What about the role of diet?
Diet, like everything else that we absorb in our consciousness, has a role, however small. We can give to ‘food’ a more general and universal sense, as defined in the ancient Sanskrit word, ahara, which includes all that we take or absorb inside, not only food, but all sensory and other inputs. So we absorb not only calories (which is one form of material-vital energy) but also and more importantly, consciousness. Thus, the effect of what we eat depends not only on its material composition but also on the consciousness inherent in the food. This fact alone makes vegetarian food better than non-vegetarian, as plants, herbs, flowers, roots, fruits, etc. have primarily a physico-vital element that nourishes corresponding parts in us whereas from the animal world, there is an additional element of lower vital energies that intrude, such as fear, rage, ferocity, sexual aggression etc. We absorb these things too. For this reason, non-vegetarian food may be good for the rajasic warring class, while a vegetarian diet is more suitable for the sattwic seeker.
While certain kinds of sickness such as deficiencies and extreme weakness or depleted states may warrant a somewhat rajasic diet, the consensus is that most illnesses respond much better to a sattwic intake. In fact, there is an increasing recognition that a high fibre vegetarian diet is not only preventive but also curative of a number of maladies.
In addition, other aspects like the consciousness of the one who prepares the food can enter into the dynamics as well. For example, compare the effects of home-cooking to those of a commercial establishment. The consciousness of the recipient and the atmosphere in which he eats are also important aspects that are often overlooked. Or compare the effects when food is eaten hurriedly or restlessly, while watching a melodrama or a horror show, or in a state of anger or under extreme pressure etc.
Thus, we see that food is not just about chemical composition and calories. Even here, it is best to avoid food fads and extreme diets. Therefore, perhaps the best advice to give on this matter is to eat in moderation, without greed, at regular times, a tastefully balanced diet with all the essential nutrients prepared hygienically and above all, to offer it to God and receive it as prasada. This would be the best diet.
Aren’t there specific matters to take into account, like vitamins, cholesterol, etc.?
These specifics are present but they should not be over-emphasised. Most average eaters would not suffer from vitamin deficiency unless they were grossly deprived due to economic reasons or else had food fads and resorted to extreme diets. Again, cholesterol, like everything else, requires balance. It is better to get back to the golden mean principle, that is, avoid excesses on either side – greedy indulgence and willful deprivation through prolonged or frequent fasting and extreme diets, which are more an obsession than a healthy practice. Practice moderation in your lifestyle and above all, don’t ‘think’ too much about food, including ways of depriving oneself of it. Of all things, fear is the most harmful, as thinking too much about ways of avoiding illness can become counter-productive for it implies a constant remembrance and subconscious dread of it!
Sometimes we overemphasize one aspect to the detriment of others which are equally, if not more, important. At other times we take up one aspect of the same thing while unable to look at the total picture. Also, we may create contradictory wills within us when we take too much care about certain aspects. For instance, when we give too much importance to our health, by the very fact of this personal emphasis on our physical body and its survival, we may become like small and closed containers. Over time, there may come some kind of fear if we do not follow the prescribed routine of diet etc. Even, by an overemphasis on personal effort we may miss out on the great trust in life itself and the Grace that looks after everyone and natural spontaneous rhythms that adjust us constantly with the cosmos. We must not forget that scientific knowledge as indeed all mental knowledge is constantly changing and what is declared as good today is found to be harmful tomorrow. Scientific knowledge has its benefits but even the highest scientific knowledge cannot come even a little close to the Wisdom that built the world and the Power that governs it.