The world of nutrition and healthy eating sometimes resembles more of a minefield than a fertile pasture. Between contradictory studies, polarized opinions and constantly revised (and occasionally interchangeable) lists of “good foods” and “bad foods,” successfully navigating the perils of the modern Western diet can be a challenge.
Yet according to Cynthia Lair, who teaches Whole Foods Production at Bastyr University and co-hosts the web program Cookus Interruptus, the key ingredient is simple: understanding that how we think,
whether we’re choosing, preparing or consuming food, affects every aspect of our relationship with it, no matter if it’s organic, locally grown vegetables or a bag of potato chips. The mind may be the most powerful tool that we have in determining the nutritional value of what we eat, not only in terms of being conscious about what we buy but also in our attitude towards it, every step of the way.
Such advice may seem surprising coming from a nutritionist, but Lair has spent years developing her own ethos, one that transcends the latest fads and food wars. It comes down to an expanded awareness that is ultimately empowering, because it reveals the ability we all have to impact our food and thereby, our health. “That concept is the underlying reason behind everything that I do,” says Lair. Her two books, Feeding the Whole Family and Feeding the Young Athlete provide recipes for family meals that are fast, healthy, tasty, and appealing to children. She spoke with SuperConsciousness Magazine about cooking, gratitude and the benefits of loving your culinary creations, no matter how long they take to stir.
SC: How do you find that your students at Bastyr approach the art of cooking and food preparation?
CL: Bastyr attracts very bright people who are into food and very curious. It also tends to attract people who are interested in healing themselves through food and people who are using restriction and controlled diet as a means to get healthy.
SC: Sometimes you encounter an attitude that reduces food to the sum of its parts – it’s just the chemicals and the proteins. How do you see it?
CL: The students have to learn this mechanistic approach to food in order to get a Bachelor’s or Masters’ degree in nutrition. So, that’s taught to them many times, over and over. When they come to the whole foods production class, I’m trying as much as possible to come at food from a completely different angle. Let’s look at whether it’s whole according to nature, not according to a textbook, and whether it has all of the macronutrients and micronutrients.
What’s the energy of the food like? What are its energetic properties? For example, we might talk about how root vegetables are in the earth and send shoots deep down. The students are very responsive to talking about the energetic system because they’re not getting that in some of their more mechanistic classes.
In general, all of us who teach cooking at Bastyr work with the students to use smell and taste and sensation more than measurement and timers. That really brings in the art. SC: How do you see the relationship between the attitude or intention of the person preparing food and the eventual end product?
CL: On the front of their recipe packet every week, there’s a cooking technique. One week, I wrote that their cooking technique was love. I always use polenta because it requires so much patience and it’s sort of like meditation. I tell them that cooking can be a chore; that while you’re cooking you can be thinking, “This is such a waste of time. I hate this. Why is Cynthia making us do this? I have a test I need to be studying for.” You can do that.
I tell them that if they choose to be in the present moment and bring up thoughts of gratitude about the outcome, that the finished product will be better tasting.
Or, as you are cooking, stay in the present, look at those grains of polenta. They’re bright yellow, they’re so beautiful, and watch them as they transform, and think about things like, “Isn’t that a beautiful food? Isn’t it amazing that the earth gave us this food?” I tell them that if they choose to be in the present moment and bring up thoughts of gratitude about the outcome, that the finished product will be better tasting.
It’s amazing, then, to walk around the kitchen and watch them stirring and smiling. They actually just loved it. It makes them very happy. It would be so easy for them to have to stir something for thirty minutes solid and be really angry or pouty. It’s probably one of my favorite classes because they respond so positively to it.
SC: Did you notice a difference based on attitude or did you find that your students were all pretty into the idea?
CL: I think they are very responsive. I’ve done this for many years, and I’ve noticed that once in a while there will be a student and this hits such a note for them. I’ll watch them as they’re stirring and they’re practically beaming. Somehow they’ve gotten it. And their polenta is extraordinary. It’s so good.
I would challenge anyone, when they’re cooking at home, to notice when they’re approaching the task as an undesired chore, how the food turns out, compared to an evening when they come in relaxed, kind of excited about the food they’re going to make, take their time and focus on how the food comes out.
