Americans make healthy eating way too complicated!
Whether you just want to lose a few pounds or address a serious condition like high blood pressure, it’s hard to know how to eat when the media bombards us with conflicting information on nutrition.
Here’s my advice:
Before you get sucked down the rabbit hole of the modern nutrition debate, take a step back and follow the 5000-year-old wisdom from India on healthy eating: FRESH IS BEST.
Fresh Food = Vibrant Health
According to Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of health, freshness is the cornerstone of a healthy diet. The single most important thing to ask yourself before picking up your fork is: How fresh is this food I’m about to eat?
Freshness is crucial even if you don’t follow Ayurvedic guidelines. If you’re on a specific diet, or if you simply eat what you like or the way you were raised, you can still give yourself a health boost by choosing fresh options.
I think we all know this intuitively. Who doesn’t feel joyful, peaceful and connected to nature when they visit a farmer’s market bursting with freshly harvested fruits and vegetables and fresh-baked bread made from locally sourced wheat?
Three Reasons Why Freshness is Key
The focus on freshness makes perfect sense if you think about food from a holistic perspective. According to Ayurveda, what we eat not only has an impact on our physical body, but on our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being as well. Why is that?
1) Fresh food contains prana, which means “intelligent life energy” in Sanskrit. This is the same life energy that’s in all of us and all around us in nature.
In Ayurveda, food is more than the sum of its parts. A firm, bright orange, locally grown carrot, for example, has loads of life energy that can boost your well-being at an energetic level. You could think of it as the carrot transferring its life-enhancing properties you.
Simone de Winter, a Certified Ayurvedic Specialist, explains, “When we are full of prana, we feel good, we look good, and we feel vibrant and alive – we are productive with healthy sustained energy.”1
Have you noticed that you actually feel better both physically and mentally when you’ve eaten a crispy salad made from homegrown greens? Or when you’ve cooked your own stir fry from fresh veggies and steamed rice rather than ordering Chinese take-out?
This feeling of well-being isn’t simply all in your head; you can literally feel the life energy of nature internally, at a very deep level. To me, it’s a kind of slow food “high” that grows over time and sustains me on a long-term basis.
2) Fresh food contains more vitamins, antioxidants, fiber and enzymes.
This is the more modern, scientific view of food. While reductionist in nature, it also has its merits. Nutrient-rich foods can improve your heart health, reduce the risk of cancer, and lower blood triglycerides, to name just a few of the physical benefits.
You can also stabilize your mood so that you feel more joyful and peaceful, more often. Multiple studies have shown that people who eat a traditional diet high in fresh vegetables, fruits and unprocessed grains have a 25%-30% lower risk of depression.2
When you’re shopping, keep in mind that the moment a food is harvested, it begins to lose its nutritional value. Processing in any form will further reduce the nutritional impact of food on your body and mind. As a result, you will end up eating empty calories, food that fills up your stomach but does little to support your well-being.
Barbara Sinclair, a holistic health practitioner, says, “Local, seasonal and preferably organic food is the best possible fuel for our bodies.”3 I agree 100 percent! This is why you should choose the locally grown orange, for example, over a mango that was harvested overseas when unripe and transported for days or weeks to your local store.
You’ll have to be flexible when shopping, though, and see what fresh and local food items are being sold that day. Create your dinner based on what’s available, or substitute items in a recipe (e.g. switch out a box of California strawberries with luscious homegrown peaches in a cobbler).
It might be a different way of thinking about grocery shopping, but your health depends on choosing food that packs the biggest nutritional punch possible. And that is entirely under your control!
3) Fresh food is easier to digest.
A basic principle in Ayurveda is that efficient digestion is a cornerstone of good health. When our digestion is working well, the result is ojas: the byproduct of digestion that’s like the body’s honey. Ojas supports our overall health, gives us vitality and supports our immune system. It also leads to a calm, peaceful mind and helps us ward off the daily stressors of life.
Dr John Douillard, an internationally acclaimed Ayurvedic practitioner, writes in a blog post that “when we eat fresh, unprocessed foods, microscopic amounts of their essence accumulate over time through the healthy process of digestion, and become ojas. If digestion is disturbed, the essence of the food will not be extracted and no ojas will be made.”4
So you can see why poor digestion is often the root cause of disease. When we don’t digest our food completely, nutrients aren’t absorbed properly and ojas isn’t produced efficiently, or at all.
The undigested food becomes a kind of toxic sludge (known as ama) and creates disease. The older or more processed a food item is, the greater the chance it will remain in your body as ama.
How Fresh is Fresh?
