|Sapna Punjabi-Gupta serves an Ayurvedic meal of Chila, Chutney and Shikanji at her home in Irving, Texas on July 8, 2014. Sapna is a nutritionist and expert in Ayurvedic cooking. Ayurveda is the traditional system of medicine in Hinduism. Ayurvedic cooking uses spices and herbs to aid digestion. (Lara Solt/The Dallas Morning News/MCT)|
“Food is medicine,” says Sapna Punjabi-Gupta, as she squeezes half a lime into a glass pitcher.
She’s making fresh limeade in her home kitchen in Irving, Tex. To the two squeezed limes, she adds about four cups of water and her own spice blend: chaat masala, which includes cardamom, fennel and roasted cumin seed powder. She stirs them together with a long wooden spoon, pours a glass and takes a sip.
Punjabi-Gupta’s limeade is unlike any available in the frozen food sections of Western grocery stores. This is limeade ayurveda-style.
What is ayurveda (ah-yer-VAY-dah)?
It’s the traditional system of medicine in Hinduism, she says. It’s still practiced in India as a complement to Western medicine. Punjabi-Gupta, a registered clinical dietitian, says that several of its principles can help anyone who wants to lead a healthier life.
Ayurveda’s religious roots are deep. It first appeared in written form more than 5,000 years ago in the Hindu scriptures called Vedas, which teach that the universe is made up of five elements (air, fire, water, earth and ether) and each human being is made up of a unique constitution of these elements.
When these elements get out of balance — say too much earth or too little fire — the body becomes unhealthy, the teachings say. Ayurveda provides guidelines that include cooking, massage therapy and meditation to help individuals balance the elements in their bodies.
Punjabi-Gupta specializes in ayurvedic cooking. She learned it first from her mother while growing up in Mumbai, India, then later by studying under the ayurvedic physician Vasant Lad at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico and while earning her master’s degree in nutrition from Case Western Reserve University.
She taught a lecture series on ayurvedic wellness at an area museum this summer and teaches ayurvedic cooking classes throughout the year.
Punjabi-Gupta is quick to insist that you need not be Hindu or accept the premise that the universe is made of up five elements to practice ayurveda. Nor do you need to be a vegetarian.
To practice ayurveda, all you need to do is be aware of what you eat and how it affects the well-being of your body and your mind. It can take the form of eating fresh foods, using spices for medicinal purposes, eating foods that pacify, rather than agitate, your digestive system and eating a balanced diet.
According to ayurveda, a balanced diet doesn’t mean consuming the right amount of the five food groups, but rather, eating meals that contain all six tastes. These tastes include sweet, sour and salty — tastes readily available in most Western diets — and those used less frequently: bitter, pungent and astringent.
By eating all six tastes, you make sure you receive a healthy dose of all five elements, she says..
“Do you know why Starbucks is thriving right now?” asks Punjabi-Gupta. “We are craving the taste of bitter.”
For astringent tastes, Punjabi-Gupta recommends any kind of legume: lentils, garbanzo beans and even sprouts. For pungent, she recommends red chile powder and peppers.
In ayurveda, good digestion is the cornerstone of good health, she says. Those who practice ayurveda cook with spices and herbs that she says aid digestion.
“Spices are these magical little pearls, gemstones, I would say, in a cuisine,” says Punjabi-Gupta.
She recommends eating a sliver of ginger drizzled with lemon juice before a meal to “kick-start your digestive fire.”
A slice of fresh ginger in a morning cup of tea or mixing dried ginger into homemade salad dressings will also do the trick, as will adding a little cumin to a bowl of yogurt or slipping some fennel seeds into a dish of lentils.
If eating ginger before a meal “stimulates your gut fire,” drinking a glass of ice water does just the opposite.
“Ice is not nice,” sings Punjabi-Gupta, then adds more seriously, “If you think about it … our temperature is hot inside. It’s warm inside because we’re eating raw food, we’re eating cooked food, and all that has to be broken down and absorbed. … Ice is not nice because it’s like dumping ice on fire. You’re shutting the temperature down in your stomach so the food just stays there.”
Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Plano, says Punjabi-Gupta may be right about the digestive powers of these herbs and spices, but there haven’t been enough evidence-based studies for conventional health care professionals to embrace them.
“People don’t get paid to do research on herbs because herbs aren’t patented,” she says.
For those who want to use herbs and spices to help with medical issues like digestion, Lemond suggests first making sure the herb or spice won’t interact with current medications in harmful ways. A good place to find out is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (nccam.nih.gov), which provides information about the medicinal properties of each spice and herb.
And, Lemond adds, those who are pregnant or nursing, the young and old, and anyone suffering from a medical condition should be especially careful when using alternative remedies for health issues.
But “ice is not nice” — that’s true, Lemond says.
During meals, “The best scenario is not to drink anything. The second is drinking water at room temperature.”
While the presence of water in the stomach doesn’t affect the breakdown of nutrients, she says it can cause gas production, which leads to stomach pains and belching, especially for people with sensitive stomachs.
Punjabi-Gupta adds that people should also take into account their personal digestive powers when deciding what to eat and how to prepare it. The body will have a harder time digesting foods that are dry, hard and processed than, say, something warm and fresh, she says.
For example, someone with constipation or irritable bowel syndrome will digest a granola bar differently from a person with an active digestive system, she says.
“If you’re somebody that has a digestive issue, why don’t we take all the elements that we put in a granola bar and make you a warm oatmeal or a warm granola? You can get the whole nourishment by changing the way it’s presented to you.”
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The gut will digest both the oatmeal and the granola bar, she says, but it will have to work a lot harder to digest the granola bar, and that extra work may be the difference between irritation and contentment for someone with a digestive issue.
Punjabi-Gupta says no one can go wrong by cooking according to season.
“It’s Texas hot weather right now,” she says. “We need to calm the heat that’s generated by the season.”
Instead of eating spicy foods, like bell peppers or red chile peppers, she suggests eating salads with root vegetables and fresh fruit, and cooking with spices like coriander and fennel, herbs like mint, basil and cilantro, and even coconut oil.
“These have a cooling effect throughout your body,” she says. “It’s internal pacifying.”
She lifts her glass of limeade as an example of a cooling summer drink, then points out that it’s not only cooling, but also fresh.
“Having this lime juice freshly limed right now has a life force energy vs. buying it from the store which was pre-packaged months ago,” she says.
“I am a big proponent of seasonal eating because it’s a lot fresher produce if you’re eating in season,” she says.
In ayurveda, the freshness of food is called its prana, and the more prana, the more rejuvenating and pleasurable to the taste.
For those who want to try ayurveda, Punjabi-Gupta suggests starting slow.
“I wouldn’t go cold turkey and start changing everything and start wearing different clothes and burning an incense stick,” she says.
If nothing else, she suggests being aware of your body and being intentional with what you eat.
“Ayurveda is all about teaching you to take care of yourself.”