THE BLOG

The Science and the Art of Our Relationship With Food

03/15/2013 03:05 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013

Yesterday, I had a phone call from a kind gentleman who had seen me give a talk on the science and art of food at a medical conference last year. As a nutrition professional, he mentioned he had made thousands of meal plans for clients, but found that only about 20 percent of them would follow his dietary advice. He felt he might be missing something in his approach and asked me what he could do better. As he said, "it seems like there is more going on with these people." He felt he was giving high-level advice but that they didn't seem to get it, even though they were successful executives and high-profile clients. He was asking, almost in an apologetic tone, what he was not doing.

Of course, I could relate to his approach to nutrition, because this is where I was years ago, assuming the role of the "nutrition police," having people eat this and not that, ensuring that they were compliant and walking the straight and narrow when it came to every single bite of food they put into their mouths. However, I too found that not everyone responded to this strategy, causing me to go beyond my extensive years of left-brain scientific training, including three years of my master's degree and four years of my Ph.D. to recognize that I might have to draw from another stream of wisdom -- that of the right-brain, of my yoga background, my artistic flair, and even the intensive, personal growth work I was doing in parallel with spiritual teachers and mentors while I was in graduate school.

It came to me at some point that even though we are all human beings, it is too limiting to think that we all need the exact same dietary prescription -- for example, that everyone needs to be a vegetarian or have three meals a day that collectively average 2,000 kcals. We are unique individuals, and the metaphor I choose to express this concept is that our interaction with food and lifestyle is like the paint we apply to the canvas we are provided with by our genes. No two paintings are the same: We are art, and our experience through living becomes a creative one. Therefore, every individual requires an artfully-tailored approach that spans not just their food but their lives, which is why I prefer to refer to "lifestyle medicine" rather than "nutritional medicine."

What also became clear to me was that people who had deep-rooted food issues had deep-rooted life issues, speaking even more to why "lifestyle" is the operative term and not "nutrition." In fact, I was my very first subject. The overeating and emotional eating I was engaging in for many of my teen years and even into my 20s eventually signaled to me that I was missing deeper levels of fulfillment and connection to my body, my community, and even my sense of spirituality. I realized that how I was living my life paralleled how I was eating. I was on the go, moving fast, and my eating was quick, processed, and convenient. I ate and overate because I was out of touch with my bodily needs.

Now, many years later, as I described to this curious and questioning nutrition professional, I have discovered what seems to work best for me personally and professionally with clients is to wrap together both the science and the art of food into an individualized therapy, embracing both the practicality of recipes, meal plans, and therapeutic diets with the poetry of what it means to: bite into an intensely-flavored blueberry; the literal meaning of energy production through the oxidation of calories by the mitochondria with the symbolic meaning of what gives and takes energy away from us in our lives; and the deep knowledge of ancient medical and spiritual traditions with the findings from modern medicine in double-blind, placebo-controlled trials.

To me, this is the art of the therapeutic encounter -- finding the balance between the left-brain and the right-brain and synching them together for a "whole" approach to health and healing.

In the 21st century, I believe we are being called to balance science and art individually and globally through personalized lifestyle medicine, especially since we have collectively been out of balance with the health of our bodies with rising rates of chronic disease, in our everyday life with our inner and outer resources, and even on the planetary level with changes in our climate. Now is the time like no other to bring in the best of both -- to see what our science and art can accomplish together as a unified whole.

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