There is so much advise "out there" about food and diet that it can be dizzying to follow. This article is not meant to replace all of that information and the research that backs up all the suggestions. Nor is the intent here to enter into debates about what diet is better than another. Rather, the intent here is to share a few simple, straightforward ideas, which might have a positive effect on meditation and health in general. Whatever our individual situations and current habits, it makes a great deal of sense to personally explore the field of diet so that we might make wise decisions. The food we eat definitely has an effect on body, mind and emotions, which in turn effects our meditations.
Food and the four primitive urges: In Yoga, the desire for sustenance is one of the four primitive urges for food, sleep, sex, and self-preservation. Wise regulation of food and the other basic drives is an important part of a foundation for meditation.
Food is for cells, not "me": This one principle alone will go a long way towards developing a frame of mind conducive to good diet. It can seem that food is for someone called me, and that I want this or that, or that I need this or that. It is estimated that there are 10-50 trillion (10-50 million million) cells in the human body. The nutrients contained in food are for them. The food is not being taken in for the benefit of our personality identity. Maintaining a constant, though gentle awareness that, "Food is for cells, not me" will keep diet decisions in proper perspective.
Change "I want" to "It wants": When we say, "I want this or that food," who is it that is making this statement? Even if we accept that food is for cells (above), we are still stuck with the fact that somebody inside is wanting to eat that food. Who is that? It is the thought pattern, the desire itself that is wanting to express itself through food consumption. This principle relates not only to food, but to all of the inner wants, wishes, desires, attractions or aversions. But here, we are talking about food. By recognizing that the desire itself, or "It" is wanting to eat or be fed, then we have another useful principle to keep in mind at all times. So, we see two companion principles, in that food is for the cells, and the desire stands alone, as its own motivator.
Starving for nutrients: Once we become aware that food is for the cells, and that desire for individual foods stands alone, independent of "me" as a personality identity, there is also the reality that many so-called foods are severely lacking in nutrients. If the cells are not getting sufficient nutrients from the foods we eat, the inner system drives us to eat more and more food in a vain attempt to get nutrients from nutrient deficient foods. We can literally be starving, while overweight. Therefore, we need to be mindful of eating healthy, whole, quality foods that are rich in nutrients. When the cells are receiving proper nutrients, there is less desire to keep eating.
We eat food, not ingredients: When we talk of carbohydrates, proteins, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, etc., questions of diet can get quite confusing. One reason for confusion is that we do not eat these ingredients, as such. Rather, what we eat is food. If we think in terms of the foods we eat, then the whole process becomes much easier. It's not that we are not mindful of the ingredients, which is quite useful. Rather, we learn to think of the food itself. For example, we train ourselves to eat fresh vegetables, not just to ingest a list of nutrients that are contained in the vegetables.
What to eat: In that light, diet becomes simple. Eat a nice mixture of fresh vegetables, a variety of beans, and whole grains, such whole grain brown rice, along with some fresh fruits, doing this each and every day. There it is--the core of a good diet for meditation and health in a single sentence! Isn't it true that most of us already know this? Isn't it true that diet is not really so complicated after all?
Seasonings: If the mixture of vegetables, beans, and grain sounds boring or unappealing to your palate (and you're having trouble living on the principle that food is only for the cells), it is extremely useful to experiment with lots of different seasonings to provide a tasty variety. There are many seasoning packages that are a combination of spices, and some of these can be purchased in bulk, such as one pound or one kilo bags. With some creative mixing of seasonings, the basic meal can take on any flavor you want. Some of the spices can provide nutrient value, and this is another area to explore. Some people may argue that heavy spices are not useful, but it is better to have the healthy core foods, even if one finds it necessary to use lots of spices.
Water: Drink a proper amount of water. To take two full glasses (total of about 1 liter or 1 quart) of room temperature water in the early morning is very useful. If you are not accustomed to this, it might take a few days to get used to it. Just drink down the water somewhat quickly, though not causing bloating. This morning water practice will clear out some of the toxins in the systems, and will trigger peristalsis, the muscular movement that clears the bowels. Then, sometime later, take the first food of the day. One sign of having enough water is the urine flowing clear, except after a long sleep, during which there was no fluid intake.
Addition rather than subtraction: An instruction to not eat much fat or sugar is a recommendation based on subtraction. For the mind, this can be somewhat like the old saying, "Do not think of a pink elephant." If you do that, all you think of is pink elephants. If you seek merely to eliminate something from diet, then what is your mind left to choose? You have not given mind any instruction about what to put in the mouth and stomach. If, instead, you give yourself instructions like the old saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away," then you have definitely given your mind instructions, which is based on addition. You are adding the good things to your diet. So, better than only telling your mind what not to do, make a firm decision that you will eat certain foods each day. Vow to yourself that you will eat fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, beans, and whole grains every day, without exception. Then, maybe the other stuff, the subtractive stuff, will start to fall away on its own, or at least more easily.
Unavailable in restaurants: It is important to understand and accept the fact that a mixture of fresh vegetables, beans, and whole grain are virtually unavailable in many, if not most restaurants. To not understand and accept this reality can lead to a great deal of frustration, as if you are supposed to be able to find a good food selection from a menu that does not offer these choices. By being aware of these unfortunate realities of restaurant food, one can search around for a favorite few restaurants that have at least one offering on the menu that is rich with the combination of whole, fresh, healthy foods.
Nutrition and cleansing: The two functions of nutrition and cleansing work together. Each of them has two polarities. Thus, you can have food that is nutritious or not nutritious, and you can have food that easily digests and facilitates cleansing and detoxifying, or you can have food that is hard to digest and blocks cleansing and detoxifying. It is very useful to keep in mind these two simple questions when making food choices:
Eat the good food first: It's easy to start the day with a rushed breakfast, have a midmorning junk snack, and a fast food lunch, thinking that we might have the better food later in the day, when there's more time. Sometimes later never comes. One way to counterbalance this tendency is to first have the better food, delaying the lesser food for later. Possibly later will never come, and you will find you never get around to eating the lesser food.
Imagine that you arose in the morning and had some sugary, salty breakfast cereal. Then, mid-morning, you had some tasty bread roll that is made with white flour and sugar. Then, you had a junk food lunch at one of those restaurants that doesn't have fresh vegetables, beans, or whole grain meals. Then, mid-afternoon, you had another one of those questionable snacks. It's very easy to think we will have our good food in the evening, for dinner, when there is more time to cook in the leisure of our own home. We may never get around to eating the good food, thinking if that we now eat this, after the other food during the day, we will be overeating. One solution is to train your mind to eat the good food first. Start the day with healthy food, and have healthy snacks early. You may then discover that there is not as much room for the lesser food.
Let Buddhi be your guide: Of the four functions of mind, Buddhi is the aspect that knows, decides, judges, and discriminates. Often, this faculty of mind is clouded over by the habitual inner noise of attractions and aversions. Actions end up unregulated, being the mere playing out of unconscious mental conditionings. One of the finest things we can do for food sadhana (practices) is to cultivate the clarity of Buddhi, becoming ever more aware of what is useful and what is not useful. Literally ask yourself, "Is this useful or not useful?" Your inner wisdom of Buddhi really does have good perspective, regardless of surface level actions, speech, or thinking process. Cultivate this aspect of mind, gradually, gently, lovingly, though persistently and intently learning to listen and act on this inner wisdom.