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Good Vibrations: Food Energy Beyond Calories

Our ancestors saw things differently; the concept of food having energetic properties that defy measurement has been around for thousands of years.
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In my last post, I talked about my beloved cousin, who simply can't fathom being as hopelessly obsessed with food and intuitive eating as I am. She has never waxed poetic about the blush on a ripe Seckel pear, or the creamy lushness of a ripe avocado. She doesn't spend her days questioning the details of food cravings and the relationship with eating.

But. In a follow-up email to our conversation around my grandmother's table in August, she did admit that she had read "The Celestine Prophecy," and was inspired by its views on the practice of praying before meals: saying grace isn't only about thanking a higher being for the gifts of the earth, but also a reminder to prepare your body to accept the life force and energy from the food you are about to eat. Even in her stoic resistance to viewing food as anything other than fuel, she gets the deeper meanings.

Food does have energy, more subtle and rare than the actual caloric values that seem so important to us. In the Western world, we judge food based on its quantifiable components: how much protein or vitamin C it has, the number of calories, the amount of fiber. What we call "modern nutrition science" centers solely on these measurable components, and ignores the energetic qualities of food--the ways in which it affects us that can't be measured, weighed, quantified or viewed under a microscope.

Our ancestors saw it differently; the concept of food having energetic properties that defy measurement has been around for thousands of years. The "Doctrine of Signatures" sees food as a metaphor, in which the structure or function of a plant or animal reveals its nutritive and healing purposes.

Tomatoes are red and contain four chambers, like the heart. We now know that they're rich in antioxidants that protect the heart from disease. A walnut in its shell, with its convoluted humps and swirls, looks like a tiny brain, and walnuts are high in healthy fats that benefit brain health. And if you cut a carrot crosswise, the slices resemble the human eye, with a pupil, iris and lines radiating outward--and carrots contain beta-carotene, which is important for eye health.

Speaking of eyes, some of you are probably rolling yours now. I know, it may sound kooky or seem like a stretch. But the point is that food is way more than a collection of calories and assorted nutrients.

Chinese medicine recognizes properties of food, like warming (ginger, cayenne) or cooling and moistening (tofu, melons). When you look at some of these foods, touch them, taste them, it starts to make sense intuitively (though that sounds like a contradiction). A piece of melon is cold and wet to the touch. Pepper is red and fiery looking, and when you eat it, your body feels warmer inside.

Foods that grow downward into the earth, like carrots, are dense and contractive. Those that grow upward and outward, like leafy greens, are said to be expansive. So, says this school of thought, if you're hyper-energetic and continually flying off in different directions, a big bowl of roasted root vegetables (downward moving) can help ground you. If you're emotionally withdrawn, have a salad; those leafy greens might make you less inward, more open and expansive.

But all this stuff is still about the body. The energetic properties of food also extend to the spiritual realm. Some traditions believe that when we eat meat, we're taking into our bodies the pain, anxiety, grief, suspicious, anger and fear of death that an animal feels when it is mistreated during its life, then slaughtered. This is not to raise the question of "Should we eat meat" (I can feel the comments coming already), but rather to suggest that if we do, we might consider whether an animal raised in a more humane and mindful way would have different energetic qualities.

You can buy many books on this topic. But really, it's pretty intuitive, and there's no right or wrong. The point is to begin to notice some of the deeper aspects of food, and how it may affect you mentally, spiritually and emotionally--way beyond calories and fat grams. Start to tune in your food. Turn off your television or computer, sit down at the table, and really look at what you're eating. Notice its shape, texture, color. Take a moment to say some form of grace that involves preparing your body to take in the energy and life force of food. As you're eating, pay careful attention to how the food feels in your body. Do some foods feel warmer after you eat them, regardless of their temperature? Do some make you feel more grounded, or more open and spacious?

All of this is nothing more than using food as a path to mindfulness and being present in the world. Once you begin this practice, you may find that your eating habits change (though that's not necessarily the point). Try it, and leave a comment below. I'd love to hear about your own vibrations.