Nutrition, Diet and the Spiritual Brain
Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. [Luke 12:22-23 (NIV)].
For the modern consumer, food, dieting and nutrition have become major sources of anxiety. As a result, we need to be reminded regularly that life is more than the material reality on which we insatiably focus.
Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. [Matthew 4:4].
The above-quoted words were spoken by Jesus in response to being tempted after his fast of forty days. They remind us to nourish ourselves spiritually as well as physically. While our body requires physical nutrition to prosper, our inner self requires spiritual sustenance to transcend materiality and attain our highest levels of piety.
Whenever we say that something is “spirited,” it usually refers to some interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity. Spirit-filled evangelization is not the same as a set of tasks dutifully carried out despite one’s own personal inclinations and wishes. [The Joy of the Gospel, 261].
Marketing and advertising are now advanced sciences. We are the easy targets of sophisticated technology that can manipulate our appetites and exploit our nutritional preferences.
Secular symbols and images bombard are so pervasively that few spiritual reinforcements remain to shield us from media intrusions. The sponsored words of entertainers, athletes and other celebrities resonate with our desire for enhanced nutrition, while technology infiltrates every corner of our lifestyle.
When secular enticements present themselves, we must recognize them as transient temptations, and determine whether they are harmful or benign. We must remember that certain worldly activities, which may appear healthy, can weaken or harm our spiritual state.
Wellness is much more than merely physical health, exercise or nutrition. It is the full integration of states of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being … Spiritual Wellness is the ability to establish peace and harmony in our lives … to develop congruency between values and actions and to realize a common purpose that binds creation together… [Seven Dimensions of Wellness, University of California, Riverside].
With the ascendancy of science, the rift between spiritual and secular thought has been exacerbated, some believe, beyond repair. An irreverence exists throughout society that renders a spiritual perspective on food and nutrition unappealing to the public.
The physical sciences have not permitted spiritual disciplines to enter its protocols. Nevertheless, an inherent wisdom remains encrypted in our brains. Faith still helps millions of people find spiritual balance.
God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 50].
Controlling the Gustatory Brain
Throughout the transformation of our culinary traditions into technological concoctions, Divine guidance has been sparsely used. The sacred qualities of Divine sustenance are ignored or forgotten, including everything we consider spiritually nourishing.
Our need for a daily fare of spiritual nutrition is of prime importance. As the body lives by physical bread, so the soul lives by the sacred word of God. By obeying Divine commands, we satisfy our hunger, while His holiness nourishes our soul.
Numerous Christians do not know how to glorify God in their eating and drinking. They do not eat and drink simply to keep their body fit for the Lord’s use but indulge to satisfy their personal desires. We should understand that the body is for the Lord and not for ourselves; hence we should refrain from using it for our pleasure. Food ought not to hinder our fellowship with God since it is to be taken purely to preserve the body in health. [Watchman Nee, The Spiritual Man, Volume 3, p. 650].
Even faithful adherents of traditional religions have fallen into the habit of thinking of food and nutrition as primarily physical subjects, regulated by scientific standards. We rarely connect spiritual growth and awareness of God as integral parts of our nutritional regimen
It is not the way food is grown, processed or prepared that is central to the issue of spirituality. It is the state of mind of the producer and the consumer.
Know, O inquirer after the divine secrets, that there are two things needful to man in this world; first of all, he needs to acquire spiritual food to preserve his heart from perishing. The nourishment of the heart consists in the love and knowledge of God … The ruin of the soul consists in the predominance of some other love over the love of God, which veils the divine love. Our refuge is in God! [Al Ghazali, The Alchemy of Happiness, ch. 3].
Fortunately, some in the scientific community have begun to investigate the natural benefits of a devotional life. Recent neurological studies on spiritual and religious practices support the conclusion that our brain has a sacred component.
Spiritual practices, even when stripped of religious beliefs, enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health…. Intense, long-term contemplation of God and other spiritual values appear to permanently change the structure of those parts of the brain that control our moods, give rise to our conscious notions of self, and shape our sensory perceptions. [Andrew Newberg, M.D., Mark Robert Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, pp. 6-7].
Nutrition and the Mind
Nutrition must be consistent with maintaining, at peak performance, the physical vessel we use to serve God. We must avoid compromising the integrity of our spiritual nutrition as we avoid compromising our rituals, sacraments and devotional worship.
Everyone must study his own nature. Some of you can sustain life with less food than others can, and therefore I desire that he who needs more nourishment shall not be obliged to equal others, but that everyone shall give his body what it needs for being an efficient servant of the soul. [Quoted in Saint Francis of Assisi: A Biography, by Johannes Jørgensen, Thomas O’Conor].
Our nutrition is an extension of our faith. Gluttonous consumerism is incompatible with Divine obedience. The spiritual perspective of the believer must reflect eternal concerns. Our eating habits must be in harmony with our service and devotion to God.
Those who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds incur no sin by partaking of whatever they may, so long as they are conscious of God and [truly] believe and do righteous deeds, and continue to be conscious of God and to believe, and grow ever more conscious of God, and persevere in doing good: for God loves the doers of good [Quran 5:93].