My Dietary Journey to Optimal Nutrition and Bodily Wisdom
I started making my own money at 5 years of age, selling pencils door-to-door. One for 2¢, two for a nickel; I raked it in. I used the money to buy candy -- which I proceeded to eat in lots -- for the next decade and a half. When I was finally living on my own, I bought a case of Snickers with my first paycheck.
Other than my sugar addiction, I ate pretty well for a kid in the South in the fifties and sixties; I had some southern veggies and iceberg lettuce along with my meats and fast food. Mom tried to give me a variety, and I ate all of that. My dad was from Puerto Rico, so we ate a lot of rice and beans, too (thank god). Bodily, I was very athletic, swimming, diving, and developing the art of rope-swinging (go figure). I set records in grade school and high school for sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups.
In college, I consumed my share of sixties intoxicants and celebrated. I left school and lived on a remote farm near the Appalachians (no electricity or running water). I enjoyed the freshest of foods and rugged living for three years. I was super-healthy and weighed 135 pounds.
But slaughtering and growing my own food taught me a few things. Freshness of food and robustness of life are related; bringing out the best tastes and nutrition in foods is a great art; and despite the nutritional advantages of meat, I didn't like killing animals for my food.
I became a vegetarian and moved back to Nashville. I ate a banana split every night instead of meat. Slowly, by the end of my first year in the city, I started passing out when getting out of bed in the morning. Then, the fainting was every day and getting out of my chair would usually make me dizzy. I have blacked-out hundreds of times. Between the lack of good nutrition and over-use of sugar, I had developed a severe shortage of the enzyme that co-oxidizes glucose, thiamin, or vitamin B-1. (It also seemed to me that multiple head wounds I had sustained guided my passings into unconsciousness.)
Now the first "miracle story". In 1975, People magazine ran an article on Paul Bragg's 90th birthday. Now for those of you who do not know of Paul Bragg, let me just say that Paul Bragg is the grandfather of the American health movement. He was a phenomena. The picture in People said it all: he looked 56, not 90, and was positively radiant. I looked at him and said, "Whatever that guy's doing, I'm gonna try it." He was the demonstration of health‚ and fortunately, was an enthusiastic prophet of how to follow him.
One of the first things I added to my diet was nutritional yeast, a super-food rich in B vitamins. Instantly, my black-outs were almost eliminated and my over-all energy level rocketed. I was impressed. The immensity of the change prompted me to pose a question to myself: If the addition of this one thing to my diet made this much change, how good can you feel? Really, how good can you feel?
I began a three-year intensive study of nutrition. In addition to Bragg, I read volumes -from Adelle Davis to college texts on nutrition. My favorite book was The Nutrition Almanac, with a Table of Food Composition. But in addition to book learning, I kept a health diary.
In my health diary, I recorded everything I ate, when, how I felt, and noted exercise patterns. At the end of every week, I tabulated and evaluated. I calculated all crucial (to me) categories, how much calcium, protein, vitamins, magnesium, sodium, iodine, etc. etc., I had consumed. I noted balances (sodium-potassium, protein-carbohydrates, calcium-magnesium, etc.). I adjusted my diet accordingly. Over a few months, I memorized the Table of Food Composition as it related to my diet. I kept a constant eye to optimize my nutritional profiles and maximize my capacity for energy and harmony.
Reading a variety of nutrition books, I quickly noted widespread differences of opinion. For instance, some books favored 60+ grams of protein daily, others said 10! So I would experiment: for two-month segments I ate 35 concentrated grams of protein daily, then 25, then 15, then 10, back to 15 and finally decided my optimum was in the 20 gms/day neighborhood, adjusting slightly to the season.
I did not lose sight of my original enquiry: how good can you feel? For dedicated detail to optimizing every kind of dietary nuance occurred only in a greater picture of freeing feeling; which intermeshed with exercise and psychology.
