Pope Francis, food and the mystics

pope francisAlmost every article I have read about the new Pope Francis mentions his humility, the simplicity of his home, his dedication to serving the poor and the fact that he cooks for himself.

This led me to wonder what he eats.

According to an article in the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion in 2009, he chooses healthy frugal food and occasionally drinks a glass of wine. He is said to like fruit, skinless chicken and salads. When in Buenos Aires, he apparently never ate out in restaurants. He would eat by himself and would not even join meals at parish churches in his diocese. On the rarest of occasions, he might break from his routine of eating in his own quarters to visit a nunnery to enjoy bagna cauda – a fondue of anchovies, garlic and olive oil.

The simplicity of Pope Francis’ diet reminds me of the story of Daniel and his friends in the Christian Bible (Daniel 1).

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia attacked Jerusalem and surrounded the city. He captured King Jehoiakim and seized treasures from the Temple.

a Daniel_befrore_NebuchadnezzarNebuchadnezzar then ordered his chief official, Ashpenaz, to select some young men from the noble and royal families of the Israelite exiles to serve in his court. They had to be handsome, intelligent, well-trained, quick to learn, and free from physical defects. Ashpenaz was to teach them to read and write the Babylonian language. The king also gave orders that every day they were to be given the same food and wine as the members of the royal court. After three years of this training they were to appear before the king. Among those chosen were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, all of whom were from the tribe of Judah. The chief official gave them new names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Daniel made up his mind not to let himself become ritually unclean by eating the food and drinking the wine of the royal court, so he asked Ashpenaz to help him. Ashpenaz was sympathetic to Daniel but was afraid of the king. So he said to Daniel, “The king has decided what you are to eat and drink, and if you don’t look as fit as the other young men, he may kill me.”

So Daniel went to the guard whom Ashpenaz had placed in charge of him and his three friends. “Test us for ten days,” he said. “Give us vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare us with the young men who are eating the food of the royal court, and base your decision on how we look.”

He agreed to let them try it for ten days. When the time was up, they looked healthier and stronger than all those who had been eating the royal food. So from then on the guard let them continue to eat vegetables instead of what the king provided.

God gave the four young men knowledge and skill in literature and philosophy. In addition, he gave Daniel skill in interpreting visions and dreams.

At the end of the three years set by the king, Ashpenaz took all the young men to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them all, and Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah impressed him more than any of the others. So they became members of the king’s court. No matter what question the king asked or what problem he raised, these four knew ten times more than any fortune teller or magician in his whole kingdom. Daniel remained at the royal court until Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, conquered Babylonia.

Daniel was not alone in his experience with food. Mystics of all traditions teach that diet influences spiritual awareness.

plant based diets

Many spiritual masters of the East, including Hindus, and various schools of yoga, divide foods into three basic categories: Sattvic (pure), Rajasic (kingly), and Tamasic (impure). They teach that this last category of foods, which includes all flesh foods and eggs, is to be completely avoided. A sattvic diet consists of fresh, simple foods including: grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, and dairy. Sattvic foods are said to promote mental clarity, relaxation, meditation, and spiritual experience including inner visions. A rajasic diet includes very rich, spicy food, and a tamasic diet includes meat and alcohol. These are said to stimulate passions, promote mental agitation, and have an adverse effect upon concentration in meditation.

Those who take up the practices concerning the lower centres in the body, do take meat … but those who are anxious to rise above body consciousness and go into the Beyond have of necessity to eschew all that. This is the Path I have put before you. Liberation or salvation is something which starts only when you rise above body consciousness. For that reason, vegetarianism is the first essential.

(Kirpal Singh, The Night is a Jungle, published by Sant Bani Ashram of New Hampshire).

Guru Kabir, a great Master from Northern India, loved by Sufis, Sikhs, Jains, and Hindus alike, said:

The man who eats meat is a demon in human form. Keep away from him – his company will ruin your meditation.

(Kabir: the Weaver of God’s Name, Radha Soami Satsang Beas).

According to these teachers, the bad karma and other negative effects of flesh-eating apparently to some degree darkens one’s inner vision, interfering with the quality of one’s meditation, making it more difficult to reach the required deep levels of tranquility, clarity and concentration.

The concept of diet affecting spiritual awareness is not confined to Eastern mystics.

