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“What should I be eating?” is a question I hear frequently from my patients. Research shows that diet affects not only physical health, but also has a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing. Gastrointestinal and digestive complaints are common in psychiatric disorders and maintaining a well-balanced diet and healthy digestion is a cornerstone of holistic psychiatric treatment. As an Integrative Psychiatrist, my appointments are not complete without a discussion of diet and nutrition. From ketogenic, to paleo, gluten-free, vegan, intermittent fasting, and Atkins, there are so many diets to choose from and the plethora of information available can be overwhelming and confusing. There is no one size fits all approach and what works for one person may not be right for the next. So, when counseling my patients on diet, I offer seven basic Ayurvedic principles that apply to everyone:
1. Make gradual changes
In Ayurveda, quick, drastic changes in diet are not advisable. Rather, gradual, gentle changes are recommended to allow time for the body to adjust to your new dietary routine. Taking things slow and steady is also easier to implement and more likely to bring lasting success. For example, if you are currently consuming a Standard American Diet (SAD) and having trouble getting enough fresh fruits and vegetables, instead of a complete overhaul, start by dividing your plate in half. Fill one side with colorful fruits and veggies and the other with a half size portion of your usual food. With consistent small changes over time, you’ll find that your food choices naturally start to shift.
2. Slow down and chew well
Many of us eat on the go, while in our cars, or at our desks working, checking email, or reading, not paying attention to what we’re eating or how we’re eating it. In Ayurveda, it is understood that the way we eat impacts digestion and overall health. First, slow it down. Take at least 10 to 15 minutes to eat while sitting in a calm environment, keeping distractions to a minimum. Chewing the food well is another simple but fundamental step that most of us forget about. Digestion begins in the mouth, thus it is important to chew thoroughly, as much as 30 times per bite for very dense foods. Lastly, whatever you are eating, take it with confidence! Enjoy and savor it, paying attention, slowing down, letting go of any associated guilt. If you are reading this right now while eating, close your browser, pay attention to your meal, chew it well, and enjoy!
3. Stay on a schedule
Even 5,000 years ago, the importance of regulating the circadian rhythm was understood in Ayurveda. Eating at the same time every day helps to synchronize circadian cycles, improves sleep and energy, helps with weight loss, regulates blood sugar and hormone secretion, and improves digestion. Try to eat your meals around the same time every day, give or take an hour. Give yourself bonus points if your largest meal is midday when digestive power is at its peak. Eating your largest meal at lunch will help fuel you throughout the day and reduce the likelihood of overeating in the evening when metabolism slows down. Studies show that people who eat their largest meal at lunch time also have an easier time losing weight.
4. Use herbs and spices
Spices are a key component of the Ayurvedic armamentarium. In addition to providing flavor, they also aid digestion, promote a healthy gut microbiome, and have myriad other health benefits. Fennel and cumin, for example, are effective for bloating, turmeric is recognized for its anti-inflammatory properties, cardamom is an anti-oxidant and anti-spasmodic, and cinnamon can help balance blood sugar levels. Have fun and experiment with different herbs and spices in your food. Indian, Mexican, and Mediterranean recipes are a great place to start. A caveat – be careful with hot spices like ginger or cayenne if you have any issues with heartburn, GERD, or inflammation of the GI tract.
5. Eat more (lightly cooked) plants
Eating whole, minimally processed foods with an emphasis on plants provides a multitude of health benefits and is compatible with most diets. The tendency may be to include more salads or smoothies, but raw vegetables may not be suitable for everyone depending on your digestive balance and dosha type. Raw plants are harder to digest and can cause issues with bloating, gas, dryness, and feeling cold when the digestion system is not functioning optimally. In Ayurveda, lightly cooking vegetables on low heat is preferred and helps ease digestion.
6. Avoid extremes in temperature
As drastic changes in diet are not advisable in Ayurveda, nor are extremes in the temperature of food and beverages. Ice cold foods and beverages may dampen the digestive fire and affect metabolism, while piping hot foods can aggravate inflammatory conditions in the gut. Although the types of foods to consume may vary according to your constitution and digestive type, consuming room temperature or warm foods is a good rule of thumb for most people.
7. Listen to your body
Your body has an innate intelligence and will tell you what’s working for your system and what isn’t. Many different factors determine what types of foods are best suited for you, and a diet that seems to work wonders for your best friend or coworker may not be right for you. Slow down and pay attention to how different types of foods interact with your system. How does the food you eat affect your energy, bowel movements, digestion, skin, sleep, mood, and cognitive functioning? Listening to your body will not only provide you with invaluable information, but the act of slowing down and paying attention can itself be therapeutic.