What We Already Know:
We all have some memory of the food pyramid, right? While it went through a few changes over the years, it remains a staple in our grade school education. The one I remember has serving recommendations, a base filled with whole grains, and a top reserved for fats and sweets (to be eaten sparingly – shoot!)
There are some truly helpful bits of information we all learned from the food pyramid. It taught us to include a variety of foods in our diet, to value whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and to limit junk and processed foods. I think we can agree these are healthy habits and exist somewhere in our minds, whether we choose to employ them or not.
Can we do better than the food pyramid?
There is plenty of other nutrition advice in the media and in culture – but with “fad diets”, companies selling all sorts of vitamins and supplements, and conflicting advice about what’s healthy, what’s not, how to loose weight, how to cleanse, how to fast, etc. – what and who do we believe? One of the hardest things for me while studying Ayurveda was unlearning the way we think of food in the western world. With endless choices and advice, there is little discussion on the broader picture: digestion and absorption. This is what Ayurvedic Nutrition is most concerned with. After all, what is the point of ingesting certain foods and nutrients if your body can’t reap the benefits?
Proper digestion is based on the environment of the gut, which varies depending upon the individual, the climate in which they live, and the season. Taking these factors into account, Ayurveda offers varying dietary recommendations to promote digestion. A healthy bowel movement each day is the goal. This is an indicator nutrients are being absorbed, the digestive organs are functioning well, and the person is in good mental health.
“… digestive abilities vary from person to person, thus the same diet does not work for everyone.”
That said, from an Ayurvedic perspective, there is a primary limitation in the food pyramid and most advice out there in the media: digestive abilities vary from person to person, thus the same diet does not work for everyone. Ayurveda offers advice to support seven different “body-types”, or what is called a “constitution” or “Dosha”. Click here to figure out what your Dosha is.
How do we balance the gut?
Ayurveda has its roots in India. It originated nearly three thousand years ago, prior to the invention of microscopes and modern medicine. For this reason, food is not broken down into vitamins, minerals, or calories. Rather, it is categorized based on what was tangible to humans back then (which we haven’t lost!): the senses. Taste, smell, sight, sound, and feel provide perceptions of hot vs. cold, wet vs. dry, light vs. heavy, etc., which are used to classify food. In learning this practice, the senses become intuitive indicators of how we might react to different foods both physically and mentally.
Let’s keep it simple here. Think about eating something warm vs. something cold, say warm soup vs. a salad. Which food would be more beneficial to your body during the winter? Without taking into account what’s in these dishes – warm soup on a cold day is recommended and probably intuitive for you. The use of other foods may be less intuitive, such as mushrooms, which are best eaten cooked and in late summer. Considering the properties of what you’re eating in combination with the season is part of good digestion. The other part is the gut’s ability to digest it, which has everything to do with your unique Dosha profile.
Similar to food, the gut’s environment can be described as: hot vs. cold, wet vs. dry, etc. Depending upon the food we ingest, we can either maintain or change the environment of the gut. For example, the digestive system of a person predominating in Vata Dosha is cool and dry. As a result this person may trend toward constipation. A warm bowl of oatmeal will help to heat and moisten the gut, while rich fats, like olive oil or fatty meats may assist in bowel mobility. In general, opposites help to create balance (e.g., moist food reduces dryness in the gut).
On the flip-side, eating foods similar to the gut will promote more of the same. Let me explain. Turmeric, a root and spice known for its anti-inflammatory properties, is also very drying. As turmeric has the potential to dry the gut even further, Vata-types should use it in moderation. With poor dietary choices, this type may develop irritable bowels, anxiety, insomnia, and more. All Doshas are prone to varying physical and emotional ailments if their respective dietary needs are not met. Understanding your Dosha profile will offer guidance in choosing the right foods to improve your health.
“It’s about understanding and embracing your body-type, knowing what foods will help you with certain ailments, and giving yourself what you need to help prevent major medical issues down the road.”
Hopefully you can see: it’s all about balance! It’s not about calories or vitamins, although many foods are considered to be rich in nutrients according to Ayurveda – it all depends on who is eating what food, when, and sometimes where. It’s about understanding and embracing your body-type, knowing what foods will help you with certain ailments, and giving yourself what you need to help prevent major medical issues down the road.
On Weight Loss:
The idea of needing to be thin in order to be healthy is a misconception in this culture – one that causes harsh consequences to our self-worth and wellbeing. Although mental and physical illnesses are more common in those who are overweight, they are not caused by excess fat tissue alone.
“…weight loss may occur by becoming more satisfied in your diet and lifestyle, rather than through food restriction and deprivation.”
Some body-types are heavier than others – this is normal and natural. Regardless of weight, Ayurveda helps an individual divert from unhealthy food cravings and toward their nutritional needs. There are many benefits to eating well: improved mood, boosted energy, healthy skin, tissues, and organs, and even improved emotional processing. In this way, weight loss may occur by becoming more satisfied in your diet and lifestyle, rather than through food restriction and deprivation.
Are you with me?
Ayurveda is all about physical and emotional balance through gut health. This “balance” is contentment and mental clarity like you’ve never experienced before! Please, stay tuned for more; my next post will explain more on food categories and recommendations, common health issues, and personality traits for each of the Doshas.