food energetics | the powerful side of nutrition
I write and speak a lot about food energetics—let’s call it the spiritual side of food and nutrition. If that sounds crazy, consider this:
Food is more than simply fuel. It imparts a living wisdom that is beyond the science and mechanics of calories, grams, and nutrient values. Ancient peoples, through their relationships with the plants and animals providing their food, understood that their food conveyed the unique energetic qualities of its source, such as swiftness from wild deer and groundedness from root vegetables. With the rise of agribusiness and industrial food production, people have become disconnected from the sources of their food and are no longer able to register the subtle rhythms, harmony, and energies that food can convey. This separation has thrown the basic human-food relationship out of balance—to the detriment of human consciousness.
We often think about food giving us energy strictly in the sense of providing calories: energy in, energy out, which is what I call a “hard-core nutrition” approach.
Nutrition is defined as the science that interprets the nutrients and other substances in food in relation to maintenance, growth, reproduction, health and disease of an organism.
Consider a nutrition facts label:
- Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are known as the macronutrients because we need them in relatively large amounts. They all provide calories—proteins and carbs offer four calories per gram, fats offer nine, so now you know why rich foods have more calories, even when eaten in smaller portions!
- Most of the rest of the line items on the nutrition facts label are micronutrients—what we need in relatively small amounts: vitamins and minerals.
- And then there are “other” nutrients, such as water and fiber.
It’s lovely that the government requires these labels on processed foods—it’s a way to encourage (I’d hesitate to say “enforce”) transparency by food manufacturers.
If we know how to read the label, we can glean a lot of information that we might find useful in making better food choices—that’s the bright side of food labeling. And when I do informal polls, most people confess they never learned to read them, that they’re confused by them, that they only look for one or two facts (usually sodium, cholesterol, and fat rank highest) to help them make a decision.
The dark side of food labeling? Those nutrition labels can lead us down a path of what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism,” not a scientific subject but an ideology, an obsession with the individual nutrients in a food at the cost of understanding the nutritional value of a food as a whole.
This dark side rears its head when we begin to obsess about our “macros”—aiming to achieve a perfect balance of proteins to fats to carbs that we have been told we “should” eat. As a health coach, I’m okay with experimenting with increasing or decreasing the amount of protein or fat or carbs we eat—and I really discourage clients from focusing too much on grams, calories, ounces. Most people I work with barely have time to cook a healthy meal, much less measure, weight, and calculate—and they don’t need to.
If you have gone down the rabbit hole of nutritionism and are not seeing the changes you want to see in your weight or overall health, consider this: What are you distracting yourself from with all that busy work? (Could it be you’re procrastinating about a more important project at home or at work?) And what better use could you put that time to? (Any difficult conversations you need to have?)
Here’s a point I consider much more important than the percentages of protein, fats, and carbs on your plate: the nutrient density of your food. If you’re intent on ingesting a certain amount of macros, don’t forget that you need micros to actually put those macros to use.
That’s right: it’s the vitamins and minerals in our food that help our bodies use the proteins, fats, and carbs to make our cells, whether they’re in our brain or our muscles or our kidneys.
What is a nutrient dense food? It’s one that has a high micronutrient content relative to each calorie. Yup, that means vegetables and fruits and whole grains and beans and nuts and seeds. The best image to help you understand nutrient density is “the squish test”—possibly the favorite activity in teaching nutrition to kids.
The squish test works this way: take a loaf of that fluffy white sandwich bread (I’m not going to be sued like Oprah, so I won’t name it—you know the one) and a head of broccoli. Put your hands on either side of the loaf of bread and SQUEEZE. Go ahead, do it. How big is that loaf of bread when you’re done? It’s probably about the size of a softball (one kid told me it was the size of a baseball). Now do the same to the broccoli. It might squish a bit, but it probably bounces back—and it’s probably bigger than a softball.
Consider that the bread is about 100 calories per 2 slices, so with 20 slices in a loaf, we’re talking 1000 calories for about a cup (squished). Broccoli (squished, then chopped)? 31 calories per cup. Micronutrients in the bread? Negligible. In the broccoli? Plentiful. So you’re getting a lot more nutritional bang for your calories with broccoli.
But let’s take it one step further—the “soft-core” version of nutrition.
We don’t often consider food energetics—the more spiritual side of food—and I normally get strange looks when I tell people that cooking can be a form of spiritual practice—those are the people who avoid the kitchen if at all possible.
The roots of food energetics likely lie in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which considers that every food has a specific energy: leafy greens are expansive and uplifting, root vegetables are dense and contracting; some foods are drying, others create dampness; some create heat, others are cooling; etc.
In addition, we can increase or diminish or balance a food’s energy by our choice of cooking method—steaming and grilling quickly over high heat in hot weather, stewing slowly at a low temperature in cold.
And there’s more: we are spiritual/energetic beings. Have you ever walked into a room where two people have been having an argument? The tension is sometimes thick enough to cut with a knife! What about walking into a room where people are laughing? You can feel the lightness—it’s contagious.
Consider what energy, then, we infuse into everything we touch—especially our food. You probably taste a difference between Grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner and a fast food meal. I would argue that besides using better ingredients and cooking techniques, Grandma also infuses Vitamin L (love) into every dish.
Which meal do you think is healthier for you? On a spiritual level, even with all the excesses of Thanksgiving, food energetics would argue that Grandma’s cooking is better for you.
make the connection
Paying attention to your food—the physical and spiritual attributes of it—just one way in which we can boost the balance in our “energy account.” If you’re curious about your energy levels and how to increase them through food, mindfulness, and body-based activities, be sure to join me and the rest of the Foundations of Wellness for Women team for our next virtual retreat, which is all about boosting the balance in your energy account!