From my research the theories behind these approaches are pretty sound and quite convincing which is probably why they've become so popular. But the problem is they are all reductionist so tend to contradict each other. What does this mean? Well, they generally all look at just one aspect or angle of nutrition. When you plan a way of eating around one angle, it makes sense that if you look at it from a different angle, it may no longer look so healthy. For example, Low GI diets don't look so good from the No Fructose perspective and High Protein Diets don't look so good from an Alkaline perspective.
So what do we do? Where do we go for guidance when there are so many contradictory ideas? Surely there is an easier, more balanced and more holistic approach!
I started asking these questions from a pretty early age due to my strong desire to be healthy coupled with the general stress and confusion I felt around food and eating….. but I found my answers in a rather surprising place!
I was 27 and studying a Naturopathy degree at the time. One of my first assignments was on Ayurveda, the traditional system of India. As I began my research I realised this 5000 year old Eastern science was answering all of my questions about food, eating and digestion in a way that nothing ever had before. How could this be?! I had to know more. So I quit Naturopathy and studied Ayurveda instead.
The fundamental philosophies and principles of Ayurveda are based on the laws of nature and these laws never change - so the recommendations do not change, even after 5000 years! It is an elemental science that views everything in the cosmos as an expression of the five elements (Ether, Air, Fire Water and Earth) and beautifully describes the balance and interplay between them.
As a Westerner, that probably doesn't mean anything to you. What might mean more is the next level of understanding - viewing ourselves, our food and our environment as a collection of qualities. Qualities like hot, cold, dry, oily, heavy and light. These qualities are nothing fancy. They are descriptions we understand and relate to instantly because we've been using them our whole lives.
There are 20 qualities or 10 opposing pairs used in Ayurveda to describe the whole universe. The law they follow is 'Like Increases Like'. This means if you expose yourself to certain qualities through your food or sensory impressions, those qualities will increase in your body and mind.
This makes inherent sense, but how exactly does it relate to food, eating and digestion?
In Ayurveda, nutrition is intricately linked to digestion. This approach to healthy eating is all about keeping your digestion working well so that you can actually digest what you're putting in, absorb as many of the goodies it contains as possible and properly eliminate the wastes. But it goes much deeper than this. In Ayurveda, imbalanced digestion is actually seen as the root cause of all disease - from the common cold through to cancer. So keeping your digestion working well is a big deal.
Digestion is viewed as a cooking fire known as Agni in Sanskrit. This cooking fire can become imbalanced in three ways. It can get too hot and overcook our food. This is known as Sharp Agni and results in things like an insatiable appetite, heartburn, reflux, burning, gut inflammation, ulcers and loose stools. It can get too low and undercook our food. This is known as Dull Agni and results in a minimal appetite, heaviness and lethargy after eating, weight gain and sticky constipation. Or, it can become like a fire blowing in the wind - sometimes big, sometimes tiny - sometimes overcooking, sometimes undercooking. This is known as Variable Agni and results in variable appetite and things like gas, bloating, pain after eating and dry constipation.
When our food is undercooked or overcooked, it creates undigested food waste known as Ama. This heavy, sticky, toxic waste accumulates in our digestive tract and eventually overflows into our channels and tissues, hampering cellular nutrition and waste disposal. It is here, in the tissues and channels, that it can precipitate the manifestation of disease.
But all this can be avoided by cultivating balanced digestion. When our Agni is balanced we have a regular, moderate appetite, no symptoms of indigestion, satisfying eliminations and feel nourished, light and energetic after our meals.
But how do we make our digestion more balanced? This is where the qualities come in. The qualities of Balanced Agni are Warm, Light and Slightly Oily. By introducing these same qualities into our food and drinks, and less of their opposing qualities, we can directly influence our digestion. Here are a few ideas to get you started…
To introduce the quality of Warm, you simply need to favour predominantly cooked foods, use mild spices in your cooking and sip warm drinks throughout the day. Begin the day with a ginger, honey and lemon tea - the best way to kick start your Agni and eliminate Ama in the morning. You should also avoid excessively hot foods such as chilli and cold foods and drinks like icecream.
To introduce the quality of Light, you should avoid the excessive consumption of Heavy foods like meat, wheat, cheese, eggs and milk. Or you can prepare them in ways that make them lighter! For example, cooking meat with spices like turmeric and black pepper makes it easier to digest, especially prepared as a soup or slow-cooked curry. Milk should be consumed unhomogenised and cooked with spices while wheat should be eaten mainly as yeast-free dry roasted chapattis or breads. And you should start eating more light foods like fruit, veggies, legumes, pulses and light grains prepared as soups, curries, casseroles, daals and porridges.
To introduce the Slightly Oily quality, you need to use a moderate amount of good quality oil in your cooking, including ghee, sunflower, sesame, coconut and olive oil. This will help to ignite the fire in your belly and keep it burning bright. And you should avoid the excessive consumption of dry foods (crackers, baked goods, salads, low fat foods) or overly oily foods (deep fried foods).
Ayurvedic nutrition is a vast and complex science that can help answer many of the questions we have about food and its effect on our body and mind. It can also shed light on the modern approaches to food and eating - their benefits and their limitations. But in my experience, these three simple qualities, Warm, Light and Slightly Oily, are the best place to start. If we become intimately familiar with them and how they make the fire in our belly feel, suddenly the maze of food confusion can be replaced with a very easy, balanced and sustainable way forward. This has been my experience that I'll be sharing with you in this column.
Nadia Marshall is an Ayurvedic Consultant, Cook, Health Writer and Managing Director of the Mudita Institute & Health Clinic near Byron Bay. Their ‘WARMTH’ cookbook is available as a FREE download from their website.