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You are what you eat: when was the last time you really thought about what that meant? Judging by what’s in the grocery store aisles, we are a nation of people made up of highly processed, sugary, boxed, canned, bagged, junk.

Many people bemoan the “high cost” of food but don’t consider the end results: obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cavities, susceptibility to illness, and other ills of “modern” civilization. Our government (and others) fixate on access to medical insurance and health care for our neediest citizens but have neglected to insure that all have access to healthy food, proper exercise, and the knowledge required not only to take advantage of these vital links in our lifestyle chain but to understand why they are important.

It’s important to consider how much is removed from a plant (or animal) when it’s processed. Scientists study the nutritional value of various foods but will never know everything there is to know – it wasn’t that long ago that no one knew that some foods exerted an effect on the hormones, particularly estrogen (soy, for instance). It’s now becoming known that the active ingredient in a medicinal plant may not have the same effects when isolated – the traditional uses were usually for the whole plant or some portion of the whole plant (ie the root, or leaves and stems) and it was harvested at a particular time and prepared in a particular way (and the traditional Ayurvedic method and many shamanic traditions also include prayers so that the plant would have its healing effect the right way).

The Vedic tradition from which Ayurveda springs states that “we are born of food” (TaittiriyaUpanishadic verse). and Ayurveda considers food to be the first step in creating the tissues of the body: rasa (plasma), rakta (blood), mamsa (muscle), meda (fat), asthi (bone), majja (marrow), and shukra or artava (reproductive tissue). Any deficiency at any step in the process can wreak havoc on the tissues above and below in the chain, as all are connected. So the first step in healing ourselves from inside out begins with consuming pure food, whole food as much as possible so that the things we don’t know about yet can synergistically work to create the strongest tissues.

Good food need not be expensive: membership in a Community Supported Agriculture farm, while requiring an upfront expenditure, brings families a huge amount of healthy, usually organic, produce druing the growing season (and sometimes year-round. My membership this year cost me around $500 upfront, but that money will bring me enough fresh veggies and fruit to feed four people for 6 months – that’s $83 a month folks, track what you spend a la carte in the grocery store on the same stuff for six months and then see what it comes to. The middle man is eliminated, the farmer makes more, you get more, you eat more healthy. How to help the poor? How about community co-ops, churches, charities, etc. combining forces to help subsidize CSA farm produce for communities that don’t have decent grocery stores in their communities and may not be able to travel to farmers markets?

Perhaps it’s time to begin a new revolution, one that helps those of us who know the benefits of eating real food teach those who don’t how to take charge of their own health; a new foundation created to attract donations specifically to purchase CSA shares and distribute this healing food to those in need of it, to hire teachers to instruct them in how to properly prepare it for maximum benefit, and to build communities around the principle of “you are what you eat – a whole person”.


flowers and rock

flowers and rock

Spring has put in a brief appearance today with an unseasonable warm day – according the website we reached a high of 63* and should stay in the 50’s the rest of this week!

While the weather may vary the overall season still maintains its energy – it’s still Winter/Vata season with its cold and dryness but Spring is on its way with its cool and damp qualities. If you are one of those people with seasonal allergies there are steps you can begin to take now that can help lessen your body’s tendency to accumulate Kapha (the energy of Spring) which would then become aggravated in its season.

Winter and Spring share the qualites of cold or cool, so we should continue with eating and drinking warm foods. But in Winter we also often crave sweet tasting foods which balance Vata by countering the tastes which aggravate it. In Spring we will need to reduce sweet tasting foods in favor of more of the fresh greens that will detoxify and energize us by reducing the heaviness and mucus-forming qualities of Kapha which can be aggravated by too much sweet (and dairy products are considered sweet tasting in Ayurveda – have you ever noticed becoming congested after consuming dairy?). This doesn’t mean you have to eliminate it entirely – the things you deny yourself may then become the things you crave most.

By slowly reducing the amount of the heavier foods we eat and beginning to eat more of the greens that will begin appearing we may may lessen the misery that often accompanies beautiful Spring weather. We can also begin to incorporate more vigorous exercise as the sun rises earlier and sets later to burn off not only any excess stored bodyfat but the lethargy that often sets in Winter. The lightness of the food we are moving towards will balance the heaviness that is now accumulating, keeping us agile in more ways than we imagine!

You may hate to keep hearing this, but research shows that regular exercise is the best thing you can do for yourself. It helps you on so many different levels – it strengthens muscles, limbers joints, burns bodyfat, reduces stress, lowers cholesterol levels and blood pressure, boosts metabolism, and your ability to learn (so it’s also good for your kids). And one recent study by the University of Boston School of Medicine showed tremendous promise in using Yoga to treat depression ( while other studies being conducted at Walter Reed shows benefits for soldiers suffering from PTSD (

From the Ayurvedic standpoint, exercise is part of a daily routine that includes cleansing the body, purifying the mind (meditation), and consuming pure food. Exercise should be appropriate for the individual’s nature: some need to exercise gently while others should be more vigorous in order to avoid creating imbalances that can cause disease.

Someone who is “Vata” dominant is already inclined to movement, as Vata is responsible for movement. One who is “Pitta” dominant is fiery in nature, and often very committed to whatever they wish to do; Pitta is responsible for digestion of food as well as mental impressions. “Kapha” dominant individuals tend toward stability, and may not wish to move unless the benefits are clearly explained and they have some time to consider and make up their minds. Kapha is responsible for assimilation of nutrients and impressions. Which type would benefit most from vigorous exercise, and who should slow down? (hint: the things you hate to do are the things you need to do most…)

We should also keep in mind that any one of these doshas (literally, “that which goes out of balance”) or combination of doshas can be out of balance. A Vata person can have a Kapha imbalance, or a Pitta imbalance, or all three doshas out of balance. The right type and amount of exercise can help alleviate these imbalances, but one can’t expect to continue eating bad food and hope that exercise will keep away the imbalance. If you aren’t sure what your type is or what may be out of balance, consultation with someone who specializes in Ayurveda can help you to understand your nature and why you constantly suffer from cracking joints, stuffy sinuses, or whatever else may ail you. He or she can also help you find the proper regimen for slowly bringing you back into balance so these things will become a thing of the past!

