As the new year evolves, those of you who have set your intention to eat more healthily may be wondering what that really means. In the context of the myriad of dietary advice out there, one can only possibly be confused about what to eat, and what not to eat.
So the FT has the first crack at it, proclaiming the revolutionary benefits of the Grayshott programme. A diet that ditches carbs + sugar and focuses on saturated fat, including red meat (!) The French, after all, have been gorging on a diet full of rich foods for centuries – creams, cheese, meats of all kind including côte de boeuf. Much cited studies have shown the French to have much lower rates of heart diseases that people from other countries.
Oh yes, you might say, what a brilliant idea – let’s go and gorge ourselves on animal products, to hell with all this nonsense about cutting down on saturated fats – sirloin and fillet mignon are in; pasta and grains are out! Perhaps…
The campaign group Alliance for Natural Health International (ANH-Intl) take a more balanced approach and have come up with their own idea of the perfect diet, called the ‘rainbow diet’, which, as you pretty much guessed, recommends that we eat a more varied diet. According to ANH-Intl, such a diet comprises 40% vegetables, 10% fruits, 10% gluten-free grains, 10% high healthy fat foods, 5% concentrated nutrients, 25% protein-rich foods. Dr Rob Verkerk, director of ANH-Intl, states that this diet:
‘provides us with a rich variety of foods that interact together to give our body everything it needs to function healthily’.
But where does that leave little vegetarians and millions of others like me? I mean, if I choose not to eat meat, then am I doomed to lead a ravaged life starved of all things nutritious and destined for an early death? Is my Veganuary diet a pure act of dietary stupidity?
The plot thickens when I read that a study showed that those who went on a 6 day Ayurvedic diet for a week, including meditation, yoga, and massage, experienced a reduction in inflammatory blood markers in their body that have been linked to diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. The researchers concluded that:
‘the switch to a vegetarian diet for the six days is likely the most important element of the programme, as nothing else could have had such a significant impact in such a short period of time.’
So much for eating high fat meat.
Then there is Scott Jurek, legendary ultra-marathon runner, and his story about achieving at the highest possible physical level through his devotion to the vegan diet. The barista at my local Aussie coffee place in London tells me a similar tale, although of a less extreme nature. Since becoming a vegan a year ago, Jared from Beany Green in Broadgate Circus, London, tells me that he has never had ‘so much energy’.
Of course, the results achieved by avoiding meat are of no surprise to the sister science of yoga, Ayurveda, which states that meat is heavy and difficult to digest. If you must eat meat, eat only the highest quality and in small amounts.
Ayurveda goes further and describes people in terms of body/mind types. Ayurveda believes that there are five elements in all of us – water, fire, ether, air, earth. The different mixture of these elements in each of us will determine our dosha, or constitution.
All foods work energetically with the body according to your dosha – which is dynamic according to the characteristics of your body, the seasons and whatever imbalance is present at that time. So, different foods will affect us in different ways according to our dosha. Even healthy foods, which the Rainbow diet prefers, may cause some people some digestive upset, simply because the food type suggested is not appropriate for one’s own unique constitution.
Ayurveda looks at seasons and the effect of the environment upon people’s moods and energies. Eating summer berries in the middle of winter is not recommended for example, and why would it be – we wouldn’t otherwise be eating them but for the ability to import food globally all year around. Why would nature be so stupid?
It also looks at the qualities of food (i.e. the gunas) and their characteristics. e.g. wheat is heavy, wet and cooling (e.g. pasta and cakes), whereas spices are deemed to be light, dry and heating (e.g. pepper). It looks at people’s physical qualities, such as body type and characteristics – it really aims to find out who you are and describes the right diet for you based on all the relevant circumstances.
A detailed description of the doshas is worthy of a blog post all by itself, however a useful link can be found here at the Chopra Centre, founded by legendary American-Indian wellness guru Dr. Deepak Chopra, where you can find out more about the subject and even a quiz to discover your dosha type according to Ayurveda.
In the context of the Ayurvedic view on diet, the ‘one size fits all’ approach to dieting prescribed in the West is curious, given how much modern science has progressed. I guess the closest resemblance that I know of would be the ‘blood group’ diet, which tailors foods according to one’s blood type. You could also try the Metabolic Balance Programme, which involves a deep dive into your medical history, blood tests and so forth. According to Rebekah Smith, who was struggling with adrenal fatigue, this has brought amazing results.But Ayurveda is more than just pure physical science – it uses metaphors based on nature to describe what is best for our health.
So where does this all leave us? Well nowhere really, and that is not much of a surprise considering that we are all different – both physically and mentally. What foods will work for some, won’t work for others. What I do know is the lecturing by health practitioners proclaiming that one must follow a certain diet isn’t always appropriate for everyone. For every 1 person whose diet has worked for them, there are plenty others for whom it hasn’t. You probably won’t hear about them either.
My message then is simple – try out what works for your body – the intelligence of the body will tell you soon enough what works and what doesn’t – you know, the normal tell-tale signs: poor digestion, skin problems, lethargy and fatigue among others. Think about the time of the year and what foods you’re eating and whether that really is how nature intended, examine how you are feeling mentally and what your body really needs. Then you’ll get an idea. Or, delve a little deeper and perhaps look at what Ayurveda has got to say. It might give you some interesting insights into who you are and what works for you.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison, as they say. In the case of the Grayshot diet, you better watch out if you fall in the later case.
Ps I thank What Doctor’s Don’t Tell You, a monthly magazine dedicated to increasing awareness and knowledge of nutritional, environmental and alternative medicine, the excellent “A Pukka Life” by Sebastian Pole, herbalist for many yogis’ favourite tea brand ‘Pukka Herbs‘, as well as my wonderful ayurvedic therapist friend Loretta Heywood, with whom I discussed this very subject over a yummy ayurvedic meal.