Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Re-Visioning of Nutritional Health

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Could returning to our “food roots”—going back to a dietary lifestyle that nourished humankind physically, emotionally, spiritually, and socially—be the answer to turning the tide of today’s pandemic of diet-related chronic conditions?


– By Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz –


Even though nutritional science has made amazing discoveries about food, nutrition, health and healing—especially during the last few decades—the prevalence of diet-related chronic conditions continues to surge. From obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, to some cancers, ischemic stroke, metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis, and more, these chronic conditions have been skyrocketing for decades. Today, 133 million Americans (1 in 2 Americans) suffer from chronic conditions, and if trends continue, the number is projected to grow to about 157 million by 2020; to 171 million by 2030.1

Referring to medicine, Larry Dossey, MD, wrote, “We have stopped our investigation of healing well short of its potential.2 In the same way, is it possible we have limited the potential of nutritional science to live up to its potential by focusing on a singular scientific framework, a reductionist perspective that reduces food to functional fuel and nutrients for our body? Might a broader view, an integrative approach that addresses biological, psychological, spiritual, and social well-being, provide the foundation for nutritional science to live up to its potential as a powerful health and healing tool for preventing, managing, even reversing a plethora of diet-related chronic conditions?


EVOLUTION of Whole Person Integrative Eating: Moving Forward by Looking Back

The prevalence of obesity is daunting, with 68 percent of adults in the United States either overweight or obese,3 as are one-third of children and adolescents.4,5 Overweight and obesity significantly increase the risk of death from a range of chronic conditions—from diabetes and heart disease to metabolic syndrome, certain cancers, and hypertension. Indeed, for the first time in two centuries, due to the prevalence of chronic conditions, life expectancy in the United States is projected to decline.3,4 And 32 percent of infants are obese or at risk for obesity.6

Weight loss programs and diets, defined as “a prescribed, regimented way of eating,” are not an effective solution for maintaining weight loss for the long-term, because most people who lose weight tend to regain it. At the same time, a well-controlled study reveals pounds lost appear about equal across the popular diet approaches, ranging from a low-fat, high-complex-carbohydrate diet to a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet.7 Such results suggest that it does not seem to matter what diet overweight subjects follow and that overeating, overweight, and obesity, and other diet-related chronic conditions, will not be solved with a singular focus on what and how much to eat.

To explore a broader solution, the authors researched and studied cross-cultural food- and nutrition-related guidelines, beliefs, and rituals from both Western and Eastern nutrition and food systems and sciences for guidelines about optimal eating. This includes the following:

(1) Western nutritional science;

(2) major world religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism);

(3) cultural traditions (i.e., yogic nutrition, African American soul food, Native American beliefs, the Japanese Way of Tea, Chinese food folklore);

(4) Eastern healing systems that include food and nutrition guidelines (i.e., traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, Tibetan medicine, etc.).

Results from this research were published in the book Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul.8 Written by the first author of this paper, it includes more than 50 interviews with scientists, religionists, and spiritual experts.


PRINCIPLES: Integrative Eating

Merging ancient food wisdom with modern nutritional science provided the foundation for the authors to identify a broader, cross-cultural, integral approach to food and nutrition; an integrative eating model and program consisting of six perennial food and nutrition themes that recur so often, they can be considered universal guidelines: fresh food, positive feelings, mindfulness, gratitude, love, and socialzing.9

To make meaning of these themes, the authors realized that they encompass six specific principles —published in a second book called The Healing Secrets of Food—and that in turn, the principles comprise four facets of food. In other words, they provide guidelines for biological (what to eat for physical health), psychological (how food affects feelings), spiritual (the life-giving meaning in meals), and social (dining with others) nourishment.

Here’s how the six cohesive guidelines look from the perspective of the four facets:

1. Eat fresh whole foods in their natural state as often as possible.

2. Be aware of feelings and thoughts before, during, and after eating.

3. Bring moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness to every aspect of the meal.
4. Appreciate food and its origins—from the heart.
5. Create union with the Divine by “flavoring” food with love.

6. Unite with others through food.9-13

The four facets of food tell us what religions, cultural traditions, and Eastern healing systems discovered instinctively and intuitively and what modern researchers are beginning to conjecture: that food empowers us to heal multidimensionally. The authors use the term “whole person integrative eating” to describe the “four facet” way of eating, because the facets make connections between food and body, food and mind, food and soul, and food and social well-being.9 (See “Discover the 4 Facets of Food—and Their Power to Heal” and “Get Moving with Four-Facet Fitness”).


