Archives for 2011

A Diet For Everyone

A Diet For Everyone

The concept behind food as medicine is that food is a spectrum between nourishment and healing, and given the very large spectrum of foods, there many valid approaches to diet.  But when we talk about diet, we need to understand the difference between a diet that nourishes, and a diet that heals.  We need to understand how the different qualities of food impacts our health, for good and for ill. There is no such thing as a wrong food, with perhaps the exception of highly processed, refined foods, but only because they are biologically inappropriate (e.g. microparticles).  But almost all other foods in varying amounts are good for us – but how do we figure this out?

Given the obvious complexity of food, and the resultant ignorance and confusion that typically follows, most of us end up eating foods that aren’t very good for us.   Ayurveda is a useful tool that cuts to the heart of the matter, not through the cold calculation of precise mechanisms and measurements, but through a naturalistic approach that actually matches our human experience.   The reason why modern nutrition falls short is because it is based upon a model that is alien to the very nature of how we experience food.  Clearly we need to have a way to understood food that makes sense and is easy to understand.  Ayurveda shows us that through a qualitative approach we gain an excellent awareness of the nature of food, providing us with a set of basic tools we can use to protect and sustain good health.”

In Ayurveda there are three sets of qualities that generally describe all interaction.  These are hot/cold, heavy/wet and dry/light.  Each of us are affected by these influences – either that or they are in perfect equilibrium so we can’t tell the difference, or we are dead.  These six factors form a three dimensional model of qualitative interaction. Very clearly, each of us are affected by these qualities in different ways.  For example, while we are all affected by cold, dry weather, some people are affected more powerfully.  Their skin becomes dry and sore, and they can never get warm.  And while we all like a nice summer day, some people get too hot and itchy, or it makes their eyes sore and gives them a headache.  We are all different, not just because we were born that way, but because we are constantly changing.  In Ayurveda, they are expressed as a balance of the three doshas:

  • vata is dry, cold and light
  • pitta is hot, light and wet
  • kapha is heavy, cold and wet

While most people think of the doshas as it relates to their body type, this is only one small part.  In my book I describe that:

“…Kapha,  pitta and vata represent the dynamic of change,  the ceaseless cycle of birth,  life and death that all living beings must undergo.  It is a cycle that is replicated on many levels.  In the seasons,  kapha relates to the emergence of spring after the death of winter,  when life is born in the newly green earth,  excited by the warm sun that melts the nourishing mountain snow.  Pitta relates to summer when the fire element reaches its maximum and the brilliance of the sun calls forth the full blossoming of life,  resplendently radiant and powerful.   Vata relates to autumn,  when the sun begins its slow descent on the horizon towards winter and death,  the energy returning to its roots,  to the substratum of life,  to be called forth again next spring.  The daily rhythm reflects this universal cycle as well,  with morning relating to kapha,  midday to pitta,  and vata the late afternoon.   In the same way,  the first part of the evening corresponds to kapha,  midnight with pitta,  and vata with early morning before sunrise.  Not just the seasons,  but our very lives also follow this cycle,  with childhood manifesting the softness and sweetness of kapha,  pitta the blossoming of full maturity,  and vata the slow retreat of aging.”

Clearly everybody is different.  Recently Christy Kennedy Zamboni asked me why some people appear to do well on the vegan diet.  But before I answer her, I would like to say that I use all types of diets in my practice, including one that might seem very similar to a raw vegan diet.  Nonetheless, I am very practical in my approach, because Ayurveda is very practical.  In essence, there are no wrong or right foods, but there are wrong and right ways to apply them.  And in my opinion, the assumptions of a raw vegan diet are unsupportable and unsustainable for most people, even if the food itself can be very healing.  How is that possible?   As I say in my book:

A vegan diet however is not without benefits, and can be a useful therapy to restore health, particularly in a society where over-consumption is the norm.  Some clinical research has shown that a vegan diet is useful to control obesity and diabetes, although it may compare unfavorably to more satiating high-fat and protein-rich diets that similarly promote weight loss and a reduction of associated risk factors.  Perhaps the true benefits of a vegan diet may be in its ability to reduce the body burden of toxic compounds such as organochlorines  and other toxic compounds that bioaccumulate in animal products (see p. 45).  From a traditional medical perspective a vegan diet is effective to reduce congestion (kapha), inflammation (pitta) and autotoxicity (ama), and may be very helpful when undertaken as part of a short-term detoxification program (p. 205) in the treatment of chronic disease.  A vegan diet however is contraindicated in deficiency states (vata), marked by conditions including weight loss, fatigue, infertility, osteoporosis and immune dysfunction.” (references removed)

But is a long term vegan diet safe? As a healing diet, people that have an excess of congestion (kapha) and heat (pitta) could do well on such a diet, particularly if they lived in a sunny climate.  But for how long we don’t know because there is no multigenerational evidence of strict raw food veganism.  Probably men will fare better on a vegan diet than women, simply because they aren’t losing blood, iron and nutrients every 28 days or so.  They aren’t growing fetuses in their belly and then feeding them with their breasts sometimes for several years.  Many men (and some women) could probably benefit from a raw vegan diet, particularly if they have hemochromatosis.  But I still can’t help but noticing that all the big vegan gurus are men – men telling women what they should eat.  It has a cultic, paternalistic element to it that doesn’t seem real.  For me the leaders of this movement are ideologues because they do not represent the interests of everyone.  In my article, Busting some myths about raw food veganism I provide very clear evidence that a long term raw food vegan diet could be very problematic in both women and children, and this has to be at least 75% of the world’s population… so no, raw food veganism isn’t a sustainable diet for everyone.

