When I made the decision to go to nutrition school, I was embarking on a natural next step in what had been a growing area of interest and passion since my teenage years. I had been reading the likes of Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Christiane Northrup since I was 16 and already fully embraced the holistic health model, which is why I picked the school I attended – they proudly taught “holistic nutrition,” a relatively new concept back then. The word “holistic” still raised eyebrows, as if it meant something subversive and odd, so I was thrilled to find a school stepping outside of traditional nutritional models that touted the superiority of low-fat diets and artificial (chemical) sweeteners without question. Within our “holistic nutrition” education we learned dozens of different dietary theories and the idea that there is no one right diet for everyone (which I firmly believe).
We also learned about Primary Food.
I had never heard of Primary Food, and I’m guessing you haven’t either. Let me explain: We learned that most of what we consider “nutrition” today – vegetables, meats, grains, fruits, beans, nuts, dairy – is really just a secondary source of energy; therefore, we started calling these things “secondary foods.” Don’t get me wrong, food is absolutely a key part of nutrition, but it is easy to place too much emphasis on eating “healthy” foods and then neglect other areas of our lives that need attention. Holistic, or “integrative,” nutrition extends way beyond the realm of food groups, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals to this critical concept we learned in school called “Primary Food.”
“Primary Food” includes vital components of our lives that give us energy and nourishment and contribute to health and vitality. Primary Food doesn’t come on a plate and it is not something we eat, yet primary food feeds us on a very deep, meaningful level and contributes to our overall health in countless, immeasurable ways.
For example, think back to a time when you were newly and passionately in love. Everything was exciting. You felt giddy and energized all day, even if you hadn’t slept much the night before. Thinking about your new relationship and looking forward to seeing your new love again was exhilarating. In fact, you probably forgot about food at times or needed less food at a given meal, yet you felt high on life. Quality relationships are one form of Primary Food.
Or remember a time when you were deeply involved in an exciting project. You believed in what you were doing and felt confident and stimulated. You felt focused, purposeful, and engaged in your mission. You didn’t need to eat. You were shocked when you looked at the clock and realized you had missed lunch. One’s work, service, or purpose in the world is another form of Primary Food.
Consider children who are completely engaged and lost in playing outside with friends. Imagine it is dinnertime, and mom yells out the window, “Time to come in and eat!” If her kids respond at all, they’ll probably respond with something like, “No mom, I’m not hungry! I want to keep playing!” Of course she’ll insist and eventually round everyone up and prod her kids to eat even though they’re probably not particularly interested in food. They’ll gobble down the minimum acceptable amount and rush out to play again. At the end of the day, they come inside, exhausted, and fall asleep without thinking about food at all.
Children live on primary food. The fun, excitement, and love of their lives are what really feeds them, and nutrition from food is secondary.
On the other hand, think of a time you were depressed, bored, or your self-esteem was low; you were starving for primary food. No amount of secondary food would do. You ate as much as you wanted and kept looking around for something else, but you never felt satisfied.
Even on relatively good days, we often come home at night and look into the refrigerator for something to eat, when all we really want is a hug, some time to fully relax, or someone who will listen deeply to us.
Primary foods include things like a spiritual practice you feel connected to, a career or purpose in life that inspires you, physical activity that energizes you and makes you want to move, sleep that restores you, and honest and open relationships that feed your soul and your hunger for living and encourage you to be your best self.
It is my opinion that the more primary food we receive, the less will be our dependence on secondary foods. The opposite is also true. The more we fill ourselves with and hide behind secondary foods, the less we’re open to and able to receive the primary foods of life.
Perhaps this why every spiritual tradition encourages people to fast – to have times during the year where we reduce our intake of secondary foods so that we are more able to be present to the primary foods in our lives.
I encourage you to take 15-20 minutes to explore your primary foods. Thoughtfully consider what you are doing to foster health in each of the Primary Foods I listed above. Then consider your challenges, obstacles, or questions in each area. Record your answers. I’ve found that Primary Food plays an enormous role in one’s journey to health, no matter what your current health concerns are.