Food As Medicine

Wood fired bathtub

“More and more with less and less until, eventually, you can do everything with nothing.” 

-R Buckminster Fuller

From one of my favorite cookbooks, Ojas: Modern Recipes and Ancient Wisdom for Everyday Ayurveda, by Nira Kehar

Nearly fifteen years ago, I stood in my kitchen facing a few bags of bulk spices and some rice. I was working on my undergraduate degree and had finished class for the week, about to cook dinner from my scarce fridge and cabinets. Living just outside Portland, Oregon, I contemplated traveling to the grocery store – but this would have been on my bike, in the rain, in November. I laughed and thought to myself: “time to make something from nothing, again.” 

This night was saved by two friends in similar situations: one who stared into the eye of a lone potato and another with only an avocado and a bag of flour. It was a collaboration that somehow resulted in burritos. And we sat, proudly stuffed and content.

No complaints here. Moments like this taught me how to be creative with food and how to make things from scratch. As a financially independent student, I had far more debt than what was in my wallet. I stretched my dollars for basic ingredients, rather than spending more on restaurants and processed foods. I learned how to cook because I had to. It also became a new art for me, a way to manage my college-induced stress, and a way to care for and connect with my friends. In time, the health benefits of eating this way became obvious as well. For these many reasons, I wanted to learn more: I pursued further culinary skills, experienced farming, independently studied nutrition, and eventually learned how to use food as medicine through the practice of Ayurveda.

Home at Kalapana Organics in Hilo, HI

That following summer, I stepped onto a farm in Hilo, Hawaii. It was a World Farmers’ Organization site that offered room and board for manual labor. On the property there was sugar cane, bananas, lychee, passionfruit, taro root, ginger, kava, and a few other herbs. We slept in little bungalows and woke up every morning to play in the dirt. 

A few takeaways from my experience there: 1. Organic soil is full of probiotics; 2. Turmeric, and many other spices, have medicinal properties; 3. Making curry is not unlike creating art with a paint palette; 4. Cheese, made from the milk of a humanely raised cow, is vastly superior to what you buy at the store; and 5. The term “organic” in advertising, even if awarded from the USDA, is not always the truth.

The biggest lesson: outside of technology exists a life where we must be connected to the earth in order to survive. 

The irony in referencing this quote from the 1930’s: “More and more with less and less until, eventually, you can do everything with nothing” is that Fuller was making a statement on the progression of technology in Ford vehicles. Industrialization and the advancement of technology caused an obvious shift in the way humans spent their time. Small family-owned farms were becoming obsolete, while increasingly more people left their homes to work in factories. This change in lifestyle disconnected people from the earth, daily exercise, and healthy food. Now, cars can drive themselves, but the majority of our population is suffering from one or more preventable chronic health conditions.

The statistics keep growing, and, most of us don’t know how to grow vegetables anymore.

Making dyes

Fast forward half a decade and I am quite far from any farm. I was in Salt Lake City, Utah completing one of my final internships for PT school. My placement was on the cardiothoracic floor of a hospital. I walked around the floors with my clinical instructor as she provided background on our caseload. There was a patient who had a cardiac event while skiing. This person’s life was saved by a member of ski patrol who performed CPR and a surgeon who implanted a defibrillator. Down the hall, a man was awaiting a heart transplant. In the interim, an external heart plugged into a generator, was keeping him alive. There was also a woman recovering from a below-the-knee amputation, who would have died from sepsis otherwise. She was receiving her first manufactured prosthesis that day, enabling her to walk again. 

I stood in awe at the abilities of modern medicine. 

In contrast, my responsibilities as a physical therapy student were less about preventing death and more about boosting quality of life. I taught most patients how to take care of themselves with exercise and lifestyle changes. Many people asked: “what should I be eating?” Although I was studying nutrition in my free time, I wondered how modern medicine would answer this question. I chased and waved doctors down on the floor. They offered me a few hurried pauses: “all evidence on nutrition is conflicting”, “in general, more vegetables”, “exercise is more important than diet”, and “there’s nothing to suggest diet matters.” 

Given that most of these patients would have died without medical intervention, I saw how diet was pretty low on the priority list. This is the nature of modern medicine. Everyone is too busy with emergencies.  

It is more our responsibility as PTs to assist with questions like this. However, the doctors were right, nutrition is an ever-changing and conflicting subject. Beyond the established truth that processed foods are unhealthy, concrete answers are rare. Recommendations vary highly. Research is not well funded, thus quality studies are hard to find. As a provider, it is difficult to relay information you don’t necessarily trust to your patients. For this reason, I think a large portion of the population is confused about what they should eating – medical professionals included. 

Office at the noni fruit farm in Pahoa, HI

As I graduated and moved forward into clinical practice, I’d say nutrition was one of the most popular questions: 

“What can I eat to make my tendons healthier?”

“What should I be eating after a concussion to help me heal?”

“What foods will help me train for this marathon?”

“Is there anything I should do different with my diet after surgery?”

“What do you think of Paleo?”

And my favorite:

“Does diet even matter?” 

