There are thousands of books about food diet, food composition, but who is mentioning the real causes? All these books tell you is that we should eat less of this and more of that, and do exercise. It sounds like just another easy and cheap avenue to happiness. But does it work? There is not a single diet offering an unambiguous record – of a controlled, sustainable weight loss and without ugly side effects. There is equally no clear answer to the question why 5% of today’s world population is obese. There are, however, a few trends over the last fifty years that might explain the explosion of obesity to a certain extent:
- Manual work is replaced by machinery;
- The increased use of cars, a lazy lifestyle;
- Too many sitting hours spent in front of TV or behind the computer;
- Large portions of food served in restaurants;
- Seasonal food being replaced by frozen (all-year) food;
- Increased use of chemicals (particularly growth hormones, antibiotics)in cattle and poultry;
- Processed food and fast food replacing home-cooking;
- Increased use of artificial flavors, taste enhancers (MSG) and stabilizers in processed food;
- Snacks of any kind and taste becoming readily available twenty-four hours;
- Seasonal fasting is discontinued;
- An unsentimental attitude toward food (just another utility) prevails.
Nothing is any longer the way it used to be, and appearances are deceptive. Life felt quite different in the time of our ancestors. Most people had to work extremely hard: walk, pull, push, hammer and carry something from dawn to dusk. Life was hard and merciless. People used to pray. Even in the years of my childhood we prayed every time we were having a meal together, and in school they taught us to be mindful with bread, to treat food with dignity. Today, most people munch their lousy junk meal alone, and in a hurry. No thought is lost for a prayer between plastic flowers and curry ketchup bottles.
Obviously, but without noticing, the perception of life underwent profound gradual changes. Today’s food industry delivers a dazzling range of products that imitate traditional flavors, but without transmitting the ‘meaning’ of flavor. These fake products fulfill our desires of the moment, but do not produce a lasting sense of satisfaction. It’s just a big lie. To make food cheap, every dirty trick is welcome. To yield maximum crop results, the topsoil is poisoned with fertilizers and pesticides that kill not only bugs but equally other good plants and animals. Poisons seep into the groundwater and pollute aquifers. Compacted by heavy tractors and other machinery, the soil looses its porous property. Nature is pushed to the limit.
A large percentage of the harvest, such as grain and corn is fed to animals together with hormones and animal waste, to produce low-quality ‘cheap’ meat. However, such kind of ‘cheap’ food isn’t offering what our body needs, and our daily diet needs to be balanced with very expensive food supplements. There is also our doctor’s bill for hi-cholesterol and anti-diabetic drugs. Indeed, a lot of money is made. Everybody seems to profit. The losers in this money-creating are those becoming obese: daily life is a painful struggle, confined to the XXXL corner of the supermarket. An early death is likely caused by heart disease, kidney failure and cancer. Our precious farmlands, a gift of nature, are poisoned and spiritually ruined.
This gets us to the fundamental question, what our body really stands for, and what this body really needs. Are we just flesh and bones? The life histories of great saints (Jesus, The Buddha, Milarepa, St. Francis and many others) seem to indicate that a life without physical food is possible for a prolonged period of time. Alternatively, if we emphasize on our body’s flesh-and-bones manifestation whilst feeding it with ‘dead’ junk food (and growth hormones from the slaughterhouse), it is clear that this physical body will inflate and get sick.
Obviously, the balance between spirituality and materialism in modern society has tilted to the latter, and results are disastrous. Society has lost her balance. In today’s stressful world it is extremely difficult to keep the rudder straight. Food serves in human societies as a ‘filler substance’ replacing true life enjoyment, and satisfaction. Whenever people convene, they also eat. Every occasion is good for a meal (starting with a birthday party and ending with a funeral). Chasing from one activity to the next, it’s damned easy to get lost in the pirouettes of a global rat race for money. That’s why only a firm, conscious, and disciplined mind can change our lives.
If food production and food consumption in the high-income countries are out of step with our health, where could we find positive examples? In several areas in the world, such as in the Mediterranean Sea, people have invented a lifestyle and food habits that produce excellent results. One particularly well researched example is the island of Crete. People remain fit until old age, and obesity is not a common feature. In Crete, we observe a lifestyle that encompasses the following elements:
- Regular patterns of manual work (fishing, wineries etc);
- A strong community life;
- A diet rich of fresh and wild-growing vegetables;
- Abundant use of olive oil, a proven anti-oxidizing agent and cholesterol-eliminator;
- A diet of very little meat, fresh fish, fresh goat cheese.
Clearly, fresh and home-grown food seems to be an indicator of a healthy life. This leads to another crucial question: to which extend should we consider food as alive, or having spiritual properties. Could food have spiritual value? Using modern jargon one might call it software. Computers require good software to run properly, and our body might need software, too. Without proper tuning and steering, the organs in our body might fall in some kind of pre-programmed ‘safe-mode’ and produce fat.