Many early Christians were vegetarian; also Clement of Alexandria, Origen, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great. In some early church writings, Matthew, Peter and James (brother of Jesus and first leader of the Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem Church) were said to be vegetarian. According to the historian Eusebius, the Apostle “Matthew partook of seeds, nuts and vegetables, without flesh.” Many monasteries in ancient times practised vegetarianism and continue to do so.

clement of alexandriaClement of Alexandria wrote,

It is far better to be happy than to have your bodies act as graveyards for animals.

Modern day Seventh Day Adventists, for example, advocate a vegetarian diet.

Most conventional world religions in the West condone flesh-eating, but many esoteric traditions which have practised various forms of mysticism, are consistent in their agreement about the need for contemplative mystics to abstain from the flesh. The list of Western vegetarian paths includes: the Pythagoreans, followers of the Hermetic philosophy of Egypt, the Sethians, Theraputae, Essenes, the original Jewish Christians called Ebionites, the Gnostic religions, Manichaeans, some Catholic monasteries, some monasteries associated with the Orthodox Church – including the great mystery school on Mount Athos in Greece – and the Sufi mystics of Islam.

It may be no coincidence that the predominantly plant-based diet of Daniel and spiritual masters of many traditions, is virtually identical to that advocated by modern science. A diet which is believed to enhance spiritual openness also protects against cancer, heart-disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, arthritis and the general ravages of aging.

Pope Francis’s simple diet may not only have helped to deepen his spiritual practice but also given him the physical strength to take on this monumental role at the age of 76. May he prove to be as wise, knowledgeable and visionary as Daniel.

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Which foods are best for your health?

Do you ever feel bewildered by all the conflicting and contradictory information on nutrition and health?

Should you buy couscous or rice?  Salmon or tuna?  Pineapple or prunes?

Would you like a simple guide to help you with your shopping?

Fortunately, scientists at Yale University have come to your rescue and developed a score for the “overall nutritional quality” of a food.

Very simply, this score reflects the ratio of beneficial nutrients to harmful nutrients in a food.  It also takes account of the strength of the association of these nutrients with health.  For example, trans fat has a strong association with heart disease, so the value for trans fat is weighted, which substantially lowers the overall score for foods containing it.

The score is called the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, or ONQI.  The higher the score, the healthier the food.

David Katz and colleagues at Yale say:

ONQI is a measure analogous to density – just as the density of diamond does not vary with the size of the stone, the nutritiousness of broccoli does not vary with portion size

So what do you think?  Please leave a comment below and tell me if you find this helpful or if you have any questions.

ONQI graphic

Overall Nutritional Quality Index

Reference

Katz, D. et al.  Performance characteristics of NuVal and the Overall Nutritional Quality Index (ONQI).  Am J Clin Nutr April 2010, vol. 91 no. 4 1102S-1108S

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Plant-based diet for treating heart disease

Coronary artery before and after plant-based diet (C. Esselstyn 2001)

Coronary artery before (left) and after (right) plant-based diet (Esselstyn CB Jr: Preventive Cardiology 2001;4: 171-177)

Few people realise that a plant-based diet not only prevents heart disease but can also reverse it. Choosing whole grains, fruits and vegetables and avoiding simple sugars, and saturated and trans fats, as in meat and dairy products, has been shown to result in regression of coronary atherosclerosis after 1 and 5 years in some studies (1) (2) and to continue for over 12 years in other studies (3).

In contrast, standard medical interventions for cardiac patients, such as coronary artery bypass, bypass grafts, atherectomy, angioplasty or stenting, treat only the symptoms, not the disease.  It is therefore not surprising that patients who receive these interventions alone often experience progressive disease, graft shutdown, restenosis, more procedures, progressive disability, and ultimately death from disease (4).

Caldwell Esselstyn MD persuaded 18 cardiac patients to continue with a plant-based diet for over 12 years. Adherent patients experienced no extension of clinical disease, no coronary events, and no interventions. This finding is all the more compelling when we consider that the original compliant 18 participants experienced 49 coronary events in the 8 years before the study (4).

Some patients believe that there is no need to change their diet if they have had heart surgery, stents inserted and/or are taking drugs like statins and aspirin.

A recently published international study (5) indicated that individuals (more than 31,000 men and women of an average age of 66 in this study) who chose whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish over meat, eggs and refined carbohydrates had a 35% reduction in cardiac death rates over 5 years. That’s a 35% reduction in addition to the decrease from surgery and optimal medical management. And these men and women were older, where you’d expect diet to be able to reverse less.