With five years of experience as a PT and continued research into nutrition, I was still coming up short on answers – for my patients and myself. The truth was, I had health issues brewing in the background that were not remedied by modern medicine, talk therapy, and/or my best attempt at eating well. My hair started falling out. Skin rashes appeared and wouldn’t go away. I developed chronic pain in my left shoulder and neck that my own PT methods couldn’t solve. I had insomnia, which granted me zero to six hours of sleep per night. But the worst of it was my growing list of food sensitivities; not only was I confused on what to eat, food no longer tasted good, and I eventually lost my appetite.

I was told this was “burnout,” a host of mental and physical symptoms related to stress at work. As my body slowly and steadily became affected, I questioned how food could help, or on the flip-side, be responsible for how I was feeling. I asked myself: what’s missing in my diet? Why can’t I digest certain foods anymore? I thought, if only my body was able to absorb the nutrients I was eating, maybe my tissues wouldn’t be suffering – maybe my mind wouldn’t be either.

To all my patients out there: thank you for being as vulnerable with yourself as I needed to be.

It was hard to accept the state of my health. My once high-beam of ambition had turned from bright to a low fog light. I fought hard to keep standing. I loved working with people, hearing their stories, sticking through the hard times, and celebrating their victories. Minor ailments like sleeplessness, stress, and fatigue seemed like a small price to pay for the career I loved. 

Until the price became larger and the state of my health could no longer be ignored. I tapped out of the fight and took a period of rest.

This is when I found Ayurvedic Nutrition, a three thousand year old practice that originated in India. 

Photo credit: Calum Lewis

Far different than the “fad diets” that exist in this culture, where food’s most important side effect is gaining or loosing weight, Ayurveda considers food as daily medicine. It teaches that individuals have varying dietary needs – and if they don’t meet these needs – could develop a host of emotional and physical symptoms.   

Let me explain the six stages of illness according to Ayurveda. Stages one through three are accumulation, aggravation, and dissemination. These are fairly undetectable until stage three when you may say to yourself: “I don’t really feel good, but I don’t know why.”

Stage four is localization. Here you will likely notice something in the tissues of your body. For example: skin rashes, dandruff, acne, pain, toenail fungus, hair loss, and/or increased phlegm or congestion. These can be related to a worsening of your emotional state, an unhealthy change in your bowel movements, fatigue, etc. Stages five and six, manifestation and chronicity, are the more obvious pathological states and perpetuation of those states, respectively. Diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are common examples in this country. These final stages should be treated with modern medicine; it’s what they are trained to do. 

Ayurveda relies heavily on nutrition to help people stay out of stages five and six. Food cravings and sensitivities are thought to be information directly related to our internal organs and their nutritional needs. Emotions are often thought to be reflective of gut health, rather than separate and arising only in the mind. For example, anxiety and insomnia may be treated through a diet that takes stress off the liver, depending on the individual. As a person continually attempts to meet their needs (albeit sometimes different than their wants), a state of balance can be achieved where disease is less likely.

Learning about Ayurveda reminded me of living on the farm in Hawaii – where pleasure, comfort, contentment, and wellbeing were all derived in healthy ways through food. Coconut meat, regardless of high fat content, was to cool and replenish yourself after a long, hot day. Sugar cane juice was fresh and invigorating; it was not considered “junk food.” Taro root, as a heavy, starchy vegetable was not demonized for its carbohydrates but rather revered as fuel. Ingesting turmeric and ginger as part of a medley of spices, often in curry, was a daily practice for both medicine and flavor. Everything we did was for the purpose of growing, eating, and selling food; health for ourselves and for the community.  

As a culture we have largely disconnected from seeing food in this way.

Taro root, machetes, sugar cane

“More and more with less and less until, eventually, you can do everything with nothing.” This is exactly what Ayurveda is about: small, daily efforts that lead to massive health benefits. Fuller was commenting on mankind’s ability to solve problems, and while this has fueled modern advancements in many realms, it’s also promoted the growth of widespread, preventable disease. While I’m not suggesting we all quit our jobs and start farming, or consider nutrition as the only solution – I do think we would benefit from returning to a simpler way of eating and living.

As for me and the empty pantry I was describing earlier… it still showcases only basic ingredients, but I’m much better at keeping it stocked! Spices, grains, flours, nuts, and other unprocessed foods vary depending upon the season (read why this is important here). Meat, fish, dairy, and herbs rotate as well. Pasta, tortillas, and yogurt are freshly made.

This change was a very slow process. As I said, it truly started fifteen years ago! Since studying Ayurveda, I learned only a recipe or two over each season. I didn’t fully comprehend what I was suppose to be eating for about a year (Discovering Your Dosha helps with this). The way I see it: we all have to cook and eat for the rest of our lives. Even a little bit of effort each month, or each year, will make a positive change in our health. Now that my food sensitivities are gone, and the rest of my symptoms are healed… I want everyone to know how powerful this practice can be.

This blog is dedicated to all my patients who didn’t know what to eat – and to myself, who didn’t know either. 

We’ll eat for the rest of our lives! Learning how to use food for better health can start now. 

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