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Nutrition and the Evolution of Human Consciousness

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Rudolf Steiner, lecturing on the subject of nutrition noted that “behind everything material is spirit. Thus, behind all the matter we take in through our nutrition, there is also spirit…By means of nourishing ourselves with this or that, we enter into a relation with something spiritual, with a substrate which is behind the material…” Sure, we can look at the food we eat, and classify it in certain ways. We can choose to nourish ourselves from the plant kingdom or from the animal world. We can strive for the perfect dietary balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. We can make an effort to support farmers who refuse to use harsh chemicals in their processes, or we can succumb to fast food and genetically modified corn. No matter the substance we put in our bodies, we must not overlook the fact that food indeed affects us on a level which is beyond that of simply the material. In terms of the route that modern nutritional science has taken, this approach sheds an entirely new light on what it means to nourish ourselves.

Of course a most integral piece of nutrition is digestion. It is this process that brings food in its recognizable form into the body, subsequently transforming it to something entirely different. Biochemistry has its explanations for how nutrients are assimilated, broken down, and rebuilt during our bodies’ metabolic processes. Anthroposophy, while taking into account the material aspect of the transformation, expands upon these notions in saying that “digestion is thus a spiritualizing of matter and a stimulating of the forces of personality to the creation of new human substance” (Hauschka, 15). This process entails the application of man’s ego, or the “I”, implying a particular self-awareness. The ego, as it is responsible for the transformation of material nutrients into both the body-building protein unique to humans as well as the spiritual substance existing within us, can be likened to the force of the sun, simply within the microcosm of man. Just as the sun works to bring cosmic energy down to earth, resulting in the sprouting, growth, and blossoming of plants, so do the personality forces, and therefore digestion as it is defined here, work to build us up, and allow us to blossom in a certain way.

A look at human history and the primary food sources during particular periods of time can help to illustrate this relationship between ego and digestion. Undeniable shifts in human consciousness have transpired over the course of history. Interestingly, a corresponding evolution in terms of the types of substances man has turned to for nourishment has taken place.

Let us take fresh, raw, unprocessed milk, which is both the oldest source of nourishment for humans, as well as the food most easily assimilated by our bodies. This profound relationship between humans and milk can be traced to the primordial “cosmic milk” that, according to anthroposophical spiritual science, once saturated the planet at a time when the moon and the earth together constituted a single cosmic entity. This protein-rich milky atmosphere, traces of which can be seen today as atmospheric nitrogen, nourished all beings on the planet: plants, animals, and humans. As the moon and the earth parted ways, organs of lactation evolved within animals and humans, giving rise to the ability to create milk as part of the reproductive process. The connection between milk and moon was not lost however, for we can see it today in the relationship between lunar and menstrual rhythms. It is this cosmic milk that bonded humans with one another, and it can be inferred that milk consumed today has a similar effect. According to Steiner, “milk prepares man for being a creation of the earth, without preventing him from being a citizen of both the earth and the whole solar system” (Hauschka, 83). It is this ability of milk to assist in our earthly incarnation that renders it the perfect food for children especially.

Hence, humans went from subsisting on this cosmic milk to nourishing themselves with milk produced by animals. Pre-Vedic society in India, for example, is characterized by milk as the primary food source. Consciousness during this period was something radically different from what constitutes our awareness today. These people lived an existence that was entirely unified with the divine, and any sort of impression of nature or matters of the earthly realm were simply dismissed as “Maya”, or “illusion.” Subsequently, there was simply no conception of self or individuality, “rather did they feel supported and guided by spiritual beings. Their souls were ‘in the lap of the gods’, their personalities childlike and undeveloped” (Hauschka, 22).

This state of consciousness, characterized by an undeveloped ego, that is in turn replaced by a remarkable sense of unity with the divine, goes hand in hand with the minimal demand put on digestion by the consumption of milk. Milk consists largely of protein, which due to its inherent organization and its relationship to humans as a primal form of nourishment, as in both the cosmic and mother’s milk, is most easily assimilated by the human organism. It follows that humans did not require any developed self-awareness in order to digest milk, and so the prevalence of this substance during this particular phase in the evolution of consciousness was quite perfect.

It should be noted here, that although it is partly due to the protein that exists within milk that renders it so easily assimilated, not all protein will have the same effect. Milk, for instance, is said to merely border on being animal. Its effects in the human being are entirely different from those of consuming flesh. The consumption of meat burdens one with a particular heaviness and rouses within a person the passion and instinctual consciousness of the animal. As opposed to milk, the protein from animals has the effect of enchaining man to the earth, so much that he no longer has interest in the realm of the spiritual. According to Steiner, it “has the effect of making us feel quite satisfied to lose heaven if we gain the earth thereby” (Hauschka, 55).

