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Issue 8-03

Western Diseases

Last year I became a Michael Pollan groupie. Pollan is a longtime contributor to New York Times Magazine and has written The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I’ve read, and The Botany of Desire, which I haven’t read — both books have been New York Times bestsellers.

In the book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto the journalist “shows us how, despite the daunting dietary landscape Americans confront in the modern super-market, we can escape the Western diet and, by doing so, most of the chronic diseases that diet causes”(back-cover copy).

Polland’s journalism is superior — rational, fact-based, often humorous, but also filled with self-reflection — an approach I enjoy. What struck me in this last book is that he links the rise of “Western diseases” to the fact that Americans (and unfortunately more and more of the world) are eating “Western foods.” To quote:

“All of the uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains; the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn and soy.”

He documents these facts:
•  Four of the top ten causes of death today are chronic diseases with well-established links to diet: coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.
•  These diseases remain rare in places where people don’t eat the way we do.
•  When people in other places in the world give up their traditional way of eating and adopt the Western diet, there soon follows a predictable series of Western diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.
•  When populations stop eating the Western diet, they stop suffering from the Western diseases.

It occurs to me that a disturbing corollary exists between our physical Western distresses and our American spiritual ennui. Not only are we eating the wrong foods here in the West (Pollan recommends that we only buy from the edges of supermarkets and avoid the processed foods stocking the shelves in the center of food stores), because of our Western lifestyle habits, we are badly nourished spiritually.

Hungry Souls began eight years ago to attempt to feed those who were spiritually starving — despite being surrounded by all the religious books one would care to buy and readily supplied by a whole religious print and media industry that packages and produces and markets a kind of substitute, reductionist, manufactured low-fat spirituality.

For a visual illustration of this, think of the space travelers in the film WALL-E. So overfed — so force-fed, actually — their muscles could no longer propel their bodies. Instead, mechanized lounge chairs whipped them through their passive days. Rather a frightening prophecy, actually, of what our spiritually overfed American Christianity is in danger of looking like.

We need to find the spiritual equivalents to Michael Pollan’s challenge: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That is what I will be attempting to do in the next Soulish Foods — explore some of the causes of our Western spiritual diseases. I would welcome feedback from you, my friends and readers! Brainstorm this with me, PLEASE, as I go along: What is wrong with the American spiritual diet? With so much instruction available to us, why are we languishing spiritually? What do you think?

Pollan ends his remarkable treatise In Defense of Food with some rules for eating. To tempt you to pick up this writer’s work, I’ll just list a few below. You can discover what he means by reading the book yourself. (I challenge you to keep up with me in this reading program. I’m 66 and certainly heading over the hill intellectually!)

•  DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT-GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. (Or, don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.)



•  YOU ARE WHAT WHAT YOU EAT EATS TOO. (Think about it.)

There are more! — but enough. Buy, borrow or check out the book for yourself.

Karen Mains

3-Day Silence Leader Training

Hungry Souls regularly receives inquiries as to our “schedule” of silent retreats. The truth is: We have no regularly scheduled retreats except the yearly 24-Hour Advent Retreat of Silence held in December. Frankly, our team cannot keep up with the demand.

We would like to remedy this by offering a regular silent-retreat schedule for small groups led throughout the year by skilled retreat directors.

So we are planning an extended brainstorm and planning session (yes, we will observe silence, but not, as our liturgical friends say, “the Grand Silence”) at St. Mary’s Monastery in Rock Island, IL. This is the Benedictine community of sisters who have so graciously welcomed us for the last two years for our 3-day retreats.

We have reserved room for eight women. The cost is $150, which covers a shared room with private bath and meals. The dates are Sunday April 19, starting at 5:00 P.M. through Wednesday April 22 and ending with the noon meal. This will be a working retreat with hours of designated silence. Our goal is to share our areas of expertise, develop exercises in silence, and design a template for leaders that can be used for a “schedule” of silent retreats.

If you are a practiced retreat leader, or if you feel called to be one, we welcome your presence. Contact us as soon as possible at . (If we have more than eight participants, we can possibly book more rooms.)


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Karen Mains

Karen Mains

"It occurs to me that a disturbing corollary exists between our physical Western distresses and our American spiritual ennui. Not only are we eating the wrong foods here in the West, because of our Western lifestyle habits, we are badly nourished spiritually."

Recommended Reading

In Defense of Food:
An Eater's Manifesto

By Michael Pollan

Praise for Pollan's book
from reviewers

"In just 200 pages (and 22 pages of notes and sources), In Defense of Food gives you a guided tour of 20th-century food science, a history of 'nutritionism' in America and a snapshot of the marriage of government and the food industry. And then it steps up to the reason most readers will buy it -- and if you care for your health and the health of your loved ones, this is a no-brainer one-click -- and presents a commonsense shopping-and-eating guide."

"Food is the one thing that Americans hate to love and, as it turns out, love to hate. What we want to eat has been ousted by the notion of what we should eat, and it's at this nexus of hunger and hang-up that Michael Pollan poses his most salient question: Where is the food in our food? What follows in In Defense of Food is a series of wonderfully clear and thoughtful answers that help us omnivores navigate the nutritional minefield that's come to typify our food culture."

Review from Nora Ephron,
The New York Times

"I have tried on countless occasions to convey to my friends how incredible this book is. I have gone on endlessly about Pollan's brilliance in finding a way to write about food -- but it's not really food, it's about everything. ... Well, the point is, I have tried and failed to explain it, so I just end up giving them a copy, and sooner or later they call to say, 'You were right, it's fantastic.'"

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