I would challenge anyone, when they’re cooking at home, to notice when they’re approaching the task as an undesired chore, compared to an evening when they come in relaxed, kind of excited about the food they’re going to make, take their time and focus on how the food comes out.
SC: How do you see this connection between our thoughts and the food we’re preparing in terms of fast food restaurants? Not only do we have the food itself, which is of whatever nutritional value, but also we have a lot of people working in these jobs where they don’t necessarily want to be. How do you see that potential impact?
CL: I think it’s clear. The health of the country is all you need to say when you look at the source of most people’s food. It starts way, way back. If you’re eating fast food, you’re starting with unhappy, prison camp cows that are ill from being fed corn. You’re talking about torturing animals in order to get the amount of product that we need to supply our fast food chains; that all comes through. Yes, you can actually trace the antibiotics, and you can’t trace the fact that these are miserable animals, but it all comes through. So the misery of the animals, the misery of the location of the restaurants, the misery of the workers – all of that ends up being our miserable meal. And that’s so sad.
SC: I suppose the additional factor is whatever state of mind you’re in when you’re eating it.
CL: Exactly. There was a book called The Slow Down Diet by Mark David. He talks about giving a client a prescription that he could continue to go to the fast food chains and pick up a burger and eat it, but he wanted him to put the car in park. Two months later when they met again, the guy said that when he actually tasted it, he realized that it didn’t taste very good.
SC: So that has to do with awareness.
CL: That awareness is also part of our weight issue in this country, because when you don’t actually register in your mind that you’re eating, when you just shove something in there to stop the feeling of hunger, your body doesn’t really recognize that you’ve eaten. You’re not as satisfied, so you’re going to eat some more. On a metabolic level, you won’t uptake the nutrients.
SC: Because the signals aren’t getting through?
CL: Yes, and so you will once again overeat. I think a lot of the overeating that we’re doing comes from lack of consciousness – lack of consciousness about where our food comes from, how it was handled by the time we got it, lack of consciousness in making a choice about what we eat, and a lack of consciousness while we are actually eating. These things play into our health.
SC: Backing up for a moment, do you think that part of the delight your students experience with the polenta is because it’s empowering to realize that how you think is affecting the food you’re making?
In a given circumstance, a potato chip can be a marvelous food. I try to get them to get out of that good/bad thinking, and look at food as something interesting to appreciate.
CL: I think that makes people feel very good. I think that’s enlightenment. That’s the thing that makes me the happiest about teaching what I teach, because it’s the point. The enlightenment is not, “I have to change the way I think.” The enlightenment is, “Oh. Look at how I think.” That’s everything. If we understand how our minds work, and can watch the mind, that’s freedom.
SC: You mentioned that some of your students are focused on healing through food. Part of what we’re talking about here is that obviously food has nutritional value and at the same time, how we think impacts the food. It seems that they haven’t fully grasped the power of their own thinking in terms of empowering food or empowering health. How do you see that relationship?
There’s a lot of impact, nutritionally even, in blessing your food.
CL: One thing that I will say to them is that [quote]in a given circumstance, a potato chip can be a marvelous food. I try to get them to get out of that good/bad thinking, and look at food as something interesting to appreciate. [quote]I was on a boat once and I was really seasick. I hadn’t had enough breakfast. I finally asked if there was something I could have and they handed me this little bag of potato chips. It saved my life. The salt was perfect. So I think there’s a lot of impact, nutritionally even, in blessing your food. Just in that moment, bless your food. I will sometimes say that you want to have on your table food that’s worthy of blessing. That, sometimes, will open a window for someone.
SC: A hesitation for a lot of people related to a blessing can be the affiliation with religious tradition, but I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about.
CL: I’m talking about gratitude, about consciousness and gratitude. I’m not asking anyone to change, I’m just asking them to be aware of what they’re doing. SC: The ideal scenario would be that we’re very conscious of our food and where it came from, but like in the case of the potato chip, regardless of what the food is, do you still see a value in blessing your food?
CL: Yes. I think if the best I can do tonight at dinner at my house is get take out Chinese, then at least I’m going to set the table and sit down. My child is off far away now, and my husband and I still take each other’s hand and say something that we’re grateful for. That’s not religion. It’s intention.
How has your thinking around food changed over time?