Also bordering on animal, interestingly, are the legumes. Perhaps the most concentrated source of plant protein, legumes employ a process whereby they transform the otherwise dead nitrogen from the atmosphere into live protein. Again we must recall the cosmic milk that once permeated the earth, and consider the fact that during this period, plants were entirely different than those we know today. They were remarkably animal-like, and all organisms, humans alike, drank from the milky nourishment of the atmosphere. As the moon separated from earth, this cosmic milk lost its vitality, thus becoming the nitrogen remains. Legumes still rely on this now lifeless substance for subsistence, though they successfully transform it into live protein. It is for their high protein content, their atavistic grasping onto an animal-inspired existence, along with an uncanny semblance to the animal realm in the butterfly-shapes of their blossoms, that legumes are considered to be particularly animal-like. Consumption of legumes, forbidden by such figures as Pythagoras for these reasons, may have the tendency to weigh one down with an earthly heaviness in the same way that animal protein would.

As history went on, a gradual evolution took place in terms of consciousness. With the increased consumption of plant foods, man began to develop an awareness for earthly things, while at the same time creating a bigger distance between himself and the spiritual realms. It eventually became the case that the divine world man had long considered himself a part of, evolved into capacities that could now exist inside the human being, within his own spirit. This interiorization of the soul is a manifestation of the development of the human ego, entailing a sort of freedom from the guidance of divine forces. Agriculture and the adoption of plants as a primary food source are intimately linked with this evolvement in the consciousness of man. Not so easily assimilated are the nutrients from the plant world, as they must be transformed several times over in their digestion in the human organism. The increased demand put on digestion necessitates the stronger ego forces that we see during this evolvement in the direction of modern times.

Taking this further, a stage of abstract intellectual thinking emerged during the times of Aristotle, that “deserted the realm of essential being to become a shrunken shadow of itself, mere reflection; it grew ‘root-like’ and ‘salty’” (Hauschka, 23). It is the consumption of foods with a mineral quality that have lead to this modern state of consciousness. This notion of minerality should be taken in a broad sense, to mean anything that has an essentially hardened or deadened quality to it, including roots, and also cooked and processed foods. Unlike plants, that maintain a considerable level of organization as they embody both life and form, mineralized substances are purely form. As the law of signatures would tell us, this type of food has a propensity for the nervous system particularly. We can see this in the similarity between the growth patterns root hairs and that of nerves. It only makes sense, then, that the move toward consumption of this type of food would lead to the mineralization of both thinking and body.

Plants as food play a particularly crucial role in the evolution of human consciousness. Comprised primarily of carbohydrates, they are essentially the manifestation of the sun’s energy. In simple terms, they are the carriers of life, as opposed to human beings who carry not only life, but also soul and spirit. It is man’s destiny to achieve a certain level of consciousness, whereby he must sacrifice life to a certain extent. To illustrate the distinctive way in which plants alone have influenced human consciousness, we can consider various sweeteners. Honey is perhaps the most ancient form of sugar. It is formed in the blossom of the plant, the place where the earthly and the cosmic realms unite. A manifestation of cosmic forces working on the plant, honey is therefore a spiritual substance. Its use prevailed during the same period when the ego was still less developed, and it was an entirely spiritual world that human beings experienced. The forces active in the blossom go to nourish the metabolism and the will, in particular, in the human being. Cane sugar, on the other hand, is derived from the stem of the plant, the place where heaven and earth unite. Its consumption corresponds to the period in which individuality was evolving, while religion was still a pervasive force on earth. This middle part of the plant corresponds to the central part of the human body, specifically those having to do with the rhythms of respiration and circulation. Beet sugar (as well as any modern refined sugar that has undergone processing rendering it denatured), in its earthiness and mineralized qualities, initiates a similar consciousness in its consumer, characterized by a logical and cerebral way of perceiving the world. We can see this in the initiation of its widespread use in Europe in the 1800s. It is this type of sweetener that nourishes, above all, the nerve-sense system, which is essentially the physical basis for spiritual functioning, if exercised in the appropriate manner.

And thus we are confronted with the challenge of resisting the urge to succumb to this abstract, intellectual, and hardened way of thinking that characterizes human consciousness today. Coming into touch with the creative forces of the cosmos, the universal impressions and reflections of the world that recall the divine realm, we are able to nourish ourselves in a profound way. It is these very forces that are referred to collectively as the “cosmic nutritive stream.” Human consciousness has evolved in such a way that a great divide between the earthly and the cosmic spheres has arisen. However, today we are blessed with the capacity to freely access the divine realm, and it is our destiny to go forth, and to allow ourselves to thereby be nourished.


Hauschka, Rudolf (1967). Nutrition. London: Stuart & Watkins.

Schmidt, Gerhard (1987). The Essentials of Nutrition. Rhode Island: Biodynamic Literature.

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