Most of the raw food vegans I see are young and idealistic.  Very few of them have hit 40 to feel the gradual decline of age.  They don’t know their bones haven’t achieved peak density, they don’t know what it will feel like after a decade of raw food veganism.  So they are experimenting.  And that’s fine, so they should – we all do to some extent.  But I am on a harm-reduction program.  I say the raw food vegan perspective is very short term, and I suggest, this is its best application – as a short term diet. Some people may appear to do well on a raw food vegan diet for very long periods, but the evidence falls short that they are not just an anomaly.  Yes, there are a few examples of young, mostly male athletes apparently doing well on a raw food vegan diet, but these people do not represent an average cross-section of society, and nor do we know all the details of their lives.  Individuals can be the exception, but they are not the rule.  We need an approach to diet that speaks with maturity to the needs of everyone.  It is time to get past the dogma of eating.  And this is why I wrote my book, Food As Medicine.

Kitchari: A healing food in Ayurveda

Kitchari: A healing food in Ayurveda

Taken from: Food As Medicine: The Theory and Practice of Food

Kitchari is the classical Ayurvedic panacea, eaten whenever there is ill health or during a therapeutic regimen such as panch karma and detoxification. Essentially made from rice, kitchari is a universal food found in other cultures, with similar sounding names such as ‘kushari’ in the Middle East and ‘congee’ in China. There are an infinite array of variations, and based on the herbs and spices chosen, can be prepared to reduce vata, pitta or kapha. The following recipe is definitely Indian-inspired, using the herbs and spices of Ayurveda to enhance digestion.

The following recipe calls for fermented, whole grain mung and brown rice. Prepared in this way, kitchari is more nourishing, but harder for digestion. For people with weak digestion, or undergoing the graduated diet, the whole grains can be substituted with white basmati rice and washed mung dahl. While these don’t need to be fermented before use, ensure that you soak them overnight to enhance digestibility.

This recipe produces a soupy kitchari which is easy for digestion, but if you are looking to make this dish more substantial, reduce the amount of water to around 5-6 cups.

2 cups brown or white basmati rice (fermented, p. 144)
1/2 cup green or washed mung dahl (fermented, p. 144)
8 cups water
2 tbsp. ghee
1 tbsp. coriander powder
2 tsp. cumin seed
1 tsp. mustard seed
2-3 cinnamon sticks, broken into large pieces
10-12 cardamom pods, crushed
1 tsp. whole black pepper
½ tsp. hing powder
½ tsp. turmeric powder
sea salt, to taste

If you are using the whole grains, ferment (p. 144) the rice and mung beans first, and drain before use. For the white rice and washed mung dahl, simply soak over night in water. When the rice and beans are so prepared, melt ghee over medium heat in a large pot, and add in cumin seed, mustard seed, cinnamon bark, cardamom pods, black pepper and hing. Just as the mustard seeds start to pop, add in the coriander powder, turmeric and salt. Stir for another half a minute or so, and then add in the rice and dahl, frying in the fat and spices for a few more minutes before adding in 8 cups water or stock. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 2-3 hours (~1 hour for white rice and washed mung dahl), until the rice and dahl is soft.

Asian kitchari is a variation on this recipe, substituting short grain brown rice for basmati rice, and adzuki bean for mung. Follow the same recipe but use flavors such as fresh ginger, garlic, seaweed and tamari. When it’s done mix in a couple tablespoons of miso paste and garnish with fresh chopped shiso leaf or cilantro.

Do you use grapefruit seed extract?

Do you use grapefruit seed extract?

Today I stopped in at one of the local natural health pharmacies here in Vancouver, and saw one of the staff recommend a product called grapefruit seed extract (GSE) to a lactating mother whose baby was suffering from oral thrush (candidiasis).  Not to be confused with grape seed extract, which is commonly used as an antioxidant supplement, GSE is used as an all purpose antimicrobial in the natural health industry that is touted as being both safe and natural.  In 2005 the journal Medical Herbalism [2005:14(3)] printed a letter I wrote outlining the problems with GSE, which cited several studies demonstrating that the antimicrobial property of GSE was attributable to the addition of synthetic preservatives including benzalkonium chloride and triclosan.  Also found in cosmetics, dish detergents and cleaning agents, both benzalkonium chloride and triclosan are known endocrinal intoxicants and human carcinogens that pollute wastewater and are contribute to the spectre of antibiotic resistance.  Since then several more studies have confirmed these findings, demonstrating that not only does grapefruit seed extract contain these synthetic antimicrobials, but that without these added ingredients, it possess no antimicrobial action.  In other words, GSE is a sham product.

I am quite sure that if this new mother, who had gone out of her way to shop at this natural pharmacy, had known that the product she bought for her baby’s yeast infection was comprised of synthetic preservatives, she would have refused it.  She might have even been a little angry that an ingredient commonly found in dishwashing soap was being sold to her as a natural product. My colleagues and I have done our best to urge the natural health product industry to become accountable to this problem. Not only is it sold in retail outlets, GSE is often used in other natural products for both internal and external use, including creams, lotions, liquids and capsules.  In order to protect not only our clients and customers, but the reputation and integrity of the natural health product industry, I urge everyone to please avoid using GSE.  There are many truly natural alternatives to GSE that are equally if not more effective.