I attend a meditation class every week at an adult-education center. Recently, some of us went to dinner after class at a neighborhood restaurant. I was hungry, and so I ordered a steak. Up until that moment, there had been a lively conversation at the table, but when I told the waiter what I wanted, the whole table fell silent. My classmates looked at me as if I had just summoned the devil. One person coughed; a few others looked away. Everyone ordered some kind of pasta or fish. Is eating a steak considered "spiritually incorrect"?
Definitely! The Spiritually Correct Police will be on your case for eating any kind of red meat, but especially steak or prime rib, which are considered the most desirable (and usually the most expensive) cuts by meat lovers. Some of this anti-meat attitude comes from people who feel that cows (and all other animals) are sacred. The most extreme--vegetarians because of principle rather than diet considerations--believe it is bad to kill and eat "anything with a face," which eliminates fish as well as chicken. I don't decry their position, but I don't think it makes them any more genuinely spiritual than people who eat frog's legs or a piece of roast pork carved from a suckling pig with an apple in its mouth.
Many people associate meat with lusty, self-gratifying lifestyles, just as rice and vegetables are associated with discipline and denial. When I first went on a retreat at a monastery, I expected to sleep on a hard board, if not a bed of nails, and eat nothing but rice and tea, with perhaps an apple for dessert. To my surprise (and I confess, my pleasure), the meals at Glastonbury Abbey, a Benedictine monastery 45 minutes from Boston, were full and varied, including lasagna (with meat), roast beef, chicken, fish, pasta, and a variety of cakes and pies as well as fruit for dessert. This menu certainly did nothing to detract from the powerful spiritual aura at Glastonbury, the moving prayer services, and the truly Christian hospitality of the monks.
The most "spiritual" diet is surely the one that keeps you the healthiest. In recent years, I have followed one that seemed to be the most spiritually as well as medically correct--the low fat, low-protein, high-carbohydrate approach pioneered by such doctor/gurus as Nathan Pritikin and Dean Ornish, as well as government nutrition boards and the American Heart Association. It features pasta, rice, fruit, and vegetables, and in modified form, fish and even chicken (without the skin).
That program is now being challenged, most successfully by Barry Sears with "The Zone" diet, who declares in his best seller--"Enter The Zone" that "with these diets [low fat, low protein, high carbohydrate], we often get fatter even while following their guidelines with religious fervor." Sears wants us to eat nearly equal "blocks" of protein and carbohydrate--as well as some fat--but warns against carbohydrates with a "high glycemic index," those that turn into sugar and enter the bloodstream faster. Among the "unfavorable carbohydrates" are the very staples of the formerly correct diet: "bread, pasta, grains, corn, potatoes," etc.
According to "The Zone" approach, one of the foods most commonly regarded as sacred, in health as well as spiritual terms, turns out to be bad for us! Yes, friends, Sears warns that one of the "rapid inducers of insulin" is, of all things, rice! Even more shocking, in "The Zone" view, brown rice is just as bad as white rice. If diet is religion, this is heresy.
With all the conflicting information and attitudes now going around about diet, we can only pray that we're eating the right thing.
Dan Wakefield's books include "How Do We Know When It's God?" and "Returning: A Spiritual Journey." Check out his