What is the freshest? Food that’s closest to its source – prepared and consumed as close to harvest as possible. Here’s my list in order of freshness. It might make you think about how you can tweak your shopping, cooking and eating habits:
- Food from a backyard garden (or chicken coop) or a farmer’s market.
- Locally grown food from a grocer, preferably organic.
- Fresh-looking food from your standard grocer.
- Fresh food frozen by you for later consumption.
- Homemade dishes that have become leftovers.
- Canned or jarred foods with few or no additives (such as canned corn or minimally processed spaghetti sauce)
- Highly processed, packaged food with lots of additives.
Let’s take a closer look at this list. We already know to steer clear of highly processed foods and visit the farmer’s market as much as possible. But the range of freshness in between is a little harder to get a handle on.
All Frozen Food is Not Created Equal
What about frozen food? The best answer is – it depends! The pros and cons of frozen food are hotly debated, and I’ve developed my own approach based on my Ayurvedic studies and personal experience.
Here’s my take on it:
If you have a summer garden full of zucchini, strawberries or tomatoes, go ahead and harvest them when perfectly ripe and freeze them immediately for use throughout the fall. You will still benefit from your garden’s abundance even though you can’t consume all of it fresh off the vine. There’s nothing better than homegrown blueberries in October when berry season is long over, and you’ll still reap many of the nutritional benefits.
Store-bought, flash frozen organic fruits and vegetables are acceptable in a pinch, but you certainly don’t want to rely on them. There’s a difference between preparing huge bags of frozen veggies all the time and having some frozen peas or corn kernels on hand to sprinkle into a freshly made chili.
Please don’t waste your money on processed frozen food like pizza and veggie burgers that will likely lead to ama in your body!
Do I Have to Give Up My Leftovers?
Not necessarily, but at least you’ll have to develop a different mindset about leftovers. Here’s why:
When you cook a dish, even if it contains fresh, organic ingredients, the minute it’s cooked, the ingredients begin to decompose rather quickly. Again, this will be hard on your digestion and create toxins in the body.
So the amazingly healthy dish you created and enjoyed fresh on Sunday will become a decomposing toxic stew after several days. Even if it still looks and smells acceptable, please know that your senses are deceiving you.
In a conscious cooking workshop I attended a few years ago, Dr. Vasant Lad of the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico recommended not keeping leftovers for more than one day. I found Dr. Lad to be reasonable man who takes the busy lives of the average person into account.
I follow his advice and allow myself to eat leftovers not older than 24 hours. Other Ayurvedic experts I’ve read will tell you to cook fresh at every single meal, but for most of us, this isn’t a realistic option. Cooking and eating should give us pleasure, not stress!
One way to mitigate the leftover problem is to freeze your meals. If you’re used to making a healthy batch of chili on Sunday, for example, portion it out into 2-3 single serving meals and put the containers immediately into the freezer for later use.
This is the best way to preserve the integrity of the ingredients if your work schedule simply doesn’t allow you to cook every day during the week. Try to consume your batch meals within 3 days, rather than extending it for an entire week.
Tips for Replacing Stale with Fresh
Here are a few simple suggestions for making the switch to fresh:
|Home-cooked rolled oats (not the quick-|
cooking kind – get my recipe here)
|Homemade hummus (it’s easy – get my recipe|
|Bottled salad |
|Use olive oil, salt & pepper, balsamic vinegar |
or fresh lemon/lime/orange juice
|Snacks like chips & |
|Cut-up veggies and fruit|
|Canned beans||Dried beans soaked overnight and cooked, use |
|Spaghetti sauce in a jar||Fresh tomatoes, chopped and sautéed in olive |
oil, garlic and basil
Take Inventory, Then Do Your Best
The key, I think, is to do your best! I follow the 80-20 rule: I eat my best at least 80 percent of the time and the rest of the time I don’t worry about it. Often I find that I slack off when I’m travelling or at someone’s house for dinner, where I have less control over my food options.
Here’s what I suggest: Take inventory of your pantry and fridge, and start with the worst freshness offenders. Throw out anything that’s highly processed with lots of additives and expiration dates far into the future. When you do this, you will automatically start replacing those items with fresher food.
If your pantry and fridge are already pretty “clean,” challenge yourself to cook a typical meal with only fresh ingredients. That’s what I did. It’s easier than you think, and it’s fun to test your cooking skills when you have to improvise a little bit.
Be Kind To Yourself
Finally, don’t beat yourself up – either about how you’ve been eating or how you can’t change your food habits 180 degrees overnight. Decide on one small change you want to make and implement it. Then do it again, and again. Over time, making good food choices will get easier as you feel the positive impact on your entire being. Bon appétit!