While we may have difficulty making radical changes in our lifestyles, if we make small steps and work consistently towards a lifestyle that is sustainable as well as beneficial for our natures we will notice how much better we feel when in balance. Even a little change, practiced consistently over a long period of time, will make a big difference years down the road. So Vata and Pitta types, learn to slow down and smell the Yoga; Kapha types, get offa yer asana and move!

What if your daily routine could heal you to the point that you no longer needed aspirin for headaches you no longer have? Or lower your blood pressure, normalize your blood sugar, clear your arteries, help you sleep, reduce your stress?

What if your food choices reduced your grocery budget, made your skin glow, kept your kids healthy, happy, and eager and able to learn in school?

Our selections are too often made not by considering how much they will cost us down the road but by what they cost us now – cheap, overly processed food-in-a-box, meat and milk from factory-farmed animals raised in confinement (because it’s cheaper and more convenient for the “farmer”), “energy” bars and trendy “energy” drinks (they claim to give us quick nutrition or all day energy), bottled water (because we no longer trust what comes out of our taps) that turns out to be tap water….

But many of us haven’t yet found one of the most powerful cost-reducing tricks on the menu – joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group. By “buying into” a local farm that grows our produce or raises our chickens or beef we can significantly reduce our yearly grocery bill. I just signed up for One Straw Farm’s CSA for $425 for the growing season from June – November, and my one share will feed four people all summer (about $71/month for six months, or less than $18/week for FOUR people! $4.50 per person per week!). Greens, tomatoes, squashes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, radishes, lettuces, strawberries, melons, and a few things I am not familiar with (forcing me to try new things…), and my costs were reduced by half while I ate better than I ever have. I saw my migraines disappear to the point that I no longer have to take the expensive medication I was on. I’m not even buying over-the-counter pain relievers (I make fresh ginger tea instead)! Obviously, this makes me very happy…

If One Straw Farm is not the CSA for you, google CSA and find a farm in your area. Many farms have extensive websites that describe what they do, how they do it, and even provide recipes for the more unusual produce they grow. One Straw has a blog that keeps us up to date on what affects our deliveries, such as weather, critters that may eat “our” food before it can be harvested (we got a lot of greens last year, because their groundhog population had eaten “our” other crops….). Having a closer relationship with our food and the people who grow it gives us a greater appreciation for the work involved in lovingly bringing healthy meals to our families.

One of the most meditative experiences we can build into our days is that of preparing a truly nutritious meal from fresh, locally grown ingredients. It only takes a minute or two to slice some fresh kale, onions, or mushrooms to add to our scrambled eggs in the morning (from a local egg farmer of course) or our rice in the evening. And by sauteeing our veggies in sesame oil or ghee (clarified butter) which has been infused with healing spices like coriander, turmeric, or cumin (or all three!) we can reduce inflammation in our arteries while adding rich flavor to our meal. Don’t be afraid of the fat! It’s important for that full satisfied feeling, for assimilation of fat-soluble vitamins, for getting us to our next meal so we don’t snack on junk food in between meals…

In Ayurveda, ghee is considered important for bringing the healing properties of spices into our cells. The clarification process removes the sugars from butter which then makes the butter stable at room temperature (no refrigeration required!); this means that ghee does not burn when cooked, nor does it go rancid quickly like other oils might. Ghee is also a highly saturated fat, which is not a bad thing – this saturation is what makes it stable and solid out of the fridge and keeps it “good”.

Rancidity occurs when oxygen molecules bind with the fat or oil to make it go “bad”. Rancid oils (the polyunsaturated ones, which have “open” spaces in their molecules) bind readily with oxygen, and since most processed foods use these oils, chances are that processed food is already rancid by the time you buy it. Doesn’t that sound yummy? And, that rancidity is what creates inflammation in your body, which causes heart disease and other ills.

I remember that my grandparents cooked with lard (a highly saturated fat from pork), used lots of butter on bread, made the best fried chicken, and the veggies came from the garden just outside the farmhouse, picked fresh (the peas were sweet enough to eat raw!). And they stayed healthy as long as they ate that way. In Asia, coconut or red palm oil is used, and traditional societies there also have low rates of heart disease (it’s only recently, as they shift to a Western lifestyle, that they are now experiencing “our” diseases).

Just by changing how we eat, how we cook, what fats we use when we cook can go a long way towards reducing inflammation while improving the taste of our food. At the same time, our health improves and our medical costs are sure to decline. I went from seeing a neurologist (for the migraines), my primary care doctor, a naturopath, acupuncturist, and physical therapist (I was a mess…. more on that later) to keeping the PT and the acupuncturist, with a consultation with the Ayurvedic consultant at Kripalu (where I am studying Ayurveda). This year I do not expect to meet my $2500 deductible on my health insurance where in previous years I was spending $5000 or more on health care.

When we look forward to a fresh-cooked meal made with high-quality traditional fats, spices, and main ingredients we can really focus on the experience of tasting, smelling, and fully digesting our food. By scheduling regular meals with our families, we also keep the tradition of sharing the experience with others, staying in touch with each other, infusing our meals with love and compassion.

The ancients said “we are born of food”. We in America amended it to “you are what you eat”.

Either way, wouldn’t you rather be made of the highest quality ingredients?

February 2009
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