Getting the Most Out of Our Food—Helpful Tips from Ayurveda and Modern Science

With the fullness of summer comes bustling farmers’ markets and overflowing shelves in the fruit and vegetable sections of our grocery stores. It is the time of the year when the availability of local produce is at its peak. Indulge! Studies have shown that eating seven or more servings of fruit and vegetables a day can extend life expectancy a staggering 42%.

To cook vegetables or to eat them raw is the question of the season. According to Ayurveda, this decision is best made with an understanding of your body type, your state of balance or imbalance, and the quality of your digestion.

Ayurveda’s main text, the Charak Samhita, recommends primarily cooked foods because cooking increases the element of agni that is essential for the assimilation of nutrients and their transformation into the bodily tissues. The higher proportion of nutrients available in raw food doesn’t count if you can’t digest, absorb and assimilate them. Let’s look first at body types and who can eat what. Then we’ll move on to specific foods and how to best make their nutrients available to us.

In order to choose the best option for your physiology, not only do you need to evaluate your individual physiology, it also helps take into account seasonal influences. In the summer, for instance, our body reacts to the high external heat by turning down our metabolism. This means that for many the ability to digest food is severely diminished.

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Raw Food vs Body Type

In general, those with Pitta, or Pitta/Kapha body types who do not have significant Vata imbalances can handle raw foods in their diet, especially in the late spring and summer seasons. This is because the element of “fire” or “agni” is very lively in their constitutions and they benefit from a cooling diet.

The overly cold, dry, light qualities of raw foods, however, may create problems for anyone with a severe Vata imbalance. They may find an increase in symptoms of abdominal gas, bloating, constipation, worry and anxiety, and dryness. Those wishing to balance or counter Vata imbalances do better with a diet that is warm, moist and easily digestible.

Those with Kapha imbalances may find that the cold nature of raw foods leads to allergies, sinus problems or asthma.

One solution for those who prefer raw foods but lack a strong Pitta component is to enjoy raw juices. Juicing or blending with “super blenders” that basically pulverize foods allows you to break down the cellulose the surrounds the outer layer of fruit and vegetable molecules, thus allowing you to derive optimum nutritional benefits.

Nutrient Availability in Foods 

It turns out that many vegetables only offer their full nutritional value when they have been cooked. Let’s look at how to get the most out of this summer’s fresh, organic vegetables.

It is important to note that when I refer to cooking vegetables, I am usually referring to steaming for 4 or 5 minutes or baking in the oven with a slight drizzle of oil. Obviously, mushy, over-cooked vegetables are not going to provide many healthful nutrients. Boiling vegetables removes many important minerals and nutrients.

Cooking vegetables reduces the mass of the vegetable, concentrating more nutrients with less bulk. Bitter greens like spinach and kale are generally more edible when cooked because cooking also eliminates the oxalic acid, which interferes with calcium absorption.

Cooking significantly improves the digestibility and bioavailability of starchy foods such as potatoes and yams, squashes. This is also true with grains and legumes.

(One note about whole grains: the phosphorus in bran is tied up in a substance called phytic acid. According to the book, Nourishing Traditions, phytic acid combines with iron, calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc in the intestinal tract, blocking their absorption. This is why many traditional ways of cooking grains include presoaking or fermenting grains before eating them. These processes neutralize the phytates, essentially predigesting the food so that their nutrients are more available. Phytic acid is also present in nuts, which also should be soaked before eating.)

Green beans always need to be cooked until soft otherwise, they are actually toxic. Raw beans are poisonous because they contain prussic acid, which is deactivated only by cooking.

Cooked carrots, spinach, asparagus, cabbage, and peppers supply more antioxidants such as carotenoids and ferulic acid to the body than they do when raw,

Mild heating, such as steaming, appears to improve the extractability of beta-carotene from vegetables, along with increasing betacarotene’s bioavailability. Beta-carotene absorption can be as low as 1-2% from raw vegetables such as carrots.

Lycopene in tomatoes is thought to be responsible for reducing the risk of some cancers and heart disease. Studies have shown that the absorption of lycopene is greater from cooked tomatoes. However cooking tomatoes can destroy other vitamins, so it is good to include raw tomatoes in one’s diet as well as cooked tomatoes.

Steaming asparagus ignites its cancer-fighting potential.

