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Here’s how Ayurveda can help you get through this winter

Ayurveda is considered by many scholars to be the world’s oldest healing science, stemming from the Vedas, Hinduism’s most ancient texts. Addressing the needs of the body, mind, and spirit, Ayurveda takes a holistic approach to wellbeing, implementing a system of preventative, curative, and health maintenance processes and techniques, in which food and diet play a central role.

The following is an interview with Divya Alter, a certified nutritional consultant and educator in the Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda tradition. With roughly 30 years of experience in Ayurvedic cooking, she and her husband are founders of Bhagavat Life, New York’s only Ayurvedic culinary school, and Divya’s Kitchen, an Ayurvedic restaurant in Manhattan. She is the author of “What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen.”

What is the approach of Ayurveda when it comes to food and diet? What is the goal of an Ayurvedic chef when preparing a meal?

The goal is to promote and maintain balance for the body and for the mind. I look at food not just as something that fills the belly and gives us energy and keeps us alive. I really look at food as one of the main components to good health

If you’re not feeling well and you go see an Ayurvedic doctor, the first thing they will ask you is “what are you eating?” Food can either improve our health and help us maintain good health, or food can make us very sick.

As an Ayurvedic chef, I look at food in a very personalized way. One food that may be good for me, might not be good for you, because we have different digestive systems, different imbalances. We live in different parts of the world with different seasons. When preparing an Ayurvedic meal, I would address the needs of the person I’m cooking for by considering where they are geographically, the season, meal time, the health condition (and dosha imbalances), age, what type of food they are used to eating — all that, plus make the meal delicious!

When you eat the food that’s really best for you, you feel great, you enjoy it. It has to be tasty, it has to look good, but also that you’re able to fully digest it and convert that food into the building blocks of your health and your energy.

Ayurveda recommends certain foods depending on the season. Can you go a little deeper into why this is?

Different geographical locations have different seasons. Here in New York City, we experience four seasons. In India you experience six seasons. With the change of the environment, the change of the weather, it’s important to adjust our diet. Just as we change our clothes to adapt to the changes of the environment, we similarly need to change our diet to eat with the season. If you don’t change your seasonal eating, you’ll feel off. You’ll feel like something’s not right, because you’re not in harmony with the nature around you.

With the winter months approaching, what foods do you recommend people should incorporate into their diets?

Always choose foods that are of opposite characteristics to how you’re feeling and what is happening in nature.

In this season, it’s cold and it’s dry; it’s windy; it can get very rainy, or it might snow, and we don’t get enough sun. It’s unpleasant weather to be outside. So it’s very important to balance with foods of the opposite qualities. We need to favor more warm, moist foods. Soups and stews are fantastic! Curry, kitchari! You know all these warm, grounding foods that really make you feel like you’re getting a hug. They’re very comforting foods. And then tea, different types of tea. So warm liquids in general. And more protein. If you’re a vegetarian like me, I eat a little extra paneer. Yogurt is also very much in season. But don’t eat the Greek yogurt cold out of the fridge. Greek yogurt is too thick and too clogging. It will make you gain fat and it will make you more congested. If you learn how to do it, it’s ideal to have homemade yogurt. Otherwise you can take it out of the fridge, let it warm up to room temperature, and then eat it. You can also put a little bit of honey in it. Honey will help you digest yogurt better.

Lentils and beans are also good during the winter, especially the smaller beans, as they’re easier to digest. These are higher-in-protein foods. Add a little extra fat to your foods, a little extra olive oil or extra ghee. A little bit of sesame oil or mustard oil (if you’re used to them) is also good, because they create heat in the body. We need to eat extra fat to also balance the external dryness of our skin. Extra fat moisturizes us on the inside.

But stay away from coconut oil during this season, because coconut oil creates coolness in the body. It’s great for South India, but it’s not good for winter in New York City.

During this season, you’re also probably gravitating toward baked goods, a little extra bread, something made with flour, because it’s heavier and it gives you more satiation. So yeah, go for the extra baked goods. Just make sure it’s not the white flour and refined sugar cookies and cakes that are not so healthy. You want flour from whole grains, like the flour for making homemade rotis or parathas.

What foods should be avoided during the winter months?