At the end of the third year of this enquiry/experimentation, my health program looked like this: I squeezed a large glass of orange juice for breakfast, and for lunch and dinner I had a hearty salad (with nuts, seeds, yeast, sprouted legumes, and nutritionally rich dressings); I swam three miles a week, sauna-ed twice a week, I ran 38 miles a week, and I followed Paul Bragg's "secret": I fasted one day a week, three days a month and a week every year.
While the benefits of fasting are many, there is one potency that is generally unsung: the overall capacity to manage glucose and energy levels.
When your blood sugar drops, your body signals the mind to think, "I'm hungry." You eat something, your blood sugar goes back up, you feel better, and you congratulate yourself on taking care of yourself. But this glucose management system traps you in a roller coaster of insulin and glucose levels, slowly robs you of overall energy, and usually fosters overweight conditions.
Through a variety of modes of fasting, we can learn to keep our glucose levels high, even though it is an "involuntary" process. To conceive of how this is possible, imagine a set of proverbial twins: one runs daily, the other is far more sedentary. Now put them both into a sauna. Mr. Or Ms Studness relaxes and enjoys the sweat; Mr. Ms. Officeperson experiences difficulty. Exercise-Person has learned to sweat and gain some control of an involuntary process. This sweating analogy conveys the idea that we can gain similar capacity to keep our glucose levels stable.
Instead of automatically eating, we slowly learn to endure more and more hunger until the blood sugar comes back up (yes, you will probably get irritable and maybe a bit crazy). In doing so, we exercise those liver, pancreatic, and metabolic processes that turn glycogen into glucose, then fats into glucose. I call this stretching-the-glucose-response "metabolic calisthenics". Bragg's system of regular fasting exercised my metabolic capacities and allowed me to take my overall dynamism to a new level.
[Instead of some program, let me suggest a principled approach to a variety of gentle and responsive ways to learn this. My first recommendation is to pick a single day of the week and eat one meal one hour later than you would have normally. When you feel bodily confidence at this delay, continue to slowly stretch your ability to delay one meal, one day a week, until you slowly can skip a meal; I have always chosen Thursday. Cheat when you need to ... my motto is "slow, but slow". Simply, intelligently, and gently stretch your ability to stretch one meal, one day a week. Take a year and gently experiment (of course with your doctor's endorsement), just like building any other muscle.]
Maintaining a fasting yoga, my energy level was off the charts, let me Bragg. Ripples of energy, swells of potency, and bubbles of health were my constant experience. I only weighed 9 pounds less than my peak (135-9=126). I ran a hardware store, opened a highly successful natural foods restaurant (I need a place to go out to eat), I taught optimal nutrition-"cooking" class at a local college, I bought an old church (1910) and renovated it for my home. I travelled, I continued my studies of nutrition, athletics, philosophy, and spirituality.
By living under a rigorous discipline, I observed some things about why people eat the way they do:
1. Most people eat for balance. No matter how you're feeling, a sit-down meal will help you feel better. Obviously, blood sugar is brought up and electrolytic balances are enhanced-and rest provides much relief and refreshment.
2. People also eat for a pleasurable sense of connectedness. In a positive light, the sharing of food enhances the sense of community and communion. Unhealthy versions of this need can be seen that when one is suffering, a morsel of food gives a moment of pleasure. If one is lonely, oral satisfaction feels something like love. (Unknown Jerome).
3. Coping with stress. Food helps one in many ways to cope with and burn through difficulties in life.
4. What other reasons drive people to eat the way they do, nutritional needs are usually the last thing to be considered.
So if one can attend to the sense of balance in one's life, minimize stress, and cultivate one's innate sense of connectedness and trust, then the urges that drive one to eat in an unhealthy manner are diminished. Then one's real nutritional needs can be optimized. Therefore, learn to maximize the sense of balance in one's life, and cultivate communion, community, and connectedness. By such holistic dedication, we will deepen our fundamental trust, and dietary urges will easily normalize.