If you have any questions about which form of vegetables is best for you, check with an Ayurveda expert in your area. Ayurveda pulse assessment will reveal what kinds and forms of vegetables will be most helpful in creating a healthy balance for your mind/body system. Ayurveda recognizes the unique differences of each individual. In order to correctly determine your optimal requirements, it is important to understand your level of balance and imbalance. For information on Ayurvedic consultations, visit The Raj Ayurveda Health Spa website:

http://www.theraj.com

Coffee and Your Brain: Regaining Normal Brain-Functioning with Ayurveda

arabica_catura_coffee_beanMany of my friends start their active morning routine with a stop at the local coffee shop. Most of those friends also own some kind of coffee making apparatus and even their own grinder. Coffee is now a 30 billion dollar industry in the US. It is also an industry that is self-perpetuating: caffeine is highly addictive and the withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant. The other day one friend mentioned that she had been trying to quit coffee for over a year, but just couldn’t kick the habit. Part of her problem was the terrible headache she got when she tried to stop. She asked for an Ayurvedic perspective.

First and foremost, Ayurveda always recommends gradual shifts in changing diet and behavior. This is advice is especially appropriate when dealing with an addictive substance like caffeine. While the press now regularly touts the positive aspects of caffeine, the fact is that caffeine is a drug that alters your brain’s chemical and physical make-up.

Caffeine dissolves both in water and in fat-based substances. This means it dissolves in our blood and in our cell membranes. It also means that it can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain. The caffeine molecule closely resembles adenosine, a natural byproduct of cellular respiration—and our brain carries receptors for the adenosine molecules. Caffeine molecules fit neatly into the adenosine receptors, blocking them off and masking feelings of tiredness.

When the adenosine receptors get blocked, the brain signals the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline, a natural stimulant.

Author Stephen R. Braun, author of “Buzzed: the Science and Lore of Caffeine and Alcohol”, calls caffeine a “stimulant enabler: a substance that lets our natural stimulants run wild”. Over time, coffee, tea, caffeinated sodas and energy drinks end up changing the way our brain is wired. The brain starts to build more adenosine receptors in response to the constant blockage of those receptors. It also starts decreasing receptors for adrenaline. Because of this, regular caffeine drinkers need to up their “dosage” over time. And the coffee (and caffeine) industry continues to grow.

It takes 7 – 12 days of no caffeine to allow the brain to return to its original configuration. During that time withdrawal symptoms can be quite intense and include fatigue, headaches and nausea.

So how to go about dropping the caffeine habit without suffering? Start by gradually increasing the amount of milk added to your coffee. Coffee aggravates both Vata and Pitta doshas (but in moderation can actually help balance Kapha). Adding milk to coffee helps modify the aggravation of Vata dosha.

Next you can start trying a combination of regular and decaffeinated coffee. Slowly increase the ratio of decaf until you have eliminated the caffeinated coffee. Or (even better) try mixing coffee with Raja’s Cup (an herbal coffee substitute). Slowly increase the amount of Raja’s Cup until you have eliminated the coffee altogether.

Raja’s Cup is preferred over decaffeinated coffee because decaffeinated coffee still contains acids that can aggravate Pitta, and because coffee in general is known to increase free radicals. Raja’s Cup, on the other hand, has been shown to be hundreds of times more effective against free radicals than Vitamin C or E.

One other note: Coffee has a bitter taste, which is one taste that American diets tend to lack. If you make sure that you include bitter foods (such as leafy greens like spinach, kale, etc.) in your diet or use spices with a bitter taste (such as turmeric, fenugreek, cinnamon and cumin), you may find that your craving for caffeine diminishes. Chocolate also has a bitter taste—and contains caffeine—so watch out that you don’t replace one with the other!

As I discussed in the blog post, “Summer to Fall Transitions: Avoiding Rashes and Hay Fever with Ayurveda”, many people find themselves dealing with both Pitta and Vata disturbances as summer turns into fall and the increase in Vata starts to “fan the fire” of Pitta. If you are drinking coffee, this is a very good time to cut down or make the change to a non-caffeinated drink. Traditionally in Ayurveda, the times of seasonal transitions are the most important times for purification treatments (Panchakarma) and Ayurvedic consultations.

For information on Ayurveda consultations and detoxification programs (Panchakarma) visit The Raj Ayurveda Health Spa website:

 www.theraj.com

 

 

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