Ayurveda, a science that spans more than 5,000 years, has been around as many diet trends have come and gone. As people continuously look for health by restricting or over-analyzing their diets in new ways, Ayurveda remains an infinitely simpler way to build a positive relationship with food – by treating ourselves as individuals composed of the same five elements as everything in nature and approaching eating as a sacred act.
The most important thing that Ayurveda teaches us is that each one of us has a unique constitution. This means we digest different foods in different ways, depending on our state of balance, where we live and the way we approach eating. There are some Ayurvedic concepts that apply to most everyone, such as eating fruit as a separate meal because fruit digests much faster than other foods, but taken as a whole, the guidelines Ayurveda offers are just that – guidelines. While some online dosha quizzes will have you believe that you are a dosha and should follow one food list for life, a true Ayurvedic approach is to become a student of your own body. With that understanding, you can make conscious decisions about how and what you eat and track how you feel so that you can have vibrant health throughout your life.
Most modern diet trends offer rules that apply to every person, regardless of your constitution, environment or lifestyle. Most of these rules are passed down through the Internet or books, few come from a practitioner who spends the time to understand you as the whole, complex being you are. Give yourself the gift of understanding your body on every level by working with a practitioneror in close self-study, as opposed to finding a category in a book that is “close enough.”
The initial feel-good effect
When many people take on a diet, such as gluten-free or paleo, they often see a positive initial response. Skin issues clear up, digestion seems easier – even their mental outlook improves. But over time, health effects usually dwindle and people are left with a diet that is restrictive and unsatisfying to their body and spirit.
The reason for this initial improvement can usually be traced back to a poor diet prior to starting the diet. If you ate a lot of fast food or junk food, just eliminating those will significantly improve how you feel. You might stop eating as many prepared foods and add more vegetables, fruits and whole foods to your plate, which will always bring a positive effect. But diets that mask or create greater imbalance in your body instead of addressing the underlying issues will catch up, sometimes quickly, sometimes in a few years, depending on your unique constitution. The initial boost will eventually go bust.
The root of food allergies and indigestion
Food allergies and inflammatory conditions are often what drive people to diets. This is for good reason – the modern diet and lifestyle has wreaked havoc on our digestive tracts. Eating processed food, not chewing adequately and ignoring digestive ailments at the first sign all contribute to indigestion and the related food allergies and illnesses. Food that is undigested from lack of chewing – or is indigestible from chemicals or processing – remains in your small intestine until it has fermented (rotted) enough to pass through to the large intestine. This prevents the proper absorption of nutrients, depletes your body of its full health and causes gas, bloating and other symptoms. If your digestion has been in this state for a while, some foods, such as wheat or dairy, may seem to blame, when, in fact, the issue is the lack of proper digestion itself.
Instead of adopting a restrictive diet, a well-rounded Ayurvedic approach is to remove processed foods, eat in a way that allows you to chew thoroughly (avoiding television, driving or reading during meals) and tune in to the messages your body sends you each day about what brings optimum health and what brings illness.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the Ayurvedic perspective on four modern diet trends:
- Gluten-free: Wheat, like all grains, has played an important part in our digestion for thousands of years. Sweeter and lighter than the extractive component of your meal, wheat brings grounding and dietary fiber. However, much of the wheat today is grown from grain that is genetically modified and sprayed with pesticides, which your body simply can’t recognize as food and instead treats as poison. Further, before most wheat gets to your sandwich, it’s been stripped down to white flour and mixed with yeast. Yeast, a common ingredient in raised breads, disrupts the natural balance of flora that lives in our digestive tract, causing intestinal distress. Try unleavened bread made with freshly ground whole wheat, such as chapati, as a part of a diet that is balanced with a range of whole grains, vegetables and legumes. Chew well and pay attention to the results.
- Paleo: This diet has grown in popularity in the past decade, built on the concept that we have moved too far from what our ancestors ate. That is what paleo and Ayurveda agree upon, but the ways the two approach how to regain health differ greatly. Where Ayurveda suggests a diet made of sattvic foods, a paleo diet, with its focus on consuming large amounts of meat with no grains or legumes, is steeped in tamas, death and decay. Meat is difficult to digest and spends days breaking down in your body, causing constipation and bloating. Legumes eaten with whole grains offer a much more balanced way to get sustenance, taste and digestibility, along with a clear mind and greater connection.
- Raw: The idea here is that if vegetables are good, then vegetables in their most natural state must be better. Actually, according to Ayurvedic texts, lightly cooking food awakens its prana, or life force. This is because gentle cooking starts to break down the food so we can better digest it and assimilate the nutrients. If you eat a solely raw, uncooked diet, you weaken agni by making it harder for your body to digest what you give it. It doesn't matter how many nutrients are in your food if your body is unable to digest them properly. Further, because raw food is dry and crunchy, it can aggravate vata dosha, causing forgetfulness, gas and anxiety.
- Lactose-free: Dairy is a cornerstone of an Ayurvedic diet, but it should be consumed in ways that support proper digestion rather than hinder it. Dairy is sweet, heavy and cooling, and particularly helpful for calming vata dosha. When we look at the rise in lactose intolerance over the past few decades, we can see a link to the move away from an agricultural lifestyle, where raw, unpasteurized milk from cows raised on natural feed and grass was plentiful. Similar to wheat, lactose intolerance is less about the food itself than the way it was created and how it's consumed. When dairy is laced with pesticides used to grow a cow’s feed and hormones to keep cows in constant production, our bodies are going to have a negative reaction to this otherwise wonderful food. And even when we have the best milk from well-treated cows, drinking it cold right out of the refrigerator causes excess mucous and weakens agni. Instead, have a ½ cup of gently warmed milk with a little ghee, honey or maple syrup, and a touch of cinnamon and cardamom. Other ways to make sure that you get the most out of dairy is to avoid eating large amounts or mixing it with incompatible foods, such as bananas, or other heavy foods, such as eggs and meat.
Your body is a work of art. A diet that is balanced and tailored to your specific constitution will always bring health. Rather than restrict or over-analyze what you eat, allow yourself to rejoice in the beauty of a sattvic Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle. This is the true seat of health and harmony, one that will continue to nourish you long after these trends have come and gone.
Want more tips like about how to eat for a great life? Tune in your body by tuning in to Hale Pule’s monthly podcast, Everyday Ayurveda and Yoga.