Our emotions and interior life are intimately connected with our body. It should be no surprise then that the major world religions developed an understanding that different foods have psychological and spiritual effects based on their chemistry and the human body. I don’t want to survey the theories proposed by Medieval Europe or the East Asian Philosophers, but rather seek to give some insights based on a few sources in the West and Modern science.
Meat vs Fish
We need animal proteins for health, but the dominant theory of food in the West is that meat excites the emotions and makes us less receptive to the stillness of contemplation. In this way, Apostolic Christian communities contained periods of abstinence from meat and even all animal products as a means of attaining greater freedom and mental clarity.
There are no direct studies in modern times that back up this claim, but it seems to have some truth to it. A vegan diet has in the popular mind, a connotation of producing less aggression, particularly in men, while meat consumption is associated with strength and energy. This is why the popular mind associates men who work out more and pursue intellectual things less as “meat heads.”
The tradition does not hold to any only vegan diet or even an only vegetarian diet, but rather period abstinence as a period of purification and fasting.
Most forms of gluttony involve some kind of carbohydrate, especially refined carbohydrates like baked goods. Most foods we associate as being the most pleasurable are in fact processed carbohydrates. But we should be careful by what we mean by processed.
The term processed tends to get associated with artificial additives, but the term actually means any process that takes a whole food or raw ingredient and adapts it. For example, pasta is a processed food. So is bread. Some items can only be consumed and digested after a period of processing such as wheat.
Another way to understand this is by looking at an Apple. The plain Apple is a whole food. Apple juice a processed food. Apple pie likewise a processed food. The interesting thing about most processes that make their end result different is the removal of fiber. The main difference between a plain apple and apple juice is that fiber found in the skin and flesh of the apple.
Which gets at another significant point when it comes to carbohydrates. The less fiber a carbohydrate has, the more we associate it with being pleasurable and in some cases unhealthy. In contrast, foods rich in fiber tend to limit things like gluttony and overeating.
Whole Fruits and Vegetables
Through experience it seems that whole fruits and vegetables have the most calming effect on our interior life. While initial increases in them might cause stomach and digestion issues, long term they aid greatly in having a calming effect because the fiber they contain helps regulated the blood sugar levels and prevents the spiking of blood sugar caused by processed carbohydrates.
Fasting and Feasting
A life without any chocolate or desert is probably not sustainable for most people on a psychological and human level. This is why the notion of fasting and feasting is vitally important to the spiritual life. The main days of fasting are Wednesday and Friday and the main days of feasting are Sunday and holy days. On fasting days we can do a caloric restriction or an abstinence fast, and for the majority of the other meals we can seek to eat balanced diet that works best for us.
The tradition practice of Lent was to be vegan during the 40 days, but we can work our way up slowly. We might need to consider fish or other forms of animal protein during Lent if we are doing vigorous forms of exercise or work to aid in muscle building and recovery.
Fasting is essential for students spiritual growth, but the art of fasting takes time and practice.