DEFINITION: Whole Person Integrative Eating

A re-visioning of optimal dietary care is emerging. It is a multi-factorial, whole person dietary lifestyle that addresses biological, psychological, spiritual, and social well-being; at the same time, it embraces evidence-based global nutrition guidelines and healing systems. Called whole person integrative eating, this cross-cultural model and program is a distillation of optimal food and eating principles gleaned from many disciplines, with a special focus on nutritional anthropology, medical anthropology, and nutritional science. It is a model developed as an outcome of research by the authors over the last two decades,8-13 and their more recent study, which links each element of whole person integrative eating, i.e., biological, psychological, spiritual, and social nutrition, to overeating, overweight, and obesity.14

Based on these findings, whole person integrative eating is defined as a holistic, integrative approach to food, eating, health and healing that addresses the power of food to heal multidimensionally. At its core, whole person integrative eating reaffirms an optimal therapeutic relationship between food and eating, and whole person health and healing.


Does Whole Person Nutrition Weigh In with Weight Loss?

To find out if there is a link between perennial food wisdom and weight, we partnered with Spirituality & Health magazine. In its cover story on the four facets and six guidelines, readers were invited to take our six-week, eighteen lesson e-course on the magazine’s website. Participants first completed a 76-item whole person nutrition survey and entered their height and weight. Of the 5,256 participants, throughout the e-course, those who increasingly ate according to the six perennial themes were the ones who lost the most weight.14

While the implications were enormous in relation to the question of how to lose weight,15,16 with another turn of our statistical kaleidoscope we realized that the food choices and eating behaviors elicited by our 76-item questionnaire could be clustered into seven styles of eating that predict overeating and weight gain. We call these “overeating styles”:14

  • Food Fretting (dieting and obsessing about the “best” way to eat)
  • Task Snacking (eating while doing other activities)
  • Emotional Eating (turning to food to self-medicate negative emotions)
  • Fast Foodism (consuming mostly denatured, processed food products)
  • Solo Dining (eating alone more often than not)
  • Unappetizing Atmosphere (eating in unpleasant psychological and aesthetic environments)
  • Sensory Disregard (eating without attention to flavors, aromas, presentation, etc.)

Clearly, all seven overeating styles strongly diverge from the six perennial principles that served as eating guidelines in the past. Psychologist and obesity expert Kelly D. Brownell of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, might explain our findings as “modern food conditions and their mismatch with evolution,”17 because the essence of our findings is that there is a huge disparity between what (food choices) and how (eating behaviors) we eat today and what and how human beings ate and evolved for millennia (see our Whole Person Nutrition Program for more about this).

As a society, we have systematically moved away from the time-tested, integrative modes of eating and living that kept us slimmer and healthier for centuries. The way we ate and lived for thousands of years worked. The “new normal,” the way we’ve been eating and living for the past few decades, doesn’t.

Such findings suggest that an integrative eating approach may provide a basis for comprehensive approaches to reduce overeating, overweight, and obesity based on the realization that overeating is not merely an isolated behavior. Rather, it is part of a web of related food choices, feelings, sensory experience, and social behaviors that reflect the original meaning of the word diet as a way of life. We may ultimately find that spirit and emotional connectedness is nourishing. When we are nourished this way, we may not need to compensate with overeating and satiety.


Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Re-visioning of Nutritional Health

Whole person integrative eating presents a broader scope of nutrition than the dominant biomedical nutrition model. Indeed, an editorial on the authors’ research described whole person integrative eating as “…a fresh perspective on our epidemic of overeating, overweight, and obesity…that, if replicated, could signal a paradigm shift in the field of nutrition.”18 Such insights are based on a growing recognition that reductionist, eating-by-number nutrition, while helpful for certain food-related health conditions, does not and can not effectively address the escalating epidemics of obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases.

The authors are positing that a comprehensive, whole person integrative eating approach has the potential to prevent, manage, or reverse many diet-related chronic conditions—while at the same time, it gives patients the dietary self-care tools they need to be proactive players in turning around a plethora of ailments through optimal dietary care and other lifestyle changes.19,20 In this way, it is a timely, efficient, and state-of-the-art intervention that provides optimum dietary care with evidence of safety and effectiveness as well as time- and science-tested procedures and strategies. At the same time, it informs and involves patients in optimal dietary self-management; relates and adapts to diverse populations; provides a proactive, coaching-based model for behavioral change based on patients’ cultural beliefs and food preferences; and integrates the biological, psychological, spiritual, and social facets of nutritional science.


