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Cosmic Workings In Earth and Man
GA 350

III. On Nutrition

Dornach, 22nd September, 1923

Protein, Fats, Carbohydrates, Salts

(Dr. Steiner asks if anyone has a question.
A question is asked about nutrition and about the potato as a foodstuff in Europe and elsewhere.)

DR. STEINER: We will think about the general question of nutrition and its relation to the spiritual world. As you know, it was not until the modern age that the potato was introduced as a foodstuff: I have told you that in earlier times people in Europe did not eat potatoes but food of quite a different kind. The subject cannot, of course, really be understood without studying the relation of the spiritual world to the whole process of nutrition.

You will remember that I once spoke to you of four substances upon which man's life essentially depends. Firstly, there is protein. Protein is a constituent of all food; it is found in its most characteristic form in the hen's egg, but it is present in all foodstuffs. Protein, then, is the first of these four essential substances.

Then there are the fats. Fats are consumed not only when the flesh of animals is eaten; all foodstuffs contain fat. Other substances, too, as you know, are transformed into fat-containing foodstuffs, for example, milk into cheese.

Carbohydrates are the third essential constituent of food. Carbohydrates come from the plant kingdom; they are of course present in other foodstuffs, too, but essentially in substances like wheat, rye, lentils, beans, potatoes—especially in potatoes.

Finally there are the salts. Salts are usually considered to be mere accessories but they play a particularly important part in man's life. The most common form, of course, is cooking salt, but all foodstuffs contain salts. It may therefore be said: In order that man may be able to live at all, his food must contain protein, fats, carbohydrates and salts.

I will now speak of how these different substances nourish the human being as constituents of the various kinds of foodstuffs. First of all we will think about the salts.

Even when salts are consumed in tiny quantities they not only add flavour but are an extremely important means of nourishment. We take salt with our food not only to make it tasty but really in order that we may be able to think. The salts that are contained in food must reach the brain if we are to be capable of thinking. If a person is so ill that all the salt in his food is deposited in the stomach or intestines and not carried by the blood into the brain, he becomes stupid, dull-witted. That is the point to which attention must be called.

We must of course be quite clear that the spirit is a reality, but if spirit is to be an active power on the earth, it must work in the earth's substances. In Spiritual Science, therefore, we must be able to perceive how the spirit works in the various substances. Otherwise it would be like saying: Oh, but we are spiritua1 people and machines are entirely material; we do not want anything material, therefore we shall not buy iron or steel but make machines entirely out of spirit. That, of course, is sheer nonsense! Substance is absolutely essential. The spirit working as the creative power in nature needs substance. And if spirit is prevented from making use of substance—for example, if salts are deposited in the stomach and intestines instead of reaching the brain by way of the blood—then a man becomes stupid and dull.

Needless to say, things are not as simple as all that. Man cannot derive nourishment from salt in the form in which it is present in external nature. If you were to make a tiny perforation in the brain and let salt trickle in, it would be quite useless. The salt must pass into the stomach and intestines and be brought into a finer and finer state of solution—even on the tongue it begins to dissolve. The result of what the human organism does with the salt is that it is already in a spiritualised condition when it reaches the brain. The process is by no means one of simply introducing salt into the brain—it is by no means as simple as that. But if a man's condition is such that the effects of salt cannot work in his brain, he becomes dull and stupid.

Now let us think of the carbohydrates. When we eat peas, beans, wheat, rye or potatoes—above all potatoes—we consume carbohydrates. The carbohydrates have a great deal to do with shaping the human form. If our food contained no carbohydrates, all kinds of distortions would appear: malformations of the nose or the ears, for example. It is due to the carbohydrates that we bear the outward stamp of man. If a person's constitution is such that the carbohydrates are not carried into the brain but deposited in the intestines and stomach, we shall see him becoming shrivelled and feeble, as though incapable of holding himself erect. The carbohydrates, therefore, help to give the human form its proper shape.

