In America we are engaged in constant battle with food. We struggle with eating healthily, obesity, and access to good nutrition for everyone. But we have a great opportunity to get on the right side of this battle by beginning to think differently about the way that we eat and the way that we approach food. It's not a new fad diet that we need, but a new way of viewing our relationship with food. A way to connect with food and our eating habits in a more spiritually focused way.
The opportunity here in the U.S. is so unique because we are so diverse, with so many different cultures living together. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, all with their own connections to the spiritual aspects of food and with lessons that we can learn from each other.
Most cultures traditionally link food and spirituality directly with periodic restrictions and celebrations punctuating the year. Abstinence from particular foods or full on fasting is part of many religious traditions and holidays. There are 250 fasting days in the calendar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In the Bahá'í faith, a fast is observed from sunrise to sunset from March 2 through 20th and Hindus and Jews also practice regular fasts throughout the year. The practice of fasting is the fourth pillar of Islam, with the holy month of Ramadan being the most notable time for fasting.
While the reasons for fasting are varied -- whether it's to purify, connect with a higher spiritual power, atone, or to practice self-control and abstinence -- these spiritual rituals also create a sense of community with fellow observers.
Fasting represents a break from normal activities, a period of reflection, and a time for more thoughtful eating. Abstaining from meat can make us more in-tune with the seasons, as we are focused on more vegetables.
Ideally this time is also a break from the unhealthy, fast-paced, and sometimes mindless eating that it is easy to engage in. Having to think about what you are eating for lunch instead of just automatically turning to your
normal sandwich can be a revelation and a chance to restart eating patterns in favor of more healthful choices.
How about only eating meat a few days a week? Or going without dairy or junk food for a few days? Another way of eating with a spiritual mindset is cooking with leftovers and wasting less food. An important benefit: eating with a spiritual compass can lead to better health.
Kosher and Halal dietary laws take into account how humanely an animal is treated before it becomes meat. These rituals help us to remember that we are connected to our food: we need to think harder about what is on our plates, where it came from and how what we eat affects both us and our planet. Is it tomato or asparagus season when you eat it or has it been shipped from a far-off place? These spiritual traditions predate all of the current locavore movements, but are often preaching the very same message of sustainability and connection to the earth.
Breaking the fast is also an important part of these rituals and those celebrations where people come together over food can also be a learning experience for us. Sharing food can help create inclusion and conversation, gathering over a meal creates community. It's all about sharing.
America, with its history of freedom of religion and the diversity of beliefs that have resulted from that, is in a unique position to reintegrate a spiritual compass into our way of eating. Our food traditions and spiritual experiences may be diverse, but they all establish a common ground and give us a reference point from which to share in each other's life and to learn from each other. We, as a community, culture and country can lead with this thoughtful way of eating rather than be leaders in fast food or junk foods -- we can instead be a country that inspires with our food.