The current climate around food and nutrition in many parts of the world is an issue of health and survival. Too many people still lack access to clean water and affordable fresh food. There are complex political and environmental issues at play. Meanwhile, most deaths in Western countries are due to modifiable lifestyle factors. The consumption of a high saturated fat, high trans fat, high sugar diet is widely accepted as the primary preventable cause of diseases including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many forms of cancer. There is a huge cost economically to a society burdened by poor health, along with the personal pain of poor eating habits.
The effects on an individual of choosing a SAD (Standard American/Australian Diet) is likely to be lack of energy leading to a sedentary lifestyle, which, along with the nutrient poor, calorie rich food, sets the scene for excess weight and obesity. Feeling uncomfortable in their own skin, people who are overweight are at greater risk of depression and low self esteem, more likely to be bullied and statistically less likely to succeed professionally. Clearly, food has multiple effects on consciousness.
How can we say we want to be environmentally conscious, economically responsible, have fulfilling relationships based on respect and compassion, develop ourselves psychologically and spiritually, and then continue to eat whatever we feel like without reflection? Some choices in life are beyond the individual's control, but food, at least for adults, is something we are able to take responsibility for.
It is overly simplistic to think there is one ideal diet for everyone who aspires to holistic health and wellness. Nevertheless, there are marked similarities in the messages coming from thoughtful commentators and educators in this field. What they have in common is that they are all using their various platforms to encourage people individually to make a change in their relationship with food. Even the meat eaters among them advocate reduced meat consumption and they all encourage people to eat more of the delicious, nutrient rich, colourful plant foods that scientists agree are health promoting.
US food columnist Mark Bittman makes a compelling case for halving the consumption of meat in every meal and boosting the plant content of our diets. In his articles and as a speaker at TedTalks, he describes in straightforward language the evolution of meat production in the industrialised world. Even without shocking slaughterhouse images, the basic facts about how animals farmed for food production are treated are distressing enough. For example, cattle have a digestive tract designed for eating grasses, yet commercial beef production is more and more based on feedlot style farming in order to maximise production in the smallest land area possible. In feedlots, cattle are fed corn and soy heavily subsidised by government (in the US), a diet far removed from what nature intended for them.
In recent years, a number of powerful films have shown behind the scenes of food production with particular focus on the US. Earthlings, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix used shock tactics and helped along by celebrity support reached a wide audience; Food Inc. exposed the multinational corporations behind some of the least sustainable monoculture farming practices and the downside of Genetically Modified seeds. Despite much opposition, GM crops have been introduced in Australia and already the difficulties of keeping seed contained to one property have resulted in expensive legal battles for farmers who seek to stay GM free. Conscious consumers can support ethical farmers who are vulnerable to climate change and global market fluctuations.
Many spiritual aspirants look for insight into what makes an ideal diet for consciousness. In Hinduism, Jainism, some paths of Buddhism, Yoga and Ayurveda, vegetarianism is upheld as a significant aspect of a compassionate and healthy life. Some Christian groups such as Seventh Day Adventists also believe in a vegetarian diet as part of their spiritual practices. In fact, the SDAs have been extensively studied and have been a reliable source of data on the health benefits of a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet (that is, including some dairy and egg products but no flesh). While there will always be arguments for meat eating, including some who claim a spiritual benefit such as helping animals reincarnate, most modern spiritual teachers will advocate a compassionate diet that causes the least harm possible to all life forms. That may or may not be fully vegetarian.
Modern Buddhism holds many contradictions yet accepts diverse viewpoints, just as Buddha would have encouraged a non-attached middle path. Master Chef contestants prepared vegetarian food for the Dalai Lama during his visit to Melbourne and he graciously accepted what was offered to him. Wandering monks traditionally bless and eat whatever householders offer them to eat, regardless of origin.
Scholars offer different interpretations of the ancient texts, so there is no single doctrine regarding the eating of meat for Buddhists. The late DT Suzuki translated and interpreted the "lost" 8th chapter of the Lankavatara Sutra which emphasises that vegetarianism is one of the foundational teachings of the Buddha. It's notable that the most popular forms of Buddhism in the West do not emphasise vegetarianism. What is certain is that ahimsa or non-harming behaviour is central to Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. How that non-harming is interpreted depends on the time and place. Strict Jains avoid consuming even microbes in water, whereas many Buddhists will eat meat except on special occasions.
Different sects in Hinduism may emphasise vegetarianism for those who take vows but not necessarily for laypeople. Generally serious aspirants will adapt their diet in order to support their spiritual disciplines such as waking early, yoga practices, meditation or celibacy. Discipline is enhanced by an intoxicant free lifestyle and food in excess can be considered an intoxicant. The Jain approach encourages eating beans and fruits which can be harvested without killing the plant, rather than root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and onions which not only kill the plant but also disturb and harm many soil dwelling microbes. A Jain diet will therefore be very similar to a Sattvik (or sentient, meaning conscious) yogic diet, which is a vegetarian diet without onions or garlic. Some Chinese Buddhists follow a similar diet avoiding strong scented spices. In Japan, Shojin Ryori ("devotion cuisine") is also an onion and garlic free vegetarian diet, as is Korean temple food or "sachal eumsik".
While not every conscious consumer in the West is also following strict spiritual disciplines, most would value the inner calm, clarity and insight of devoted practitioners. Along with film, there have also been some seminal books in recent years, which have altered the eating habits of readers. Over 20 years ago, Diet for a Small Planet became a bestseller. Frances Moore Lappe convincingly outlined the social and personal significance of a meatless diet. Her vision continues to be carried by her daughter Anna Lappe and both women have become sought after speakers and recognised leaders in social and environmental activism. They epitomise the message that ethical eating resonates through all areas of our lives, improving individual health, fostering social justice and encouraging sustainable farming practices. Frances Moore Lappe's new book is due for release in September 2011 and is called EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want.
Despite such life altering works and a general awareness of vegetarianism as a "green" and healthy choice, Mark Bittman points out that per capita meat consumption has increased around the world. Twenty percent of greenhouse gases are from animals, and farming of animals for food also contributes to land degradation, loss of biodiversity and increased antibiotic use. He dismisses kindness (or ahimsa) as a side issue when it is used as an excuse for eating meat. Bittman questions how we can fool ourselves into thinking we treat animals well when the US alone kills 10 billion cattle a year. Rather than soften the message and say it's fine to eat animals if we treat them kindly, he asks that every meat eater reduce their consumption by 50% in order to save the planet.
So while Jamie Oliver reminds us that diet related diseases are the biggest killers and a massive drain on our health care system, we can also consider the cost to our consciousness. If each of us reflects on what aspects of our diets could be improved, not just for our physical health, but also for our states of mind, we will inevitably find that a personalised version of the diets followed by spiritual aspirants is possible for us.
Wherever we are, we must be mindful of dogma, yet also overcome our own greed and find the ideal diet for our consciousness.