In the same way that touch and our other senses deliver information from the environment to the brain and nervous system, our sense of taste carries subtle impressions from the food we eat into our internal environment.
For thousands of years, eating was a sacred event. It was understood that the intention and energy put into preparing the food, as well as the way the food was eaten would emotionally charge the food, and that emotional charge—be it anger, jealousy, or joy—would become you.
Today’s science suggests that these subtle impressions are quite real and that eating with awareness, in a relaxed, conscious manner, can deliver some very special health benefits.
There is an old Vedic saying that goes, “If you eat standing up, death looks over your shoulder.” This saying is rooted in very simple science that has been ignored by our culture for decades.
There are two major nervous systems in the body that naturally kick on and off on autopilot. (1)
1. The fight-or-flight (sympathetic) nervous system, which engages when we are stressed out. When we eat while driving, standing up, on the go or in a rush, our digestive system quite literally shuts off. This is because the body is using all of its energy and awareness to address that stress. When the body is on high alert, it can’t relax and digest properly. (1,2)
2. However, when the body is relaxed, the rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) nervous system engages and supports every aspect of our digestive process. (1)
The research behind taking time to relax, dine, and to eat our food with attention and mindfulness is compelling.
Eating with awareness and slowing down to consciously savor the tastes and flavors of each meal has been linked to significant decreases in weight, binge eating, depression, negative feelings and perceived stress, to name a few. (3)
There is another old saying from the 1800s that goes, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” This translates to, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” (4)
This famous statement of the ages is now being supported by modern science—we really do become what we eat!
New studies suggest that what we taste influences our emotion signaling and brain activity (5) and that what we eat (6-11), feel, and think, as well as how we behave and how we are treated can epigenetically affect our gene expression. (12-17)
One groundbreaking study showed that when participants perceived a benevolent, kind, caring intention behind the way their food was prepared, the food was found to be more pleasurable in general. Food made in what was considered a kind, loving way was scientifically shown to taste better.
Interestingly, researchers also found that benevolently-intended shocks hurt less and benevolently-intended massages were found to feel even better than regular massages. Love and care really do make life better in general! (18)
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The microbes on the plants we eat (and in the soil the plants grow in) are influenced by stimuli in their environment based on behavior related to survival and emotions.
For instance, if a stressed grasshopper is scared of being preyed upon, that stress alters the grasshopper’s biochemistry, which then alters microbes in the soil once the grasshopper dies and decomposes, which alters the plant we eat that grew in that soil. (20-25)
And let’s not forget that the plants we eat are intricate life forms in and of themselves, and are very sensitive to their environments!
In one study, researchers found that plants responded to the sound of threatening vibrations (caused by caterpillars chewing on leaves) by releasing defensive volatile chemicals that repelled caterpillars from eating the plants. Interestingly, this reaction to the sound of caterpillars chewing was distinct from how the plants reacted to other sound vibrations such as silence, wind, or insect song. (26)
Not only this, but plants have also been shown to communicate with other plants to defend themselves against predators. (26-29)
And then, once when we eat those plants, the biochemical changes from the plants’ survival behaviors (and emotional charges, from an Ayurvedic standpoint) become part of our own biochemistry.
Further science has shown plants to be vibrationally sensitive (even to sound!) and capable of “learning” behaviors based on repeated stimuli from their environments. (30-32) Parasitic plants even have the ability to evaluate a potential prey’s nutritional value from a distance. (33-34)
The dynamisms and sensitivity of how plants interact with their environment illustrate how interwoven and reactive the circle of life really is. As we eat these plants, we receive intricate genetic information from them—so it is important to taste them!
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Ancient Ayurvedic principles have always suggested that food can be emotionally charged, influenced by every aspect of how it is grown, prepared, and consumed.
Every link of the food supply chain affects your food—including the emotions and microbes of the harvester who picks the food, the food handler who delivers it, the grocer who sells it to you, the cook who prepares it, the ambiance in which you eat the food (35), and even your own emotions as you eat it. All of these factors are recorded upon the millions of microbes that naturally live on the foods we eat.
It is traditionally said that it is best not to eat when you are angry, and that eating food cooked with love is nourishing, and even healing.
In Ayurveda, the word for taste is rasa. Rasa is also the same word used for emotion, as well as lymph, tissue formation, and ojas (our core vitality). The study of rasa (taste or lymph) is called rasayana or the study of longevity in Ayurveda. A variety of harmonious (sattvic) tastes are thought to also be correlated with rasayana or the health and vitality of our body, nourished emotions, and our longevity.
Interchanging so much epigenetic information at every meal we eat is a true testament to how profoundly interconnected we are with nature.
What science is just beginning to shed light on is that there are subtle workings in the body that we are only just beginning to understand, and that we are direct extensions of our environment. (37)
The subtle play between our microbiology and genes and the epigenetic effects on our genes from our environment may prove to be the future of medicine.
Fascinatingly, thousands of years ago, Ayurveda described an ideal lifestyle that is intimately connected to the earth’s natural circadian rhythms, supportive of our microbiology, and epigenetically designed to optimize the most positive human gene expressions. It all starts with eating and tasting our food with loving awareness.