You see, therefore, that it is important for us to get hold of the right kind of foodstuffs. The salts work mainly upon the front part of the brain, the carbohydrates farther back. A man who cannot thoroughly digest the carbohydrates, whose organism is incapable of carrying them into the proper area of the brain, will very soon become permanently hoarse and be unable to speak with a really clear voice. Therefore if you have in front of you someone who used to speak quite normally but has suddenly developed hoarseness, you may surmise that he has digestive trouble of some kind. He cannot thoroughly digest the carbohydrates; they do not reach the right area of the brain and the consequence is that something goes wrong with his breathing and his speech. And so we may say: the salts work mainly upon thinking. The carbohydrates work, for example, upon speaking and the organic processes allied with it, and are an essential constituent of food. The carbohydrates help to give our human form its proper shape, but if left to themselves their tendency would be to make us into a mere form and leave it at that. They do not fill out the form—that is done by the fats. The carbohydrates have, so to speak, merely outlined the form and the fats provide the filling material. That is their function—to provide us with material substance. In fat itself, of course, this material has a definite character.

I have told you that the human being consists of an “I,” an astral body, an etheric body and a physical body. Fat, needless to say, accumulates and is deposited in the physical body. But the all-important function of enabling the fat to be deposited and at the same time to remain living fat, is performed by the etheric body. Feeling and perception, however, depend upon the astral body.

When a man is awake, the astral body is within him; when he is asleep the astral body is outside. When he is awake and the astral body is working in the etheric body, fat is assimilated and absorbed all the time. Fat acts as a lubricant for the whole body. When a man is asleep and the astral body is outside him, fat is not assimilated but deposited. During waking life, fat acts as a constant lubricant; during sleep, fat is deposited. And both are necessary: deposited fat and lubricating fat.

If someone passes his days in a kind of continuous sleep ... such cases are less frequent now than they used to be, but think of some leisured gentleman who does no work at all. Fat is actually deposited during what is called his waking life—although it really amounts to sleep! Such a man grows very corpulent and fat accumulates all over his body. Healthy depositing of fat, therefore, depends upon proper assimilation and absorption, for fat is being produced inwardly all the time. A man who consumes just the quantity he can assimilate, keeps healthy; but if anyone goes on eating, eating, eating, and assimilates nothing, he will become corpulent, pot-bellied.

Country folk know these things by instinct. They know that when pigs are being fattened the life of these animals must be so arranged that their bodies are no longer lubricated and that everything they eat is deposited.

It may, of course, be impossible for fats to be properly deposited in the organism; if this is the case, a man is ill. In this respect a man of leisure is healthy. But another trouble may be that the carbohydrates are not deposited and then the voice gets hoarse. It may also be that the fats are not deposited in the right way but simply pass away in the faeces; when this happens there is too little fat in the organism and therefore inadequate lubrication. This is what happens, too, when our food is insufficient and we suffer from actual hunger. Fat is the material we supply to the body. What happens to a man who has to go hungry or whose digestion is such that instead of the fats being deposited, they pass out of the body in the faeces? A person who has not enough physical material in his body becomes more and more spiritual. But this is not the right way to become spiritual, for under these conditions spirit consumes him, burns him up. Not only does he wither and become more and more emaciated, but gasses form in his organism and this condition leads, eventually, to actual delusions. There is always some disturbance in the spiritual life when a man is ill. Inadequate absorption of fat leads to wasting—or consumption as it may also be called.

Now let us speak about protein. The presence of protein is essential from the very outset. It is present in the egg before a human being or an animal comes into existence. We can therefore say that protein is the substance which really builds up the human body and is the basis upon which it develops; it is the primary and fundamental substance out of which everything else in the body must unfold. Protein is present in the mother's womb as a tiny egg; the fertilisation of the egg enables the protein to become the basis of the human body. But man needs protein all the time; it must be a constituent of his regular food. If his organism contains too little protein, or he cannot thoroughly digest it, he will gradually waste away; but if at any moment of his life he were without protein he would immediately die. Protein is essential both for the beginning of existence and for man's very life. Absence of protein means death.

