Health food starves the soul. It can starve the body too, depending on what it is, but that’s another conversation. If you want to feel truly alive, nourished and satisfied, you must take care of the needs of your soul as well as those of your body. If you don’t, you’ll begin to feel brittle and hollow, and wonder what’s missing.
If the word “soul” doesn’t make sense to you, that’s fine. Find a word that does. A word for that part of yourself which is your inner knowing, which is rich, vast, unpredictable, wild, and possibly non-physical. That which animates you.
The types of foods which are powerfully soul-nourishing aren’t always “healthy” in the usual sense. Amongst my clients, in my community, and for myself, I observe again and again four types of food that nourishes people’s souls. And which people desperately crave if they aren’t getting:
1.Food Prepared with Artistry
As much as most of us love fresh fruit, there is something special and different about a wonderful dish made from gorgeous fresh fruit such as a handmade tart or pie. So much attention and touch went into it. The touch and care of human hands is so nourishing! Even people who don’t eat added sugar or raw-foodists appear to love and appreciate the added care that goes into a homemade dessert. These days I’m always seeing beautiful cakes and pies made from raw fruits and nuts, no sugar added, that take as much care as a traditional dessert. It might taste about the same to just eat an apple and some walnuts sprinkled with cinnamon, but it doesn’t feel the same at all.
To satisfy this need myself, about once a month I go to a certain Russian bakery that makes impeccable pies and cakes. It’s edible artwork, truly. There is no replacing that with an apple or some celery sticks!
2.Food with Deep History
Like all things, foods have their own histories. Some foods are deeply connected to place and to our own ancestral past. What foods did your ancestors eat – your spirit ancestors as well as your blood ancestors?
When you eat those foods, you may feel a resonance in your body. It may just feel “right” somehow. For me, comfort foods from the American South sound a “gong!” in my body, bone-deep. Collard greens, cornbread and beans, all made with some sort of delicious pork, yes please! My dad’s side of the family has been living in South Carolina since the 1600s - that food is in me whether or not I ever take a bite of it. So, when I do, there is an inner resonance that is quite noticeable.
If you don’t know what your ancestors ate, do some research and figure it out. Whether the food is fresh tortillas with beans, spicy roasted goat, shepherd’s pie, or (like me), collard greens, eating those foods will feed you in a way that nothing else ever can.
If you must make modifications to these traditional foods due to the absence of a hard to find ingredient, the presence of a food allergy, or any other reason, don’t hesitate to make those adjustments. This is normal, as adaptation is the natural order of things.
3.Garden or Farm-fresh Foods Bursting with Life and Flavor
There is just nothing quite like produce fresh from the garden, still warm from the sun and bursting with vitality. Many people have fond memories of eating their grandmother’s tomatoes or going to a “u-pick” farm and picking raspberries. Grocery store produce simply can’t compare.
In Ayurveda, we say this is because fresh from the Earth, food is abundant in prana (life force) and the prana slowly dissipates after the food is harvested. So, the sooner after harvest that food is consumed, the better. There is also an irreplaceable magic in getting your hands dirty and growing, or helping to grow, your own food. I’ve even seen children excited about eating green vegetables when they helped plant, tend, harvest, and cook them themselves!
Many of my clients live in city apartments and are not able to grow a garden, so in some cities farmer’s markets and CSAs are good alternatives. If you don’t currently eat produce fresh from the Earth and you are bored with your diet, this is one thing to consider shifting right away that can help you tremendously.
4. Childhood Comfort Foods
Food makes up part of your own private language of nurturing yourself. For someone who grew up with hippie parents, a nurturing comfort food could be a carob-chip cookie made with whole-wheat flour. For someone else, it may be a cheeseburger with extra pickles. What foods nurture and comfort you, heart and soul? What food did your parents and grandparents make for you as a young one?
Whether or not you like it, those foods are a part of you, and eating them, or variations of them, help you connect your present with your past and really OWN the totality of who you are.
These foods may be similar to your ancestral foods, and then again they may not be. If you grew up on doughnuts and fast food, join the club. And...indulge in doughnuts and fast food occasionally. All the better if you make them yourself from scratch. Food Rules author Michael Pollan suggests to “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.” Depending on what is more nourishing to you - the process or the product - that could be worth experimenting with.
There is no way that eating according to a health plan, or a purely scientific approach to nutrition will ever truly satisfy most people. Diet is not a science project. Diet is intricately entwined with culture, memory, history, family, community, and pleasure. You are a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional being. It’s time to feed all those parts of you.
Along this journey of nourishing your soul with food, eat slowly and stay present in your body’s sensations. How does your body feel while you eat and after you finish? Eating with that gentle presence is the opposite of binging or being “out of control” with your eating. Staying present and honoring your needs, body and soul, puts you in a zone beyond “right” and “wrong.” It catapults you into a sacred realm where you can ask yourself, “What is needed now?”, receive an answer, and then respond with love and grace.
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. Michael Pollan. Penguin Books, 2009.