while eating were the ones who didn’t get heart disease. Surprised at the unexpected findings, when the researchers repeated the study, they got the same results.15 This suggests that eating with a loving consciousness influences the way in which food is metabolized, so much so it may even protect against developing heart disease.
The bottom line: Replacing being ‘in your head’ when you eat—with moment-to-moment mindfulness, from your heartauthentic gratitude, and loving regard—means being ‘other-oriented’; not focusing on yourself or your thoughts, but rather, bringing your attention and awareness to the food before you. When you eat with the other-oriented ingredients of Spiritual Nutrition, you may lower your risk of heart disease15,16 and other mind-body ailments.6,7 9-11, 12-14
The Healing Power of ‘Spiritual Nourishment’
Modern nutritional science is revealing that eating with awareness of the ancient life-giving qualities that comprise ‘spiritual nourishment’—mindfulness, gratitude, and loving regard—could enhance health.
The takeaway: The practice of Spiritual Nutrition and the health benefits that occur when we eat with its three ingredients in mind takes the concept of nutritional health to a new level. And it empowers us to make a choice that promotes health and healing. Each time we eat.
- Barbara Grizzuti Harrison Quotes, https://quotefancy.com/barbara-grizzuti-harrison-quotes, QuoteFancy.com, #31 (accessed March 19,2022).
- Deborah Kesten, Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul: Essentials of Eating for Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Well-Being (Amherst, MA: White River Press, 2019).
- Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, “Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Program for Treating Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal 14, no. 5 (October/November 2015): 42–50.
- Larry Scherwitz and Deborah Kesten, “Seven Eating Styles Linked to Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 1, no. 5 (2005): 342–59.
- Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Breakthrough Dietary Lifestyle to Treat the Root Causes of Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity (Amherst, MA: White River Press, 2020).
- Lakeshia Cousin, Laura Redwine, Christina Bricker, Kevin Kip & Harleah Buck (2021) “Effect of gratitude on cardiovascular health outcomes: a state-of-the-science review,” The Journal of Positive Psychology, 16:3, 348-355.
- Ryan Bradley, “Eating habits and diabetes: how we eat may be more important than what we eat,” Diabetes Action website, June 2011, www.diabetesaction.org/article-eating -habits?rq=ryan%20bradley%202011.
- John Berardi, et al, “No, no food is NOT fuel. And, thankfully, you’re not a Ferrari.” https://www.precisionnutrition.com/food-is-not-fuel, PrecisionNutrition.com (accessed March 16, 2022)
- D. Morse and M. Furst, “Meditation: An In-depth Study,” Journal of the American Society of Psychosomatic Dentistry and Medicine 29, no. 5 (1982): 1–96.
- Jean Kristeller, “An Exploratory Study of a Meditation-Based Intervention for Binge Eating Disorder,” Journal of Health Psychology 4, no. 3 (1999): 357–63.
- J. Daubenmier, G. Weidner, M. Sumner, N. Mendell, et al., “The Contribution of Chang- es in Diet, Exercise, and Stress Management to Changes in Coronary Risk in Women and Men in the Multisite Cardiac Lifestyle Intervention Program,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 33 (January 2007) 57–68.
- HeartMath.org, “An Appreciative Heart is Good Medicine,” July 2, 2009, https://www.heartmath.org/articles-of-the-heart/personal-development/an-appreciative-heart-is-good-medicine/ (accessed March 20, 2022).
- Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). “Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1247.
- Emmons, R. A., McCullough, M. E., & Solomon, R. C. (2004). “The psychology of gratitude.” In R. A. Emmons & M. E. McCullough (Eds.), The psychology of gratitude (pp. 3– 16). Oxford University Press.
- R. Nerem, J. Murina, J. Levesque, and J. Fredrick Cornhill, “Social Environment as a Factor in Diet-Induced Atherosclerosis,” Science New Series 208, no. 4451 (1980): 1475–76.
- Larry Scherwitz, “Type A behavior, self-involvement, and coronary atherosclerosis,” Psychosomatic Medicine 45, no.1 (1983): 47–57.