So it is never too late to make simple changes to your diet and lifestyle to improve your long-term health, whether you have medically-managed heart disease or not.

If you have heart disease, you can eat a wonderful variety of delicious, nutrient-dense foods:

  • All vegetables except avocado. Leafy green vegetables, root vegetables, vegetables that are red, green, purple, orange, and yellow – every colour of the rainbow
  • All legumes—beans, peas, and lentils of all varieties.
  • All whole grains and products, bread and pasta, that are made from them—as long as they do not contain added fats.
  • All fruits

You need to avoid:

  • Red meat, poultry and fish
  • Dairy products
  • Oils of all kinds (even olive oil)

 

For recipe ideas, tips and information about following a plant-based diet please sign up for my free newsletter and check out my website.

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References

(1) Ornish, D. et al (1998). Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA, Vol 280, No. 23, 2001-2007

(2) Ornish, D. et al (1990). Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease?  The Lancet, 21 July 1990, Vol 336, No. 8708, 129-133

(3) Esselstyn, C. (2001).  Resolving the coronary artery disease epidemic through plant-based nutrition.  Preventive Cardiology, 4, 171-177

(4) Esselstyn, C.  Updating a 12-Year Experience With Arrest and Reversal Therapy for Coronary Heart Disease (An Overdue Requiem for Palliative Cardiology).  Article on Caldwell Esselstyn’s website.

(5) Dehghan, M. et al. Relationship Between Healthy Diet and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease Among Patients on Drug Therapies for Secondary Prevention: A Prospective Cohort Study of 31 546 High-Risk Individuals From 40 Countries. Circulation, 4 December 2012, 126: 2705-2712

Diet and your eye sight

Recently one of my clients was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration and was advised by a health professional to take supplements of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin to prevent progression of this condition. Given that these supplements are expensive, she wanted to know if her investment would pay off.

As discussed below, the bottom line is that, to date, there is little scientific evidence to support the use of antioxidant supplements either to prevent or delay the progression of age-related macular degeneration. Indeed, there is evidence that such supplements may be harmful.

In contrast, there is scientific evidence that consumption of a plant-based diet with a variety of whole grains, vegetables and fruit has many benefits with regard to preventing and treating diseases like macular degeneration, and does no harm.  Further research is required in this area.

The best way to protect the health of your eyes is to eat plenty of different coloured vegetables and fruit; for example, broccoli, cabbage, kale, collard greens, green peas, spinach, courgettes, red and yellow peppers, winter squash, kiwi fruit, blueberries, oranges and mango.

What is age-related macular degeneration?

Age-related macular degeneration is an eye condition affecting older people, and involves the loss of the person’s central field of vision. It occurs when the macular (or central) retina in the eye develops degenerative lesions. The retina is the light-detecting membrane at the back of the eye. The macula contains a particularly high density of light receptors, especially cones (the receptors that detect colour) and so the macula is particularly important for seeing fine detail and objects directly in front of us. It plays a vital role in helping people to read, write, drive and perform other detailed tasks. It also enables us to recognise faces and see colour.

According to the World Health Organisation (1), globally, age-related macular degeneration ranks third as a cause of blindness after cataract and glaucoma; it is the primary cause in industrialized countries. Several forms of age-related macular degeneration exist.

Carotenoid pigments in the eye – lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin

Pigments known as carotenoids are found within the eye. There are over 600 known carotenoids in nature but in the human eye, just three of these pigments – lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin – form a concentrated ‘yellow spot’ in the macula, known as the macular pigment. This pigment has two main functions: it acts as an antioxidant and it filters light.

As short wavelength (blue) light passes through the retina to the photoreceptors and pigmented epithelial cells, reactive oxygen species are generated. The conversion of the light energy into a nerve impulse by the photoreceptors generates free radicals – unstable molecules which damage a variety 
of tissues – resulting in many of the diseases and conditions associated with ageing. Antioxidants in the eye are able to quench these free radicals, thereby protecting the eye from oxidative damage. Lutein, zeaxanthin and particularly meso- zeaxanthin are very effective antioxidants.

The pigments lutein and zeaxanthin can be found naturally in a number of food sources (2). For example, lutein can be found in yellow peppers, mango, bilberries and green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, chard and broccoli. Zeaxanthin can be found in winter squash, orange sweet peppers, broccoli, corn, lettuce, spinach, tangerines, oranges and eggs.

