Eating organic, dining at farm-to-table restaurants, drinking coffee made from shade-grown beans (freely traded), farmers markets, shopping at Whole Foods or other organic grocery stores – organic’s all the rage. Many factors have contributed to this popular support for whole food (as opposed to the hormone injected and chemically altered variety). Recall the documentaries in the early aughts exposing the darker side of the food industry: “Super Size Me,” “Fast Food Nation,” and “Food, Inc.” I’ll never forget the weird pink mystery meat paste portrayed in “Food, Inc.” that apparently makes up Chicken McNuggets. Yuckers. There are also thinkers like Wendell Berry that have offered good arguments why eating organic and supporting local growers (even becoming one) are good for individuals and communities. But how and why is eating more natural food, as opposed to the more processed variety, good for a person?
Certainly eating healthy is good for a person’s physical health, but there’s a certain trend in the natural food subculture that attributes more than physical health to organic food. According to this trend, good food also helps the soul, and the path to total human wellness must involve a natural food diet. Most Holistic Nutritionists (a type of wellness specialist) would think this way. Check out these names of some popular cookbooks that accord with this worldview: Earthly and Divine: Whole Recipes for a Healthy World, Enlightened Eating: Nourishment for Body and Soul, Supernatural Cooking, The Sacred Kitchen: Higher Consciousness Cooking for Health and Wellness. According to the authors of these books, there is a link between the health of our food and of our soul.
One way to begin answering this question of why eating organic food is good for the human person is by asking what is best for a person in general – that is, what leads to human flourishing? Proponents of the virtue tradition would reply that happiness is achieved through a virtuous life. The virtuous man is disposed to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right amount, for the right end. This is a good start. In light of revelation Catholic Christians add to this answer the grace received from God, particularly through the sacraments. For we know by experience that this world, even in its happiest moments, is tinged with sorrow. We desire happiness to the full, but never seem to attain it. Yet that incompleteness does not squelch our desire. Through revelation we know that this complete happiness consists in beatitude, the vision of God. Our Source is our End. And the divine life offered through the free grace of Christ is how we can begin living a life with God on earth so that we can be eternally happy with him in Heaven. So real-quick-like, that’s the typical Catholic proposal for what is best for man.
So where does food fit in? It’s certainly part of flourishing: no food, no life. Simple enough. Moreover we are to be virtuous stewards of our bodies and our environment. We should eat and grow/hunt food responsibly. In order to be virtuous we must also practice temperance, that virtue which governs our consumption of foodstuffs. The temperate eater consumes the right kind of food, the right amount, at the right time, for the right end. An extreme example of intemperance which can lead to health problems is the guy in “Super Size Me” who eats Mickey Dee’s for a month. Not a good idea. Another obvious example is an alcoholic. If one consumes an inordinate amount of alcohol he may actually become enslaved to the substance, which will have deleterious effects not only on his health, but on the rest of his life: job, relationships, finances, etc.
However, there’s a danger in overemphasizing the effects of an organic diet if it neglects the spiritual component to total human well being. Such an overemphasis can crowd out the true source of spiritual health, namely, grace. And grace comes from Christ. The holistic worldview mentioned above has the right intuition – that humans are psychosomatic. The state of the body impacts the soul and vice versa. But the ultimate source of psychosomatic health is grace, especially the grace that comes by way of the sacraments. And this grace is ultimately important because it leads to complete human flourishing. This grace doesn’t exclude a good healthy diet, but it must take priority. Grace is essential. Organic food isn’t.
There are many great elements to the popular organic movement. Often supporters of this movement champion eating home-cooked meals around a table with one’s family. Additionally, the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity frequently plays out in how this movement encourages interaction between small farms and local restaurants and markets. And there are no doubt health benefits to eating well. But we must make the distinction between natural and supernatural food. One of the books listed above is entitled Sacred Kitchen. Pardon the obvious (and yes, cheesy) metaphor, but there already is a sacred kitchen. There is a place where our souls and bodies can be fed with supersubstantial food. That is the altar of Christ where he feeds us with the Eucharist. This is truly whole food. It heals and elevates our nature. As Catholics we can really have it all – good organic food and supernatural food. By eating well we are being virtuous stewards of our health. And by receiving the grace offered in the sacraments we begin the divine life that will lead to ultimate wellness in the next.
Image: Vincent Van Gogh, Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon