Eat Local, Eat Relaxed

Kripalu School of Ayurveda

If I were to write a book on Ayurveda, that would be my title: Eat Local, Eat Relaxed. After a decade of studying Ayurveda, I’ve come to realize that there is no “Ayurvedic diet.” The key to health is to eat what grows in your region—in season, and in a peaceful environment and state of body and mind.

Let’s look at those two suggestions one at a time …

Eat Local

When I look at current diet trends, what strikes me is that the one-size-fits-all approach is, at best, one-size-fits-some. Each diet could fit some regions for some period of the year. For example, the Paleo diet favors foods that were presumably consumed by early humans: meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit; no dairy, grain, or processed food. (I know lots of people who feel great on this diet. No surprise—they’re eating whole foods that they probably cook at home.) My issue with this is that early humans did eat grains. But not every human ate grains; they likely ate regional foods. That’s why the keto diet works well for the Inuit—because they have adapted to an Arctic climate and are genetically inclined to digest fats well.

Then we have the Mediterranean diet, which favors vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, breads, herbs, spices, fish, seafood, and extra-virgin olive oil. This diet also includes poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt in moderation, and excludes sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils, and other highly processed foods. This sounds like a pretty balanced diet. But here’s the thing: Those who eat the Mediterranean diet live in the Mediterranean. Those who eat the keto diet live in the Arctic. Those who eat the Paleo diet … well, they aren’t around anymore.

So, what does Ayurveda say about all this? When we dive into the 2,500-year-old classical texts, we find that they don’t list the specific foods eaten in ancient India. What they do list are the categories of foods. And, of course, all the foods are local to those who lived in India: vegetables, fruits, milks, fats, meats, and spices. The texts describe the actions of each of these food categories on the mind/body, including the qualities, tastes, if they are heating or cooling, and other effects.

According to Ayurveda, one of the main causes of disease is parinama—the temporal changes that we cannot control, such as season, age, and the time of day. But what we can control are our diet and lifestyle practices, which help create balance and harmony with these changes. In New England, for example, we have four seasons, each requiring a shift in what we wear and what we eat. If I lived in New England 200 years ago, I would be eating seasonally grown foods—not avocados, bananas, and salad greens all year round. I would be eating what I could hunt and grow.

Am I saying that you should buy a homestead and start living off the land? Yes! But seriously, that’s not a reality for most of us. Most of us are going to Whole Foods and buying blueberries in January. But, if we really needed blueberries in winter, wouldn’t our backyards provide them? If my body needed salad in winter, wouldn’t my habitat grow salad greens in February? Would I go hunting for deer in the middle of August when I have a backyard full of ripe vegetables? Can’t I trust that my habitat, Planet Earth, is providing exactly what I need in each season?

I did a little research into what the colonists consumed in the 1800s. According to Ancestry.com, “Because innovations in transportation were still in their infancy, most Americans ate what they grew or hunted locally. Corn and beans were common, along with pork. In the north, cows provided milk, butter, and beef, while in the south, where cattle were less common, venison and other game provided meat. Preserving food in 1815, before the era of refrigeration, required smoking, drying, or salting meat. Vegetables were kept in a root cellar or pickled.”

I am not suggesting that we eat beets, squirrels, and acorns all winter in the Northeast. But what I am suggesting is that, if we focus on the foods grown in our region, we can stave off imbalance. Ayurveda teaches that if we eat out of season, we may see imbalances. This is supported by the main principle of treatment in Ayurveda: Opposite qualities bring balance, and like increases like. So, for instance, if I eat cold, dry salad in the cold, dry month of January, I will increase the coldness and dryness in my body. If I make a hearty soup or stew, I will be consuming something warm and wet, which has the opposite qualities of a cold, dry winter. Ayurveda asks us to pause and notice what is happening inside of us in relationship to the natural world.

Eat Relaxed

The Charaka Samhita, an ancient Ayurvedic text, doesn’t tell us how to eat—it tells us all the ways not to eat. Chapter Two states, “Taking food or drink when afflicted with passion, anger, greed, confusion, envy, bashfulness, grief, indigestion, anxiety, and fear creates ama.” Ama is described as the sticky, cloggy, gooey, undigested stuff left behind when food has not been properly digested. It leads to indigestion, heartburn, constipation, acne, bloating, achy joints, leaky gut, hemorrhoids, and all other diseases of the body. If food does not go through proper digestion, our body doesn’t receive the nourishment it needs to function properly. So it is not just what we eat, it is also how we eat. And relaxed is the name of the game in the “how” realm.

There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). You may know them, respectively, as “fight, flight, or freeze” and “rest and digest” (also called “feed and breed”). The SNS is designed for reacting to dangerous situations, by diverting blood away from the digestive organs into the muscles so we can run for our lives or avoid that phone call. When this system is activated, it reduces saliva production, increases heart rate, dilates our pupils, and inhibits the activity of the digestive organs, pancreas, and gall bladder. When we’re in a state of grief, anxiety, confusion, or anger, we are acting from the SNS. When we eat while rushed, on the go, arguing, watching the news, or in other stressful environments, we don’t have full functioning of the digestive organs, so food doesn’t get properly processed into readily available nourishment.

When we are living from the PNS, the rest-and-digest or feed-and-breed branch of the autonomic nervous system, saliva production increases, heart rate is reduced, our pupils constrict, and blood flows to the organs of digestion, pancreas, and gall bladder. This is eating relaxed. We know we are relaxed when our breathing is steady, the heartbeat is at a resting rate, the stomach is not tensed, and there’s no tightness in the chest. We experience a sense of ease and comfort in the mind and body. If you are unsure what relaxed looks like, check out a dog lounging on a couch. I look at my dog when he is belly-up, without a care in the world, and I want to be like him. This is how we want to feel when we eat: relaxed, in good company, having a positive conversation, in a calm environment.

Know that it isn’t always possible to eat local and relaxed 100 percent of the time. Enjoy your avocado toast and bananas—and also try slowing down, favoring foods in season, and savoring every bite. This is Ayurveda’s invitation for living in balance, through all seasons of the year and all seasons of life.

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