Blue light, because of its relatively high photon energy, more readily damages the retina than yellow or red light, which is less energetic. The macular pigment acts as a filter, particularly to blue light, and therefore protects against this damaging effect.

Given that the development of age-related macular degeneration is likely to involve a complex interaction of cellular and vascular factors, which may be promoted by light damage, oxidative stress, and inflammation, it is biologically plausible that a number of dietary components may be protective.

Effect of diet on age-related macular degeneration

The results of several epidemiological studies and clinical trials in the peer-reviewed scientific literature suggest that diets high in antioxidant nutrients (vitamins C and E, carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin, fruit and vegetables that contain these nutrients, and non-nutritive antioxidants) or zinc are associated with a decreased occurrence of early or late age-related macular degeneration (3) (4). A high dietary intake of fat was associated with a higher prevalence or incidence of early or late age-related macular degeneration in numerous studies (5), whereas higher intakes of fish or omega 3 fatty acids were associated with lower rates of age-related macular degeneration (5).

Despite nutritional advice being available, awareness of the link between diet and eye health is poor. A survey conducted by the Eyecare Trust (6) found that Britons are oblivious to the fact that unhealthy lifestyles and obesity can substantially increase the risk of macular degeneration and ultimately blindness.

Efficacy of nutrient supplements for age-related macular degeneration

Some clinicians argue that it is difficult to obtain adequate amounts of the protective nutrients required for the eyes from a ‘normal’ diet. They thus prescribe high doses of nutrient supplements. But are these nutritional supplements effective?

A recently published Cochrane Review (7) identified four large, high-quality randomised controlled trials which included 62,520 people. The trials were conducted in Australia, Finland and the USA and investigated the effects of vitamin E and beta-carotene supplementation. These trials provide evidence that taking vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements is unlikely to prevent the onset of age-related macular degeneration. There was no evidence for other antioxidant supplements and commonly marketed combinations.

Another Cochrane Review (8) investigated whether progression of age-related macular degeneration may be slowed down in people who take antioxidant supplements (carotenoids, vitamins C and E) or minerals (selenium and zinc). The authors identified 13 randomised controlled trials which included 6150 participants; five trials based in the USA, two in the UK, two trials in Austria, and one trial in each of a further four countries (Australia, China, Italy and Switzerland). The review of trials found that supplementation with antioxidants and zinc may be of modest benefit in people with age-related macular degeneration. This was seen mainly in one large trial that followed up participants for an average of six years. The other smaller trials with shorter follow-up do not provide evidence of any benefit. Large well-conducted trials in a range of populations and with different nutritional status are required.

Safety of antioxidant nutrient supplements

Although generally regarded as safe, there is evidence that antioxidant supplements may have harmful effects. A Cochrane Review in 2008 (9) demonstrated that antioxidant supplements seem to increase mortality in sufferers of cancer and cardiovascular disease. This review was updated in 2012 (10) and found no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention. Beta-carotene and vitamin E seem to increase mortality, and so may higher doses of vitamin A. The authors concluded that current evidence does not support the use of antioxidant supplements in the general population or in patients with various diseases in a stable phase, including gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, ocular, dermatological, rheumatoid, renal, endocrinological, or unspecified diseases.

Conclusion

The bottom line from all of this work is that, to date, there is little evidence to support the use of antioxidant supplements either to prevent or delay the progression of macular degeneration. Indeed, there is evidence that such supplements may be harmful.

In contrast, consumption of a plant-based diet with a variety of whole grains, vegetables and fruit has many benefits with regard to preventing and treating disease, and none of the disadvantages associated with nutritional supplements.  Further research and analysis of the literature is required in this area.

Further information and help

If you are suffering from a specific health problem or would just like to improve your general health and well-being, you will benefit from a personal nutrition consultation. Simple changes to diet and lifestyle can lead to significant improvements in the way you feel.  For a delicious recipe full of the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, please click here.

References

(1) http://www.who.int/blindness/causes/priority/en/index8.html

(2) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1722697/

(3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16380590?dopt=Abstract

(4) http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09286580903450353

(5) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14662593?dopt=Abstract

(6) http://www.eyecaretrust.org.uk/view.php?item_id=563

(7) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000253.pub3/abstract

(8) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000254.pub3/abstract

(9) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18425980

(10) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD007176.pub2/abstract