A few years back, I was doing frequent meditation retreats and studying the translated writings of some Buddhist teachers when I came upon a book by a Thai master, Ajahn Buddhadasa, called Mindfulness of Breathing: A Manual for Serious Beginners. It includes instructions for having a lifestyle that supports intense meditation practice.
He writes about food as the “first material necessity” and instructs students to know the “crucial distinction between food and bait.” We eat food for nutrition and bait just for the sake of eating it. “We must stop swallowing bait and learn to eat only food that is proper and wholesome,” he wrote.
I found this line about food versus bait to be funny and true. How often are we “caught” by something that seems to be good and really isn’t? I started using “eat food, not bait” as a way of training myself to seek out what is wholesome. Food can and should be wonderful and satisfying. Yet it is not merely entertainment, and one can cultivate a view of food that makes it much more enjoyable than just shoveling it in.
Gradually the thought of “eat food, not bait” morphed into my thinking of food as medicine. Beyond just not swallowing bait, i.e. junk food, broadly defined, I seek out nutrient-dense food. If a food isn’t packed with protein, healthy fat, vitamins and minerals, it’s just not medicine and it’s not that attractive.
Many people ask how I sustain a paleo lifestyle and, don’t I crave “goodies” like cake, pasta, pizza, chips, beans, etc. Experiencing food as medicine, I don’t have an appetite for stuff I know to be harmful. Much of what passes for “food” in America I don’t consider fit for consumption. (Sorry if this sounds elitist but it’s how I feel.)
Over the summer, though, I had a bit of a relapse from choosing food as medicine. I was very distressed by Israel’s latest massacres in Gaza and I found myself reaching for some “bait.” I normally eat a small amount of high-quality (organic, local, grass-fed) ice cream as a dessert. But I had brought into the house a large tub of extra decadent chocolate-chocolate chip, organic, of course, and I started eating more than a little of it. Guess what? I had about a week of sporadic stomach aches and heartburn, which I hadn’t had at all since I’d gone paleo two years ago. Stress and/or too much ice cream?
It was time to clean up my act and remember that food is medicine.
I buy most of my food at the El Cerrito Natural Grocery which has high quality organic produce, meat, full-fat dairy, pastured eggs and the like. And it’s a delightful place to shop, run by workers who have a financial stake in the company. (I also shop at farmer’s markets and buy some organic produce at Trader Joe’s, though I have qualms about all the plastic containers everything comes in at TJ and the fact that much of the produce is not local.)
I go to El Cerrito Natural every few days and I think of it as a medicine shop. I may have in hand a list of ingredients for my latest paleo cooking experiment. I often stand in the produce area and just look: what’s beautiful and colorful and appealing? There’s that huge bunch of rainbow chard or a big bunch of red radishes or peaches the size of baseballs, purple-red romaine lettuce. The deep colors of produce announce their vitality. I shop every few days because I want my refrigerator full of things that will rot if not eaten soon!
When I had my recent bout of stomach aches, I knew I had to cut way, way back on the organic ice cream and use food as medicine to heal my guts. That meant loading up on pro-biotic, fermented foods, which I eat anyway on a regular basis.
So I went in to El Cerrito Natural and bought fresh, raw sauerkraut, freshly made beet kvass (fermented beet juice), full-fat yogurt, kombucha and some kefir drinks produced by a local company aptly called the Living Apothecary. Within a couple of days of increasing the pro-biotic foods, I was back to feeling great.
In the health world, there’s the idea of eating “super foods” which sort of implies that one can get away with eating poorly by adding enough blueberries and kale to balance out the bait. I think, as much as possible, everything one eats should be a superfood. Otherwise, why bother?
Daily I eat pastured eggs (which have higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids than other eggs) cooked with a big blob of pastured butter, and dark, leafy greens. (I’m going to write soon on the current debunking of the saturated fat hypothesis and why it’s good to eat high quality fat.)
With vegetables and fruits, I think it’s best to eat a variety because each of them contain different combinations of micro-nutrients and anti-oxidants. I usually eat a half to a whole avocado daily. Because I eat greens in the morning, I eat some other type of cruciferous vegetable later in the day. During the summer I feel best if my lunch is a raw vegetable salad. When the weather gets colder, I’d rather eat my noon vegetables and meat in the form of a cooked stew. I make a batch on the weekend and have enough to take in pint containers to work.
Paleos are big on using bone broth as medicine. Squeamish readers may balk but there’s almost nothing better than drinking homemade bone broth. It’s an infusion of absorbable minerals and gelatin. I had a hard time liking it straight but now that I cook mine down for 24 hours in a slow cooker with vegetables, salt and parsley toward the end, it comes out like the finest “Jewish penicillin.” (It’s also good for dogs.)
For another mineral boost, I drink a lot of hibiscus and rooibos tea, both of which are anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant. Every day or so I steep these teas in a set of pint mason jars, cool and refrigerate them. They’re very hydrating. After a workout or a detox bath, I drink these cold teas, leaving me not wanting a “juice squeeze” which would be high carb from the fruit juice.
Fruit is great in moderation. I rarely eat the high glycemic fruits such as bananas and mangoes, and instead favor berries, citrus, and a little melon.
Eating food as medicine is a feedback loop. The more one gravitates toward the good, the better one feels and wants to keep that cycle going.
Paleo writers are fond of saying, and it’s true, that eating nutrient-dense food has the effect of quelling hunger. There’s just no desire for the high-carb, inflammatory food I used to eat.
Food as medicine is not a set of rules. It’s a practice and also a metaphor. Let not just food — but everything one takes into one’s body, heart and mind – be medicine.