  1. National Invisible Illness Awareness Week, “Statistics,” September 10-16, 2012, http://invisibleillnessweek.com/media-toolkit/statistics/ Accessed May 19, 2013.
  2. Larry Dossey, Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing New York: Harper Collins; 1999.
  3. Y.C. Yang, K. McPherson, T. Marsh et al, “Health and Economic Burden of the Projected Obesity Trends in the USA and the UK, The Lancet 378, no. 9793 (2011): 815-25
  4. C. Ogden, M. Carroll, L. Curtin et al., “Health and Economic Burden of the Projected Obesity Trends in the USA and the UK,” The Lancet 378, no. 9793 (2011): 815-25
  5. National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, with Special Features on Death and Dying. Hyattsville, MD; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011.
  6. B. Moss and W. Yeaton, “Young Children’s Weight Trajectories and Associated Risk Factors: Results from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth cohort,” American Journal of Health Promotion 25, no. 3 (2011): 190-8.
  7. M. L. Dansinger, J. A. Gleason, J. L. Griffith et al., “Comparison of the Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone Diets for Weight Loss and Heart Disease Risk Reduction: A Randomized Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 293, no. 1 (2005): 43–53; Daniel DeNoon, “4 Diets Face Off: Which Is the Winner? The Best Diet: The One You Stick With,” WebMd Medical News, January 4, 2005, www.webmd.com (accessed July 24, 2006).
  8. Deborah Kesten, Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul: Essentials of Eating for Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Well-Being (Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 1997; Amherst, MA: White River Press, 2007).
  9. Kesten D. The Healing Secrets Of Food. Novato, CA: New World Library; 2001.
  10. Kesten D. Ancient food wisdom meets modern science. Res News Opportunities Sci Theol. 2001;2:7
  11. Kesten D, Scherwitz LW. Holistic, satisfying meals key to optimal nutrition. Res News Opportunities Sci Theol. 2002 November; Vol. 3:3. 11. Kesten D. The enlightened diet: integrating biological, spiritual, social, and psychological nutrition. Spirituality Health. 2003;5:29-39. 12. Kesten D. The enlightened diet integrative eating e-course. New
  12. York: Spirituality & Health; December 16, 2002-January 24, 2003. 13. Kesten D. The meal meditation [CD and cassette]. New York: Spirituality & Health; 2002.
  13. Deborah Kesten, “The Enlightened Diet: Integrating Biological, Spiritual, Social, and Psychological Nutrition,” Spirituality & Health 4 (Winter 2003): 29–39.
  14. Larry Scherwitz and Deborah Kesten, “Seven Eating Styles Linked to Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 1, no. 5 (2005): 342–59.
  15. The implications of our study are enormous, because not only did we discover seven new overeating styles strongly linked with being overweight and obese, we learned that those who made the most changes in the overeating styles during the study lost the most weight. In other words, the more people improved across all seven overeating styles over the eighteen-week e-course, the more likely they were to lose weight. Perhaps even more inspirational is the realization that they were able to make dramatic changes in their overeating styles on their own.
  16. Another contribution of the overeating styles is that they offer a “whole person” perspective on why so many of us gain weight and struggle with taking and keeping it off. They provide us with direction for overcoming the various reasons we overeat in order to make weight loss last. For weight-loss success, identify your problem eating style and then remedy the key problem behavior that is the root cause of your weight gain.
  17. Kelly Brownell, Open Yale Courses, Psyc 123: The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food, Lecture 2, “Food Then, Food Now: Modern Food Conditions and Their Mismatch with Evoluton.” www.oyc.yale.edu/psychology/psyc-123 (accessed March 8, 2012).
  18. Riley, D. “Integrative Nutrition: Food’s Multidimensional Power to Heal,” Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 1, no. 5 (2005): 340–41.
  19. D. Ornish, L. W. Scherwitz, R. S. Doody et al.,”Effects of Stress Management Training and Dietary Changes in Treating Ischemic Heart Disease,” Journal of the American Medical Association 249, no. 1 (1983): 54–9.
  20. L. Scherwitz, D. Kesten, O. Brusis et al., “Are Comprehensive Lifestyle Changes Possible in German Heart Patients?” Pilot study findings. Progression and Regression of Atherosclerosis, W. Koenig, V. Hombach, M. Bond, D. Kramsch, editors (Vienna: Blackwell-MZV, 1995).


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What’s Keeping You From Losing Weight? Self-Assessment Quiz
A New Recipe for Weight Loss Success: Meet the Overeating Styles
Step #1: Lose Weight Without Dieting
Step #2: Overcoming Emotional Eating
Step #3: Eat Fresh, Weigh Less
Step #4: The Weight Loss Power of Mindfulness
Step #5: Nourish Your Senses, Lose Weight
Step #6: Eat with Others, Eat Less
Step #7: Stress More, Eat More

Next post:
Think outside the diet to make weight loss last with “THE WEIGHT LOSS SECRET OF SCENT” posted on our NewView blog.

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