Written by John Immel,
Food is how communities share life together. Every day, the dinner table is where we do most of the living, the giving, and the receiving that happens in community. For many individuals, praying and holding hands at the dinner table is also a cherished daily moment to express one's intimate spiritual thoughts and hopes.
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Meals are an important time to share conversation. "How was your day?" "Have you spoken to your mom lately?" Food and the conversations we have while eating bring us into direct contact with one another's lives, encouraging the bonds of friendship. Eating food and breaking bread together truly makes one a companion, which literally means "with bread" (com = with, pan = bread).
Sometimes, dietary perfectionism becomes an obstacle to living well and sharing life with others. The problem is that as soon as you change your diet, your society changes. Food and community are inextricably bound, as the word companion implies. How you dress, talk, and eat defines your subculture, clique, class, and social group. In every community there is a food culture. Some foods are favored, others are taboo. Consider these humorous food culture ironies:
Food Brings UnityThe model of togetherness around food is not only an Ayurvedic concept, but a Western one as well. Consider how many of our holidays, both secular and religious, involve the sharing of a meal. What would Thanksgiving be without a turkey and company? Hanukkah without latkes and the sound of laughter? Easter without the eggs? A first date without a romantic dinner would be unthinkable. We celebrate birthdays, graduations, and marriages with food. We serve food at funerals. Whenever people are gathered, food is the centerpiece of togetherness.
For Western civilization, the icon of food as the centerpiece of togetherness reaches its climax in the Last Supper. At the Last Supper, Jesus broke bread and gave it to his disciples, making food the keystone of His community. Through the Last Supper, God showed all of humanity that He wants to be with us, to make Himself our companion. When He fed bread and wine to the apostles, Jesus also showed all of humanity how we are meant to share life with one another. The very act of sharing God in a meal is called communion, or the Lord's Supper, by believers of the Christian faith, suggesting the important role of meals in forming community.
Food helps people feel close to one another. In a study by the Society for Consumer Psychology, researchers found that eating the same food promotes trust and leads to better cooperation. Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business writes, "On a very basic level, food can be used strategically to help people work together and build trust...Food is powerful because it is something that we put into our bodies, and we need to trust it to do that."
Similarly, a Belgium study found that sharing food can lead to more altruistic behaviors. The social bonding effect of food is not limited to humans. Food sharing was found to increase oxytocin, the "tend and befriend" hormone, according to a British study on Ugandan Chimpanzees. Fish and bonobo monkeys also form social networks on the basis of food.
Each culture and spiritual tradition offers a technique for social bonding and unity. In some native societies, children become adult members of the community through rites of passage, often through difficult spiritual and physical challenges such as wilderness survival. Circumcision is the covenantal sign of unity among the Jews. "OM" is the sign of unity in yoga, meant to bring individuals together into a single vibe. College campuses offer hazing. While we don't recommend hazing, Ayurveda does recommend food as a suitable way to create stronger community bonds. Through sharing food, we share life, which is what Ayurveda loves.
Individuals who share food experience a togetherness that they can touch. They share a sensory experience through tasting food that is (hopefully) joyful. The Last Supper suggests that when we eat in community, we not only share bread and wine, but body and blood. We are what we eat. By eating the same foods we have the tendency to become united, not just in mind and sentiment, but in the flesh.
The centrality of food in both cultural and religious celebrations shows the value and importance of breaking bread in the community. Sharing a meal is so much more than sending a text message. By sharing food with one another we give life to one another, and we also receive it. This bonding experience of giving and receiving is not merely conceptual, it is made real through food. If we want to have companions, we need something more than Facebook - we must break bread.
Dieting and DisunitySpecial diets, on the other hand, tend to create disunity. As soon as you become too strict with your diet you may find yourself spending Friday nights alone, or even worse, being the only guest at the dinner party with an empty plate. Your food choices may be making you lonely. If you find your diet has isolated you from social events, it may be causing more harm than good.
An austere diet for a short period of time can be a good thing. You may need to fast from meat, dairy, wheat, or coffee for awhile to heal some condition. Or, you may find fasting from these things offers some perspective on your dietary habits, and can help you answer the question, "Is meat, wheat, or dairy good for me?" Studies show that people who eat together mimic one another's eating habits. You may choose to eat lunch alone to separate yourself from unhealthy social influences. For instance, if you have a group of friends that lead you to overeat or eat foods that are making you sick, you might choose the eat in solitude for awhile. You may choose to eat alone simply because silence during a meal helps digestion and encourages mindful eating.
