You are what you digest
When I look back over my life, my challenges in my relationship with food have taken up many hours. I grew up in a meat-potatoes-and-lotsa-butter kind of family where vegetables, other than potatoes, took up a very small part of the dinner plate. As teens, my sisters and I were constantly yo-yoing on diets and obsessing in our quest to be thin. I was an active bulimic from ages 15 to 25. In those years, much of my brain space was taken up with thinking about the shape of my body and wanting to get a “fix” from overeating and vomiting, at least when I wasn’t smoking or popping “something,” or drinking. When I was finally able to abstain from these behaviors, abstinence took the form of eating three meals a day. I strove to spend my brain time on nutrition, aesthetic presentation of food and feeling great after I ate. This emphasis on nutritious food and learning about Ayurveda and the importance of digestion has changed my relationship with food from one that was negative for my head and body to one that is creative, curious and beneficial for my health. Eating well - eating mostly unprocessed foods, adding in digestive herbs and teas and noticing how these make me feel - is one of my cornerstones of living well.
Eating well is about more than just the food that we put into our bodies. It’s not just about selecting foods that are nutritious. It’s also about creating digestive juices and absorbing nutrients. One of the biggest benefits of my studies of Ayurveda is that I now understand the importance of digestion. Central to Ayurveda is the concept that our vitality begins with a healthy digestive process - or that our demise begins in the intestines. This makes a lot of sense to me.
Mindful Eating and Digestion
Another vital component of healthy eating is mindfulness. We can be entrenched in unhealthy eating patterns – and a way for us to unwind this negative behavior is to become more aware of what we eat and how it makes us feel. All of us have experienced the phenomenon of the “disappearing food” – “Suddenly the whole box was gone!” – and it often happens when we eat while focusing on other things. Whether we eat while watching TV or completing a vital email, multitasking may stand in the way of positive change.
In order for our nutrition choices and mindfulness to be of the greatest benefit to us, we need to care for our digestion. In Ayurveda, the term for our digestive energy is agi– the fire to turn what we eat into nutrients for our cells. Ama is the congestion that comes from undigested food; it zaps our energy and vitality. Sometimes we might need to cut out certain foods altogether; sometimes we might need to eat smaller quantities with more vegetables. Adding herbs and spices that are known to aid in digestion might also be part of the answer.
Digestive herbs and spices
Caution: Some herbs shouldn’t be mixed with pharmaceutical drugs. If you are on medications, make sure to check whether there are any contraindications with herbs. Make sure that you start slowly with these herbs in your diet, unless they have been prescribed by your Ayurvedic practitioner, allopathic doctor or naturopathic physician.
One way we can get out of our digestive ruts is to add spices into our cooking, or to drink herbal teas. I think that this is one of the greatest practical everyday gifts that we get from studying Ayurveda. Many of my friends and clients from ethnic backgrounds already have knowledge of many spices that have been lost in standard American cooking. In keeping with the spirit of mindfulness, we - and our clients - need to be mindful of how we feel after we add these herbs and spices into our diet. Quantity can make a difference. For instance, too much ginger, instead of relieving nausea, can exacerbate it. I am careful to take some of the warming herbs early in the day because if I eat them later in the day, I find that they make me too hot at night. Someone who is regularly cold at night, though, might feel better if they had some ginger tea before they went to bed. “Cold wet” foods like dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk, ice cream) and tofu feel better in me if I add some warming spices like ginger or cardamom.
So on these last warm days of summer, I am enjoying raw salads, cold lemonade and refreshing iced peppermint tea, and cooling fruit desserts. As the crisp fall days approach, my diet will change to ginger tea to warm me up in the morning, cooked root vegetables and squashes, chai tea in warm almond milk for an afternoon pick-me-up, and desserts like gingerbread and pumpkin pie. I love it all!