Though food can be ‘produced,’ all the critical elements are provided by nature: water, light, soil and air are gifts, being recycled, purified and stabilized by trillions of plants and animals (We’re right now doing our very best to eliminate all of them). Food is also consciousness. Natural honey is not only concentrated sugar water, but it contains the spirit and beauty of every little flower a bee visits from dusk to dawn. Mineral water reaches the surface after having percolated through clean, porous rock. Plants open their leaves to the sun, and grow toward the sky extracting nutrients from the air and the soil.
The question of ‘life’ in food is an obvious one for those who grow up in the countryside. A rosy apple picked from the highest branch of an apple tree tastes different from the one from the apple cellar, and even more different from the waxy-skin-ones in the supermarket. I still recall collecting wild strawberries with Grandma in the forest. Small as they were, they tasted a little bitter, and were not very strongly colored. Yet, combined with a little of sugar, these strawberries exploded in flavor, and it felt like communicating with the entire forest. I’ll never forget these experiences, and I feel sorry for city kids who to grow up only with hamburgers and potato chips.
Though it cannot be proven, the spiritual or ‘life’ content of food seems to diminish with storage time, and because of industrial food processing. Most processes seem to kill the invisible spiritual essence in food. There may be, however, a few healthy exemptions. These are typically associated with fermentation or traditional food drying. I vividly recall opening Grandma’s pickle jars in the middle of winter, or visiting a Spanish bodega, where one can feel the life in the oak barrel. In summary,
- Fermentation processes protect food quality, and add ‘life’ (yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, champagne, beer, cheese, Swedish haring, wine;
- Gradual drying in pure, dry and cold air seems to add ‘life’ value. I would count dried forest mushroom, Serrano ham and Buendnerfleisch.
How can the above perspective be turned into a practical approach? It can be done, but we need to approach food with intelligence, thankfulness and consciousness. We can be selective, and buy healthy food products, made by conscious people. Jesus broke and shared the bread; the Buddha ate slowly whilst stressing the importance of consciousness, and experience. Clearly, erroneous views and bad habits are at the root of the problem. One cannot blame the money-making agro-chemical complex alone. Change has to come at the level of the customer. If ignorance is removed, so will be the erroneous views and bad habits. Obesity is not something that can be dealt with in isolation through diet and exercise alone, but requires a profound spiritual transformation of one’s own life.
When eating and drinking, one should concentrate on the spiritual essence of food, rather than listening to the hungry cookie-monster in our stomach and brain, and to the lizard-of-desire demanding taste in our mouth. In truth, our semi-conscious body is longing for the spiritual essence hidden in the food we eat.
Where do these considerations lead to? There is a lot to understand, and only a few things to do. One can distill a catalogue of practical steps, that will help reduce our addiction to ‘dead’ food, false flavors and hence obesity. Whenever I followed the below steps, I lost weight. But like so many others I lost my path caught in the treadmill of modern society. Some of the below guidelines are also common to most published slimming diets. I’m not trying to re-invent what’s already there, but to add the missing and possibly most important elements:
- Buy the strict minimum of food (this reduces the ‘full fridge effect’ with its daily temptations- obese people are not in danger of sudden starvation);
- Buy quality products only, and focus on simple (primary, unprocessed, ‘alive’) food;
- Avoid meat as much as possible, and concentrate on fresh vegetables, fruit, and fermented food instead;
- Avoid sugar, fuzzy drinks, and alcohol (small quantities might be ok, particularly red wine);
- Give yourself time to do quality home-cooking (instead of munching fat burgers);
- Eat little, drink a lot of water (or tea, herbal tea), plus occasional fasting;
- Exercise, determination, discipline;
- Approach every act of food preparation, and eating, with respect, appreciation, thankfulness and consciousness.
Finishing this article, I would like to stress the need for a spiritual transformation. Remembering what Jesus did in the temple, we should kick money from the center of our mental existence (the global corporate $$$ mafia doesn’t like to hear that). God cannot be found on a dollar note. The current materialist lifestyle is not sustainable any longer, because this planet’s nature is already on the edge. Dramatic climatic changes will happen, and food production as we know it might collapse. We cannot beat obesity without changing our lives in the most fundamental ways. A genetic disposition for obesity could be a healthy reminder to change for a spiritual and clean lifestyle - something bad leading to something good, eventually. Mindful of our true existence being primarily spiritual and only secondarily material we can change our lives.
I wish everybody good luck, strength, courage and discipline on their path of spiritual transformation (I’ll need it too). Somewhere along the way we can beat obesity as well.
Note: With the new year 2006 I embarked on a rather radical strategy to cut down on my body weight- this decision being largely influenced by medical necessity. My philosophy being: win first, then fight. A diet plan must be radical, in the sense that there cannot be the slightest doubt for not succeeding, the only remaining variable in the equation being our mental strength/ perseverance.
Please do consult your doctor when trying something simililar. My diet is as follows:
(i) All drinks are replaced by plain water and herbal tea, five pints per day at least.
(ii) zero tolerance on any kind of sweets
(iii)food intake made up 80 % by fresh vegetables (also as soup), plus a bit of carbon hydrates (low-cholesterol rice), and fish; fresh fruit
(iv) no meat, little/no dairy products
(v) no salt.
No doubt, this diet will work but it will require a lot of determination and discipline.
© 2005 by Franz L Kessler