If you are interested in improving yourself and progressing spiritually, one of the best tools to have under your belt is a spiritual diet. You might have already heard about many types of diet – Paleo, Vegan, Atkins, Keto, Dukan etc. It is a never-ending list. They promise all kinds of benefits ranging from weight loss and skin improvement to epilepsy reduction. The reason these diets are so popular and have much research interest is because judicious eating is one of the quickest way to effect change in your body as well as your mind.
It is quite obvious why the food we consume has such a phenomenal effect on us. Most of us weighed only around three to four kilograms when we were born, the rest of our body mass has been assimilated from food that we consumed after we were born! Not only does food affect what we are, it also affects what goes on inside us. Our body is the most complex chemical laboratory known to man. Despite all the knowledge that has been accumulated, we have barely scratched the surface in understanding the full picture. This is why a lot of pharmaceutical drugs for many ailments are often guesswork that require fine-tuning and often have side-effects.
Whilst the effect of food on your body was always a given, science has been a little slow to catch-up on the gut-brain connection. The fact that the state of our gut affects our brain and the emerging body of knowledge from the human microbiome project has been the foundation of eastern medicine for centuries, if not millennia. We are just rediscovering the fact that we are a living ecosystem!
What is a Spiritual Diet?
A spiritual diet is the most responsible diet we can have as human beings to aid our spiritual development.
Owning responsibility for our actions goes hand-in-hand with spiritual progress. To aid our spiritual growth, we must establish favourable conditions internal to us, which in turn is influenced by our actions in the external world. In that sense, a spiritual diet allows us to be a force of goodness in this world. It facilitates internal processes that boost our ability to contribute in a positive way and distills the best version of ourselves. Following a spiritual diet can effect a profound change in our lives in a very short span of time.
An ideal spiritual diet involves consuming food from plants, while avoiding alliums (onion, garlic et al.) and mushrooms. Substances that affect the brain such as alcohol, nicotine, recreational drugs and caffeine are not conducive. Milk and milk products are acceptable if consumed from animals that have been raised with love and care.
Sourcing our food this way and preparing them appropriately for consumption will put us in a state of calm and positive energy like never before.
The rationale for the diet mentioned above can be seen from two contrasting perspectives – a moral perspective and a selfish perspective. The moral perspective deals with the external impact of our diet. The selfish perspective deals with the internal impact of our diet since we are interested in our own spiritual growth. However, the selfish perspective automatically transforms into a selfless perspective when we bring personal responsibility into the picture.
The Moral Perspective
The moral perspective looks at the external impact of sourcing and consuming the food that we eat. Progress on the spiritual path cannot come from irresponsibly inflicting harm in the process of living our lives. In this context, ignorance is not bliss. We are intelligent beings very much capable of understanding the harm we cause. With knowledge and intelligence, also comes the responsibility of minimising that harm. It is easy to understand the moral perspective even though it only offers a partial picture for the rationale behind the spiritual diet. This is because the moral perspective is well established by science and research. The elephant in this room is climate change and sustainability.
It is quite obvious that a plant based diet will encourage plant based agriculture which will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Meat consumption encourages a significant amount of animal farming which is estimated to contribute up to a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change will cause suffering for billions of people and animals. It will destroy livelihoods and habitats. By consuming meat, we are playing a part in this destruction and contributing to the infliction of this suffering.
There are more than seven billion humans on this planet. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Industrialisation of agriculture has resulted in problems caused by harmful pesticides, the use of hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified foods (GMOs). The effects range from rashes, illness and the early onset of puberty to lameness, tumours and even death. As uncommon as these events may be, they reflect the problems of trying to feed a large population with limited resources. The responsible thing to do is to increase efficiencies by making the right food choices. The easiest way to do this is to eat lower down the food chain, where energy and nutrients are stored more efficiently and easily assimilated by human bodies. And the lowest we can go down the food chain is the plant kingdom.
The combination of habitat destruction and industrialised farming has set off a wave of pandemics, with COVID-19 just being one of the most widespread and crippling outbreaks which got our attention. Despite this, our sad response to COVID-19 has only been to increase pandemic surveillance, not address the causes. All serious pandemics have been caused by zoonotic viruses – viruses that jump from animals to humans. The marked advantage of a vegetarian diet is that plant biology is very different from human biology. Therefore the chances of novel diseases jumping from plants to humans is far less common, if not unheard of.
It is quite evident by now that the moral perspective completely rules out the consumption of meat. Let’s complete the picture of the spiritual diet by looking at how the food we consume affects our internal environment.
The Selfish Perspective
Science is slowly uncovering the facts around how our food affects who we are and how we feel. The gut-brain connection is a perfect example of this. Eastern philosophy classifies food into the mode of goodness, mode of passion and mode of ignorance.
Food in the mode of goodness fosters peace, calm and wellbeing while energising us. This includes most fruits, nuts, grains and vegetables, with the exclusion of certain plants in the allium family (onion, garlic, leeks, shallots etc).
