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Digesting The World

Eating right is certainly in the news these days. From fads like the South Beach Diet to the front-page image of the First Lady planting an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn, Americans are beginning to pay closer attention to their eating habits. Staggering reports of the epidemic of obesity are flooding the scientific community and serve as fodder for TV shows like The Biggest Loser. One in five children in the U.S. are obese today.

Some steps are being taken to correct this. 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act includes federally mandated guidelines to improve nutritional standards in schools in order to promote better food choices among students. Many states like New York have recently earmarked millions of dollars in state funds to boost school meal reimbursements. It is now well recognized that poor nutrition affects cardiovascular health and is linked to the rising rates of type 2 diabetes and cancer. But poor nutrition also directly affects the way our children learn.

Why We Eat

While choosing what we eat is certainly critical to our cognitive health, a truly holistic understanding of eating goes much further, considering how we eat, where we eat, when we eat and why we eat. So: Why do we eat?

I pose this question to children all the time, and they giggle and stumble around for answers like “we eat so we can grow.” But we are not just machines requiring the right set of nutrients as basic fuel to keep going. We are living organisms, not automobiles! In a recent workshop, I asked participants to describe the taste of a blueberry. No one could get far past the fact that they’re sweet and blue. While scientists might accurately analyze all the phyto-nutrients in a blueberry, this tells us very little about the actual experience of eating one.

Eating is a deeply personal encounter. It conveys something about ourselves at a particular moment in time. It feeds our memory and points directly to who we are, to our mood and temperament. Eating reflects our basic sanity because it is how we make contact with the world—how we exchange with the world. Our hunger to grow and know the world is not just physical, but intellectual and spiritual. Eating is how we become the world.

In Chinese medicine, the “spleen/stomach network” is considered central to our being. It corresponds to the ground we live on, the good earth, which supplies all that we need to grow. But the spleen is home to our thoughts, as well. We gather information from the world in all different forms. As we take it in, it gets sorted. Some is integrated into our being, and some is eliminated. This gathering, sorting, integrating and eliminating is a cognitive process. It represents how we learn. Our immune system (with which we learn to identify the world), digestive system (which tastes the world), and neurologic system (which perceives the world) are interconnected aspects of information processing. The body does not know these are separate systems. They only seem separate to us because there are immunologists, gastroenterologists and neurologists. As a field of medicine, the study of this cognitive network might be more accurately described as neuro-immuno-gastroenterology.

Industrially Fed, Spiritually Starved

If we take a minute to look at how we eat in America, we begin to see how it directly relates to the modern epidemics of childhood: obesity, allergies and ADHD. We eat as if we are in a race. This is the real purpose of “fast food.” It’s cheap and convenient, just like a roadside gas station is for your car. But, again, we are living organisms, not automobiles. The same kind of assembly-line mentality informs the way our children are force-fed information in school. We’ve been led to believe that education is a race, and that the fastest child is the smartest. But in my 22 years as a developmental pediatrician watching children grow, I’ve found that this simply isn’t true. Sometimes the smartest kid turns out to be the one who took her time digesting the world. The current trends in standardized education have left us with a system that treats children as if they are USDA Grade A meat. The education of our children must be more than simply passing inspection! What’s more, when we are not given the time to digest the material, whether it is food or academics, it stagnates.

Chinese medicine considers stagnation to be of grave significance. A healthy life is defined by the free flow of qi, that which animates our life. Stagnation represents the accumulation of “stuff” that drags health down. It’s as if the body recognizes the need to slow down in order to work on unfinished business, even if it results in a pathological condition. This feeling of stagnation is not satisfying, because things are simply not moving properly. The lack of movement is boring, and boredom leads to the need for distractions—so we try to spice up our lives. We try not to look at all that unfinished business accumulating within…which makes us agitated. We try to get things moving and shake up all that stagnation. This hyperactive state drives us to look for happiness somewhere else. TV ads capitalize on this, promising happiness with a Whopper or a Happy Meal. This leads to infatuations, bizarre cravings, impulsive eating and binge-buying. We feel like we deserve to be happy—we deserve that tub of ice cream, for having had to work under these conditions. And when we can’t have what we think we deserve, we become hostile: Don’t take a piece of my pie!

This state of agitation, distractibility and impulsivity defines Attention Deficit Disorder. The Chinese medicine classics say that accumulation causes an inflamed state, and this phlegm can “mist the mind.” We become confused, unable to think straight, and find it difficult to concentrate on one thing for very long. And so we take stimulants to try to wake ourselves up.

Likewise, the same vicious cycle leads to the accumulation of phlegm in our bodies; our neuro-immunodigestive system becomes confused, hostile and inflamed. In my practice, I see a host of chronic health problems in children that can be traced back to the phlegm of stagnation: ear infections, asthma, obesity, colitis and autoimmune disorders. These manifestations of chronic inflammation did not exist to such a degree a century ago, or even 50 years ago. The inflamed state of autoimmunity is a spiritual crisis. When the mind-body remains in such a confused state, we no longer have time to recognize who we are. We are left with a Spiritual Deficit Disorder.

Taking Time

Correcting this vicious cycle begins at birth. I work with many mothers on that first day, counseling them about breastfeeding or bottle feeding. In that moment, there is a real opportunity to learn how to learn, how to digest the world calmly, attentively and with ease. Feeding a baby when she is crying is a common mistake. Moments of hunger are not a crime. Hunger is a way of waking up. We may naturally feel the urge to feed our child when she cries; feeding is a basic way we show our love. But it is vital to pause and consider the true reasons for eating. Babies feed much better when they are fully awake. They are less gassy and more likely to gain weight properly. They are actually learning to pay attention with their whole bodymind. This is a simple yet profound lesson for us all to live by.

When you select information, whether food or academic, as a conscious process, you are determining which aspects of the external environment you will allow inside your body to operate on an unconscious level. This is the meaning of “mindful eating.” We should take the lead from our babies. Whether we are stimulating our immune system, going to school, or sitting down at the dinner table as a family, taking time to digest is how we become truly sane in this world. Ultimately, time is the greatest alternative medicine. And taking time to digest the world is the ultimate spiritual practice.