Now let us think again about the different kinds of foodstuffs. The salts have a special connection with the front part of the head; that is where they are chiefly deposited. The carbohydrates are deposited a little farther back. Upon the carbohydrates depends the proper shaping of the human form. The fats are deposited still farther back and from there they begin to fill out the body. The fats do not enter directly into the body but pass from the blood into the head and are distributed to the body from there. All the substances, including protein, pass through the head.

Now there is a great difference among the carbohydrates. In foodstuffs such as lentils, beans, peas, rye, wheat, it is the fruit that is the source of the carbohydrates. The wheat we get from the earth is the fruit of the plant; the lentil is fruit. A property peculiar to fruits is that they are already digested in the stomach and intestines and it is only their forces that reach the head. Typical conditions which follow the eating of lentils and beans are evidence to us all that the whole process of digestion is taking place in the intestines. The characteristic of fruits is that they are already fully digested in the intestines.

But we cannot eat the fruit of the potato plant, because it is poisonous. There is a difference between the potato as a foodstuff and lentils, beans, peas, rye, wheat, etc. What part of the potato plant do we eat? We eat the tuber, the bulb. Now the bulb is just that part of a plant or root which is not digested in the intestines. Fruits are digested in the intestines. But the fruit of the potato plant cannot be eaten, and the bulb is not a root in the real sense. Very well, then, when a potato is eaten it passes into the stomach and intestines where it cannot be digested; the blood carries it upwards in an undigested state. Instead of reaching its own area of the brain in a fine, etherealised condition and being at once sent down into the body—as happens with foodstuffs like rye or wheat—the digestion, properly speaking, has to take place in the brain. When we eat bread made of pure rye or wheat, it is fully digested in the stomach and intestines; the onus of digestion does not devolve upon the head but the head is left free for its task of providing for the distribution over the body. On the other hand, when we eat potatoes or potato-bread, the head has to cope with the actual digestion. But when the head has to be employed primarily for the digestion of the potatoes, it becomes incapable of thinking in the real sense, because in order to think its forces must be kept free; the abdomen should relieve it of the task of digestion. So if potatoes are eaten in excessive quantities ... this is a habit which has been steadily on the increase since the potato was introduced as an important foodstuff in Europe ... the head is gradually thrown out of gear for the purpose of really active thinking and little by little man loses the capacity to think with the middle part of his brain; he thinks, then, only with the front part of the brain—which is dependent on the salts. This tends more and more to make him a purely intellectual, materialistic thinker. The front part of the brain is incapable of genuinely spiritual thinking. It is through the front part of the brain that man becomes intellectualistic.

What has happened is that really deep and inward thinking began to wane in Europe from the moment the potato became an important constituent of food. We must realise, of course, that the human being is not a product of the forces of the earth alone. I have told you many times that man is created by the forces of the whole surrounding universe, by the forces of sun, moon and stars. When a man feeds on potatoes, the middle part of his head is used solely for the purpose of digesting them. The result is that having shut himself off from the universe around, he no longer acknowledges its existence and declares: All this talk about spirituality streaming down from the universe is so much twaddle! ... And so it may be said that too much potato food has helped to drive the modern age into materialism.

Needless to say, it is chiefly the poor who are obliged to fall back on potatoes simply because they are cheap; the well-to-do can afford to buy food containing substances like spices and salts which work upon the front part of the head. Spices have the same effect as salts in the front part of the head. And so these people become thorough-going intellectualists; and the others, being incapable of really active thinking, can easily be imposed upon. The potato as a foodstuff is related in a very special way to man's spiritual activity; it has actually furthered materialism.

Thinking now of the different members of man's being, we shall say: the physical body originates in the first place from protein. Protein is connected with the birth and death of the physical human being. The etheric body is at work in the fats, the astral body in the carbohydrates; the “I,” or Ego, in the salts.