For all these reasons, abstinence and dietary hermitage can be useful pilgrimages that lead to health and self discovery when done in the right way. Yet, in the goal of becoming healthy, we mustn't lose sight of why we want to be healthy: to live well and to love fully. We seek health to have an opportunity to share the gift of life we have received, to give of ourselves generously to one another. Hermitage is a means, not the end, on this journey.
As Ayurvedic practitioners, we declare it is essential for you to support your body by making individual dietary choices recommended for your unique body type. However, healthy eating in Ayurveda looks more like a gentle rule of thumb instead of strict military orders. We must remain flexible enough to kindly receive the food served by our hosts, even if it aggravates our doshas (unless you have an allergy). Saying grace, or praying for a meal, opens one's mind to receive these gifts of food with gratitude. Ayurveda isn't strict or austere, but nourishing, and part of the nourishment is one another.
The Dangers of Eating AloneStudies show that eating alone often results in a poor diet. A study of 25,000 individuals over 20 years reported that social isolation has harmful impact on the eating habits of older adults. They ate fewer vegetables and less variety, ultimately resulting in a diet with lower nutritional value. In a Japanese study, older men who exclusively ate alone were 3.74 times more likely to skip meals than men who ate with others. Eating alone also leads to obesity. A Canadian study linked eating alone to higher BMI and cardio-vascular risk in youth. Loneliness is literally as toxic as the wrong diet. A UK-based Campaign reports that loneliness is as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The health problems of eating alone may be due to lack of accountability, or, perhaps, lack of social pressure to eat a delicious meal with adequate variety. People who eat alone often prefer convenient meals that are pre-packaged. It's also harder to keep produce fresh when eating for one, and the vegetables may rot before you can eat them.
People who eat alone tend to view food as fodder, whereas people who eat together tend to see it as cuisine. There's not much fun cooking in the kitchen for one, so people who eat alone don't invest the time and care to cook something special. Popcorn and ice cream for dinner, a handful of almonds for lunch, a Snickers bar and a hot dog from the gas station - these are real life examples of eat-alone behaviors.
Sometimes, eat-alone food borders on the strange and downright weird. My wife, Natalie, once made oatmeal with broccoli for dinner, a food combination she would never serve to a friend. "I was eating alone and there was nothing else in the house," she relates. I admit, I am more experimental when eating alone as well. Before I got married, I used to munch on a barely ayurvedic milieu of sunflower seeds, coconut flakes, and honey instead of taking a proper lunch. I am also more likely to rush through meals when I eat alone, anxious to reconnect with friends or colleagues, or simply to get more work done.
Despite the health risks, eating alone is on the rise. Not too long ago, workers and school children returned home midday for family lunches. These days, the Hartman Group reports nearly half of all adult eating occasions are completely alone (according to 2014 data). Eating alone has become a normal part of modern life.
There are many reason people eat alone:
The Benefits of TogethernessThe benefits of togetherness around food are many. One of the most important reasons to eat with companions is the opportunity to learn from one another. Have you fallen in love with your thoughts and ideas about what to eat? The perspective of a friend can help you see the bigger picture. Life requires more than just one's own viewpoint. Who can know the whole mind of God on their own?
Community is often an opportunity for others to gently correct egotistical distortions of what is healthy. If you've been studying nutrition and Ayurveda for awhile, you'll find refreshing pearls of wisdom in the innocence of your community's dietary habits. Eating with others gives you a chance to appreciate another person's eating style and food cravings. An encounter with a person whose diet is different from your own always brings an opportunity for self-reflection. If nothing else, you will learn about yourself and your own habits by comparison.
Here are some tips for preventing a social breakdown from dietary perfectionism:
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About the AuthorJohn Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda. His approach to Ayurveda exudes a certain ease, which many find enjoyable and insightful. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda , which specializes in digestive tract pathology & Ayurvedic nutrition. John and his wife Natalie recently published Explore Your Hunger: A Guide to Hunger, Appetite & Food.
John's interest in Ayurveda and digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, including his public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.
John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well.
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