This article was written by Brian Cooper for the 4th issue of Amrita Magazine.
‘‘And he knew that food was Brahman. From food all beings are born. By food they live and into food they return” – Upanishad 3.2
On my first trip to India in the early 70s, I spent 6 months in an ashram in Rishikesh. In those days ashrams were a great place to stay very cheaply. This particular ashram cost 2 Rupees per night and included one meal a day. It was also a very serious ashram with no frills, and at the time I was one of only 2 non-Indians staying there. Meditation was at 4am and lasted one hour. In this time one change of position was allowed-any further movement meant instant dismissal from the ashram. It is a very effective way to learn to sit still, and within a week I was able to comfortably fall asleep for the entire duration, like almost everyone else in the meditation hall. Most of my time was spent reading in the vast and magnificently equipped library. Needless to say, the single meal each day took on an almost religious significance. The meal was eaten a little before midday in sync with the sun reaching its highest point. This is considered to be when the digestive fire is at its height and therefore the best (and only) time to eat. This certainly was borne out by the speed at which the guests ate, and before I had finished my first mouthful they had each eaten two bowls of dahl, a bowl of vegetables, and 4 chapattis. I had a huge appetite and needed to make sure that I ate enough to last me till next lunchtime. I also wanted to make lunch last as long as possible. My average lunch consisted of 4 or 5 bowls of dahl, one bowl of vegetables (all that was allowed) and 7 or 8 chapattis. I eventually suffered from severe indigestion, and had to revise my eating habits. I cut down to what the others were eating but then found I was getting hungry by evening. So I started walking down to the bazaar where I would buy ingredients for an extra meal smuggled into and eaten secretively in my room. I decided to start eating raw garlic just in case I suffered from some sort of infection, and also had a great longing for simple un-spiced scrambled eggs. I improvised a form of bain marie which made pretty good scrambled eggs. The next day was an eventful one. I sat down as usual at the back of the large meditation hall. The man leading the meditation sat way at the front on a raised seat. Everyone had taken their place, silence descended. Suddenly a voice filled with outrage boomed out ‘who has been eating garlic!!’ The leader repeated this 3 times and each time I shrunk further into the blanket I used to cover my head and body and tried to hold my breath. He gave up, still fuming, and the meditation started. Garlic is considered ‘rajasic’ along with all the onion family, and stirs the passions, something not desired in an ashram or in yoga in general. During the meditation I had a sort of waking dream: I saw clearly inside my room just as if I were really there; I also saw that the floor and the bed and the table were covered in huge black ants. Bigger, far bigger, than anything I had ever seen in real life. And so, when I went back to my room in real life I was not overly surprised to see the place swarming with gigantic black ants. When I approached the ‘management’ to ask for a brush to sweep away the ants all he said was ‘this is what happens if you are eating eggs.’ Eggs are also forbidden in yoga as you are potentially killing a life, although most eggs eaten are unfertilised and would never hatch anyway. Yogis believe that food is the creator of prana, and the best diet is a sattvic one, which avoids any foods that involve killing or harming animals. In addition, the foods we eat should be prepared with love and positive intention. By eating a yogic diet we are increasing prana, and encouraging a higher state of consciousness.
I never dared transgress again and settled down to my one meal a day. About once a week we were treated to sweet rice. And this basically forms the yogic diet: lentils or other pulses, vegetables cooked in a little ghee and lightly spiced (no chillies), grains, milk or curds, and jaggery (palm sugar). Of course, this varies with location, with far more rice eaten in the south than in the north of India. I have told this story because recently I have noticed a trend in high protein foods; perhaps because of the growing popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets, and the sneaking suspicion that they may not be supplying enough protein. Protein is often marketed as a power food, with the overall message ‘the more the better’.
In ‘developed countries’ the average citizen consumes anywhere from three to five times more protein than they need for optimal health. So the problem is that we are getting too much protein rather than too little.
I am not talking specifically about protein from meat, but from any source. The World Health Organisation’s daily recommended protein intake is between 40 to 70 grams per day. Rarely does a person need more protein than this, the exception being for those with very physical occupations and pregnant women, who should have about 25% more. More protein than your body needs can interfere with your health in a number of ways, including weight gain, extra body fat, stress on your kidneys, dehydration and leaching of important bone minerals. Excessive protein can have a stimulating effect on an important biochemical pathway called the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR). This pathway has an important and significant role in many cancers. When you reduce protein to just what your body needs, mTOR remains inhibited, which helps minimize your chances of cancer growth.
‘So the problem is that we are getting too much protein rather than too little’.
So was I getting enough protein or too much protein from my ashram diet? Obviously that depends on how much I ate, but eating enough to avoid indigestion is a rough guideline. Let’s start with meat as a comparison. A six ounce serving of chicken will provide approximately 40 grams of protein. If this is eaten with vegetables and bread or potatoes then the daily requirement is easily met. In comparison, a six ounce serving of lentils provides approximately 16 grams of protein. Wheat flour (high gluten content) contains about 10 grams of protein in 3 ounces. Eaten with a bowl of vegetables cooked in ghee and some curds, the total protein value can easily approach 40 grams. These figures are not exact, but show that even a modest ‘Indian meal’ will provide sufficient protein. Most of us eat way more than this, even if we don’t eat meat, so be wary of protein supplements and high protein foods, you may be getting more than you bargained for.