It is the astral body that enables man to have feeling and perception. When I feel a blow on my hand, it is not the physical body in which the feeling arises; if it were, then everything physical would have the faculty of feeling. The flesh is pressed back, and then the muscle; the flesh in the muscle is forced away from the astral body and then I feel something—in the astral body. All feeling arises in the astral body. But the astral body must be able to carry out its functions in the right way. I have told you that if the astral body, even by day, is in a sleepy condition and not actively at work, corpulence sets in and deposits of fat accumulate. Or again—if a man is active only in his head, in his intellect, fats are deposited. But the astral body which is also at work, for example in speech, needs the carbohydrates to be present all over the body, not only in the head. The astral body has to move the legs, the hands, and so on. It needs the presence of carbohydrates all over the body. If a man's food contains carbohydrates in the form of rye or wheat, the forces of these substances stream into the whole body; but if the food consists only of potatoes, the forces accumulate up there in the head and the man becomes weak and debilitated; his astral body cannot be as active as it ought to be. So that what is spiritual in the human being becomes exhausted, less and less active, when he cannot provide his organism with carbohydrates. This is impossible if he feeds entirely on potatoes because the head has so much to do that the body has to suffer.

And now let us consider how science sets to work. Investigations are made in order to discover what quantities of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, sulphur and other substances—the four named being the main ones—are contained in protein. It is then found that carbon or hydrogen are present in protein in such and such percentages; in fat the percentages are different and in the carbohydrates different again. But science has no idea of the significance of substances in themselves; science only knows the percentages in which the various constituents are present. But that does not really lead anywhere. The constituents of the potato and the constituents of rye or wheat work in quite different ways. The important thing to know is that when the flower or fruit of a plant is eaten it is digested in the intestines; when a root is eaten it is really digested in the head. Upon no other basis can these things be applied in medicine.

Anyone who can think in a truly therapeutic way will know that a medicament prepared from flowers, or seeds, or fruits, has its main effect in the intestines; a preparation of roots, on the other hand, will have a remedial effect upon the head. When we eat roots, an effect is made upon the head—a material effect. It is very important to know this.

But we can go further. If a human being has been so debilitated by feeding on potatoes that he is not only incapable of moving his hands and feet properly but is so exhausted that the organs connected with propagation are no longer active, then the matter becomes still more serious. Let us suppose that the effect of feeding on potatoes is so overpowering that the organs of procreation in the female are weakened and impaired. ... Man, as you know, is not only a product of his ancestors but as a being of soul-and-spirit he comes from the spiritual world; this being of soul-and-spirit unites with what is provided by the ancestors. I will make a rough sketch—everything of course is very much enlarged. (Dr. Steiner makes a sketch on the blackboard.)

The human being originates from the fertilised female ovum. Star-like formations then appear, cells separate off and from these separated cells the body gradually takes shape. But no human body can form unless the being of soul-and-spirit coming from the spiritual world unites with what is developing here.

Now if circumstances are such that the mother or the father has been eating too much potato food, the seed from which the embryo develops will from the outset be of such a nature that a great deal of work devolves upon the head. If the father and mother have been properly nourished with bread made of rye or similar substances, the embryo will have more or less this appearance. (Sketch.) But if potatoes have been eaten in excessive quantities the following happens. The preponderating part of an embryo is the head—it is a round dome. The soul-and-spirit must penetrate into the head and, once there must begin to be active. The soul-and-spirit works chiefly on the head while the human being is still an embryo in the mother's body.

If the soul-and-spirit finds in the embryonic head elements which derive from the rye- or wheat-components of the mother's food, then it can work in the proper way. For you see, the flowers containing the grains of rye or wheat have grown upwards from the earth and the Spiritual has already streamed towards the plant, is already allied with the plant. The being of soul-and-spirit is able to work when conditions arising from food composed of the fruits of plants are encountered in the mother's body. It is a different matter altogether if the being of soul-and-spirit finds an embryonic head that is the result of the mother having eaten excessive quantities of potatoes. ... For just think of it: the potato lies right down in the earth, it is covered by the soil, has to be dug up from the ground; it grows in the darkness, it has no bond with the Spiritual; the being of soul-and-spirit descending from the spiritual world encounters a head that is a product of darkness; the spirit cannot penetrate it, and the result is hydrocephalus—water on the brain. The embryo develops a gigantic head (sketch.) For if the spirit is unable to make any real approach, the Physical grows apace and hydrocephalus develops. If the spirit is able to approach, the water is held in check; the spirit is able to work in the physical substances and the head develops in its proper and normal proportions. The gigantic heads often to be seen in embryos are the outcome of faulty nutrition for which potato food taken in excess is often responsible. And so this kind of food not only causes exhaustion and weakness in the adult human being but even at birth the soul-and-spirit was not, in the real sense within the physical body.

