Reprinted with permission of Spirituality & Health.

When I lecture about optimal eating, the question I'm asked most frequently is about the diet du jour. Many want to know what's best: Is it the zone? Eat right for your type? What do I think about Ornish (high carbohydrate/low fat) vs. Atkins (high protein/high fat)? Which do I choose?

The simple answer is that I don't choose. Rather, I believe we're asking the wrong question, so we're getting the wrong answer - and ongoing weight gain. Let me explain. Given that American children, teens, and adults are more overweight than ever before (80 percent of adults over 25 are either obese or overweight, up from 58 percent in 1983) it's natural that when we think about nutrition, we focus on weight and fat, both in food and our bodies. We go on diets, analyze and obsess about food, turn to it as an enemy or friend, eat too much, eat too little, worry about it, avoid it, crave it, revere it, or believe that a particular nutrient will magically melt the pounds. Yet despite all of our conscientious attention to food and the incredible advances we've made in nutritional science, not only are our waistlines continuing to increase, so, too, are most food-linked ailments. From high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes, to cancer, osteoarthritis, and depression, excess pounds are an ever-rising threat to our health and well-being. So we're left wondering, what's gone wrong?

I've been pondering this question since graduate school in the eighties when I worked as the nutrition specialist with pioneering physician Dean Ornish, M.D.

and colleagues, who demonstrated that lifestyle changes - stress management (yoga and meditation), a no-fat-added plant-based diet, group support, and exercise - may reduce risk factors linked to heart disease, such as high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and being overweight. However, even with such incredible insights about diet, lifestyle and health, as our waistlines and other food-related ailments continued to increase, I began to realize that the biological and technical examination of nutrients - measuring and analyzing calories, fats, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals - are just one part of the food and nutrition story; that food is a four-part gift that nourishes not only physical health, but also our spiritual, emotional, and social well-being.

The Missing Ingredient

Sometimes you have to go backward before you can move forward. I got my first clue about missing "nutrients" in our meals in New Delhi, India, where I had been invited to present a workshop at the First International Conference on Lifestyle and Health. One of the presenters was K.L. Chopra, father and mentor of Deepak Chopra. After his lecture, I interviewed Dr. Chopra for a magazine article I was planning to write about yoga and diet. What he said was to change my view of food forever: "Prana is the vital life force of the universe, the cosmic force and it goes into you, into me, with food. When you cook with love, you transfer the love into the food and it is metabolized. In former days (based on the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita), the tradition was for the mother to cook the food with love and then feed it to the children; only then would she eat."

Was it really possible to infuse food with loving consciousness? Fascinated by the possibility, I began a search through the major world religions (such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism) and cultural traditions (such as yogic nutrition, the Japanese Way of Tea, Native American food beliefs, and African American soul food) for their teachings about food.