Food in the mode of passion may energise but also agitate us, increasing our proclivity to anger, restlessness and the need to satisfy urges. Science calls these foods aphrodisiacs, because they increase the sexual urge. But eastern philosophy more broadly recognises the agitational effects of these foods. This includes onion, garlic, mushrooms and caffeine (coffee, tea and dark chocolate). Onion and garlic is also avoided in the FODMAP diet – a diet developed by Monash university researchers to reduce IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms like bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea and pain. Caffeine hijacks adenosine receptors which induce sleep, reducing our sleep quality even 16-24 hours after consumption, and depending on our body’s ability to metabolise it. Both caffeine and excess sugar can cause a “crash”, resulting in agitation as well as lethargy.
Food in the mode of ignorance induces lethargy, tiredness and dulls our senses. The “dulling” effect may often be strong enough to remove our inhibitions, causing us to not be our usual self. This is often falsely interpreted as a positive effect of the substance, for example, a person may be more open to talking without reservations after consumption of alcohol. In reality, they are just not themselves. The dulling effect may occur immediately or in a delayed manner, and may often involve extreme agitation, especially with withdrawal from addictive substances. Foods and substances that fall in this category include meat, alcohol, nicotine and recreational drugs.
The picture of a spiritual diet becomes complete when we consume foods in the mode of goodness. If there is any doubt in the claims made above (with respect to substances that are not addictive) we can easily experience the effect by doing a controlled experiment on ourselves. For example, you may include onion / garlic / mushrooms or a combination of these in your diet every day for a week and examine your state of mental agitation or calm. Be sure to contrast it with an equal period of time when you completely avoid these foods in your diet. This effect is best experienced when you avoid substances in the mode of ignorance, for they can overpower the effects of other elements in your diet.
When we start consuming foods purely in the mode of goodness, we immediately see changes in our energy levels and state of mind within periods as short as one week. We become less agitated, more patient, calm and display more vigour and vitality. It also improves our concentration, focus and begins to effectively support our spiritual practices. In general, we have more of ourselves to give to the world. Ultimately the end result is not selfish, it is selflessness.
There is always a sacrifice involved when we consume our food. A plant will still have to give up a fruit, a flower, a leaf, it’s seeds or even it’s life. Scriptural knowledge tells us that the pain perceived by a plant is far less than that of an animal, bird or insect because of their reduced powers of cognition. But it is not possible to completely eliminate pain and suffering in the process of our sustenance. It is not possible to completely comprehend, far less eliminate, the sacrifices made by another living being so that we may enjoy a single meal.
So the least we can do is acknowledge this sacrifice, this suffering, and consume responsibly, with gratitude. By offering our food to the Lord with a simple prayer and feeling gratitude for what we have been given, we complete the final step in purifying the process – the process that goes on day-in and day-out, hardly noticed, yet impacting this world every step of the way. The process of living.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Can I offer meat to the Lord and consume it with gratitude?
A: The Lord expects you to have made your best effort in reducing the harm you inflicted in the process of living. If you consumed meat for the sake of enjoying it when you could have avoided it, an intelligent God cannot see that as acting in the force of good, no matter how much gratitude you had for being able to satisfy your taste buds.
Q: Doesn’t garlic have medicinal properties?
A: Yes it does, and medicine is usually prescribed by a doctor for a specific illness and has to be used in a recommended form as well as dosage for a limited period of time as advised by the medical practitioner. It doesn’t make sense to pop an Aspirin in your food everyday just because it helped you with a fever and headache.
Q: Does it matter how I prepare my food?
A: Yes it does! Everything in moderation, and with as less process as possible. Excess sugar, salt or the use of flavour enhancers can have detrimental effects on your stomach, brain and body. Less processing can be beneficial in reducing cooking effort, but sometimes it can introduce more planning – for instance, we may need to soak lentils in advance. Subjecting food to high heat and pressure causes essential nutrients to disintegrate, especially proteins. Excess spice or chilli can transform foods in the mode of goodness to the mode of passion. Deep frying can transform foods in the mode of goodness to ignorance. When we learn to prepare food appropriately, our body is able to derive more benefit from the food we consume.
Q: Can I make my food tasty?
A: Why would you not! Especially if you want to encourage others to eat foods in the mode of goodness. By all means, make your food tasty, but also be conscious of how you feel after consuming the food. Excessive processing can sometimes take the goodness out of food. But if not, enjoy your meal with fullness and gratitude.
Q: Can I eat fish?
A: Consuming fish has effects in the mode of ignorance, namely lethargy and dullness. Moreover, responsible sourcing of fish is very hard to justify. There is indescribable harm, cruelty and damage caused by large scale industrialised fishing that extends beyond seas and oceans. “Seaspiracy” is an acclaimed documentary that highlights this grave issue.