You know that man consists of physical body, ether body, astral body and “I” but these members of his being do not interact in the same way at every age of life. Until the age of seven, ether body, astral body and the “I” are still only making their way down into the physical body of the child. When the ether body has penetrated fully into the physical body, the second teeth appear; when the astral body has penetrated fully into the physical body, puberty is reached. Therefore if potato food taken in excess has made it difficult for the soul-and-spirit to enter into the embryo in the real sense, this will also have an injurious effect upon what happens at the age of 14 or 15. All through his life such a human being will go about as if his body did not really belong to him, as if it were hanging about him like a bag. The effect of too much potato food may therefore be that human beings are born without sufficient strength to cope with life and its demands.

These are matters of tremendous importance! Social conditions depend upon many factors other than those mooted at the present time. Social conditions depend, too, upon really wise cultivation of the fields: for example, not using the soil for the production of more potatoes than people can consume if their strength is to be maintained. Social science must go hand in hand with a true knowledge of nature. That is absolutely essential. To speak only about surplus values, capital, and so forth, is of no fundamental value. If Communism ever succeeded in wiping out capital and assuming control of everything ... well, it would all come to nothing if the science at its disposal did not know how to utilise the fields wisely, did not know that potatoes are not so good for the stomach, as rye or wheat. These are the kind of things to bear in mind. Continual talking in circles leads nowhere. What we need is a real science, a science which understands how the spirit can work in matter.

Anthroposophy is obliged, quite against its will, to battle on two fronts. And why Scientists to-day are occupied only with matter, with the percentages of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen contained in protein and so forth. But this tells us nothing essential about matter itself. Physical science does not really understand matter, because to understand matter one must know how the spirit is working within it. Suppose a man wants to know all about a watch. He says to himself: This watch is made of silver. The silver came from such and such a mine; then it was taken by train to such and such a town and delivered to merchants. The watch has a china face inscribed with figures. The china was manufactured in such and such a town, then sent somewhere else ... and so on and so on. But at the end of it all he knows nothing essential about the watch! Nor will he until he knows exactly what the watchmaker did. To understand why a watch goes, it is not at all essential to know how and where the silver was mined; what is important is to know how the watchmaker made the watch go, how he adjusted the wheels and so forth.

To know in the abstract that foodstuffs are composed of so much carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, fat, carbohydrate, makes no difference at all to health and disease; but what is very important for health and illness is to know, for example, that potatoes nourish the mental life of human beings as little as they nourish their physical bodies. For other purposes it is, of course, quite useful to know about the silver coming from mines and the rest of the process, but for any understanding of health or sickness among men this kind of knowledge is of no importance. Because it does not realise its own shortcomings, science puts up a fight when Anthroposophy tries to provide what is lacking. The one battlefront is therefore against materialism which declares that the explanations given by Anthroposophy are sheer fantasy and reproaches it for speaking of the spirit. That is the one front.