At this time in 1977, my body felt absolutely pure, with maximum conduction of bodily energy. I lived in an ascended state. My enquiry continued however, because what then stood out were the limitations in feeling. My studies had always included spirituality, philosophy, and religion and now these were paramount. I told my sister, "Ain't no more dirt in my body, whatever is dirty comes out of my mouth, not into it." I studied constantly, but after reading the works of Avatara Adi Da for a couple of years, I sold everything I owned (1978) and lived as a kind of religious renunciate for a decade.
In the ashram of Avatara Adi Da, I was already living the strict dietary conditions, and I'm sure I was quite obnoxious. But after a year, my teacher noted that a few people in the ashram were living the strict diet as their own little indulgence. He had us take on a "horse-gut" diet: nothing raw, 5-7 meals daily, with emphasis on foods such as potatoes and peanut butter! I don't remember if I gained 9 pounds in 7 days or 7 pounds in 9 days. I am not exaggerating when I state that it was one of the hardest things I ever did.
I was shocked at the profundity of the lesson my teacher was giving me. First, I noticed how more incarnate I was, of course, but it shattered an idealism I deeply held. You see, super-pure diet gives similar sensations and avenues of feeling that are the same as some intoxicants and yogic practices: there is a definite feeling that God is sublimely within and subtly up. But suddenly I felt the difference: God is as much down as up, love is more here than within. I abandoned my super-purity and continued to gain weight, although I still ate very well, by common standards.
After ten years, I left the formal confines of the ashram life, gained some more weight, got married, gained more weight, had two kids, gained more weight (there's a theme here), went back to school full-time (while maintaining full-time employment), gained even more. Food as a stress management tool got me.
Then, the fateful day came: June 11th, 2006, when I turned in my last thesis (Master's in the Arts of Teaching). I was 183 pounds, my cholesterol was 343, and I was very ready to resume my practices of optimal nutrition.
The next day I fasted, but at the day's end, I decided to eat a salad, "to clean out and balance." I began to fast anew the next day, but at day's end, I decided to have an evening salad again. The next day was the same. I liked the rhythm so much I decided to try it out as a general model. Six years later, this "perpetual Ramadan" continues to be my general diet (though I may eat during the day on the weekend).
Instead of weekly 36-hour fasts, I now do six 24-hour semi-fasts a week (I have many cups of tea in the morning with a piece or two of hearty toast, and usually nothing but water until dinner). Five days a week, I am very hungry for hours. I have gained new understandings by entering into regular, sustained hunger. I enjoy many of the benefits of fasting, but in a sustainable fashion. While my weight has dropped almost 20 pounds and my cholesterol has plummeted to 199, the real benefits are in over-all energy level.
Calorie restriction (CR) is the only diet repeatedly proven to significantly lengthen life spans, but reducing calories is not the point: it should merely be the effect when nutrition is optimized. The waist is a terrible thing to mind. Rather, put your mind on radiant health, not losing weight. Don't worry about reducing calories; put your attention on optimal nutrition. Naturally, this will have growing amounts of the freshest of foods. Cooking will be slowly minimized, and there will be less and less room for calories. (And don't worry: celebration and flexibility are not only possible, they are required -- so says Mr. Snickersman.)
I have crafted my diet as my personal and present response to food and energy. I break any rule anytime (though not very often). I often eat sweets at night (usually my own low-carb-granola, an apple and a half a cup of soy milk), and when I go to a party, I may go wild. I call my approach, "flexitarianism". If I go to grandma's on Thanksgiving, I eat turkey, all the trimmings, and every dessert, but usually, it's just a salad (hearty greens, cabbage, purple onion, seeds, almonds, croutons, garbanzo beans and nutritionally rich dressing).
Instead of having rules to follow, I merely keep my eye on two dials: “cut” and comfort. Discipline and ease. I make sure that I keep both principles active. Sometimes, "cut" is strong and I eat fewer sweets, and sometimes "comfort" is strong, and I eat more (or anything). "Slow but slow" is my motto, and I sweetly dance to life's two-step. Accepting myself and accepting the pleasures of celebration and discipline, I let go into oceanic Life-Light. How good can you feel? Diet and health are foundational, but wisdom in feeling is paramount.