The other front is constituted by the attitude of theology and of the representatives of religion. A great deal is said about the soul reaching heaven through prayer and the sacraments. Well and good ... but if a man is not able to make proper use of his body and therefore lives in the physical world without being rightly adjusted to the conditions of earthly life, then it will be very difficult for him to find his bearings after death. Of this, however, the theologians do not speak. Man must be able to cope with practical life; he must know how to take hold of matter. Religion and theology talk a great deal but do not succeed in making the human being so strong in earthly life that after it is over he can find a firm basis. Prayer that has no foundation in knowledge actually sidetracks men from recognising the essentials of a really healthy life. It is hardly likely that you will ever have listened to sermons on subjects like the respective merits of potatoes or wheat as food! At any rate it will not be your experience that most clergymen think it important to preach about the effect of rye or wheat upon health. They attach no importance to these matters because in their opinion they are not sacred. To pray or to expound the Gospels, that and that alone is sacred according to their way of thinking. ... But the Divine is at work in the whole of nature, not only when men pray or converse on the subject of Holy Writ. The Spiritual is an active power in nature. If man prevents the Spiritual from having access to his head because by eating potato food to excess he gives the head too much to do ... well, he may pray, but it will be to no purpose because he has been sidetracked from the Spiritual. That too is something that escapes notice. God did not find the earth as a clod out of which all things were then made; the Divine Power is active everywhere, in every single particle, and it is there that we must seek for its manifestations. But when this is done, the theologians accuse us of materialism! By the scientists we are called deluded spiritualists, by the theologians, materialists. This shows how much weight can be attached to such statements! It was just the same in 1908 when Anthroposophy was said to be under Jesuitical influences; it was stated that anthroposophists were being delivered by their leaders into the hands of the Jesuits. In the meantime things have changed and now the Jesuits are saying that anthroposophists have been delivered into the hands of the Freemasons!

But these are not the things that really matter. What does matter is that men shall acquire a kind of science able to explain, for example, why hydrocephalus develops in the embryo instead of a perfectly proportioned head.

You will be saying to yourselves that after all there are plenty of people who show no signs of hydrocephalus. That, of course, is true, because other forces counteract the tendency and then, at the time of birth, the head is not as disproportionately large as it was in the embryo; it may actually be quite small but still hydrocephalic. The fact is that since the introduction of potato food, embryonic heads are always much too large. In the later stages they contract but this very contraction has an injurious effect because they are not able to take in what is needful—they can only take in water. When the human being has been born, hydrocephalus is not only indicated by the size of the head. Typical hydrocephalus, it is true, is to be recognised from the size of the head, but the point of real importance is whether water is serving its proper purpose or whether other elements are playing a part. This is just as important as anything else that may be brought to the knowledge of mankind by science on the one hand or theology and religion on the other. But it is something that must be approached from the right point of view.

What sort of treatment is meted out to Anthroposophy to-day? A little while ago, people who called themselves “non-anthroposophical students of Anthroposophy” held a kind of congress in Berlin. They state that they are not Anthroposophists but desire to know about Anthroposophy. Well ... a certain Dr. G. who was here at one time but subsequently left us, had a great deal to say. He addressed an audience of clergyman, licentiates, professors. And now, on the basis of what he said, people are lecturing against Anthroposophy here, there and everywhere. You will suppose that what Dr. G. told these people convinced them that Anthroposophy is very harmful. But I ask you—just think of the average mind of a typical clergyman or professor to-day, and then listen to what Dr. G. said to them. He said: Anthroposophy is particularly harmful because the anthroposophists are being duped ... what Dr. Steiner and Frau Dr. Steiner would really like would be to cut off a portion of the earth, make a planet of their own and together with all the anthroposophists establish a planetary colony in the universe! That is what Dr. G. said to these enlightened people. As you can imagine, none of them really believe it, yet they act as if this kind of talk had convinced them of the harmfulness of Anthroposophy.

What lunacy it is! But these same enlightened people participate in many different kinds of meetings as well, where destinies are determined. At these meetings they are no shrewder than they were at the other ... and so one cannot help wondering what kind of people are ruling the world to-day! The hostility to Anthroposophy is really hostility to truth. People are determined not to allow these things to come into the open. So they say that Anthroposophy is very secret. But how, I ask you, how can it be anything else? There is, in reality, no greater secrecy about it than there is when a man has stolen something and bidden it; until it is found it is secret. Anthroposophy is secret in the same sense—because it has been cast into obscurity by science and the other branches of cultural life. That is why Anthroposophy seems to suggest a kind of secrecy. But it ceases to be secret the moment it is found! Anthroposophy has no desire at all to be mysterious but to bring into the light of day things that have been obscured and hidden by other influences. ... Now I have to travel to Vienna and I will let you know when we can continue these lectures.