When it comes to a healthy diet, it’s important to pay attention to both, what to favor and to avoid, because you cannot just keep eating the foods that are not balancing and expect to feel better. You want to avoid foods that are of a similar quality to the environment and the way you’re feeling.

Cold salads are not so suitable in this season. Cold salads and raw foods in general, they’re just too cold, they’re too rough, they’re too airy. They can create more gas and bloating.When I feel like eating a salad in cold weather, I make a steamed-vegetable salad, like the Golden Beet and Green Bean Salad recipe in my cookbook. It’s pretty looking and delicious.

Also avoid foods that are too heavy to digest. For example, the orange pumpkins, even though they’re in season now, they’re a little heavier to digest, and for some people they can create clogging in the gut. So if you’re making a dish with orange pumpkin, I would say make it occasionally and add those hot pungent spices, like ginger and chili, maybe some mustard seeds, just to help you digest the heaviness of the pumpkin.

In general, during the winter add more spices, because they create more warmth.

Avoid anything with coconut. Coconut is very cooling. Avoid watermelons and all other melons. Avoid foods that are too bitter. A little bit of bitter as a digestive is ok, but not too bitter. We need more bitter in spring but not in winter.

And avoid dry foods, like popcorn, chips, and crackers because they’ll promote more dryness in the body.

Cold and flu season is imminent during the winter, as well as a possible uptick in covid cases. What is the best way to strengthen the immune system as we go into the colder months?

Well first of all, follow the list of foods to favor and avoid, because when you eat foods that are not right for you, your body creates semi-digested sludge in the body. It’s called ama. This ama is very clogging. It creates extra phlegm and congestion, which weakens the immune system, creating a breeding ground for disease.

Avoid foods that congest you. It’s very important to eat the foods that you’re able to digest to maintain a good environment in your body, strong digestive fire, strong metabolism. This is your first line of defense. When you have a strong immune system, which comes from the food that you’re able to fully digest, and eat good food, you improve your body’s natural defense mechanisms.

There are many foods that help boost immunity. Fresh ginger, for example, is fantastic for this season because it helps circulation, it dries phlegm; it’s antiviral, and antibacterial. You can add ginger to your soups and vegetables and also make ginger tea. Drinking it regularly will keep your digestion strong and it will help ward off unwanted microorganisms.

What are some of your favorite winter recipes and what do you like about them?

At Divya’s Kitchen, we serve a Vegetable Curry bowl, and it just feels so good in the winter season — it’s moist and warm, a little spicy, and very filling. I also enjoy my Sweet Potato Smoothie recipe. It’s a warm smoothie with cooked sweet potatoes, almond milk, and dates — so creamy and comforting.

In this season, I also enjoy roasted vegetables and soups, like the Minestrone we serve at Divya’s Kitchen. And I love kitchari. Whenever I don’t have time to cook, I use our kitchari pantry products because they make it so easy to prepare a fresh meal in 20 minutes.

Ayurvedic food doesn’t always have to be Indian food. Ayurveda is a universal science, you can apply it anywhere in the world. You can adapt local cuisines to the principles of Ayurveda, because one of the main principles of Ayurvedic eating is to eat locally. So use local ingredients for your meals.

What’s the most important thing beginners should keep in mind when incorporating Ayurvedic principles into their cooking?

The first step is to develop the habit of self-awareness. To check in with yourself. “Where am I at right now, how am I feeling, what do I need?” Ayurveda encourages us to slow down, check in with ourselves, and be in the present moment. Doing this will help you make the best decisions, not just with food but with life in general. And if you want to learn more about how to use Ayurveda to take care of your health, find a book or a course or a teacher that can help you learn.

In terms of food, a major first step is to choose foods that are wholesome, natural and fresh. Try to avoid the ultra-processed packaged frozen foods, because these foods, whether they’re Ayurvedic or not, really destroy our health. They’re often made with a lot of artificial ingredients, bad oils; they’re not fresh; they don’t give energy to our body. On the contrary, they drain our energy.

In terms of food, a major first step is to choose foods that are wholesome, natural and fresh. Try to avoid the ultra-processed packaged frozen foods, because these foods, whether they’re Ayurvedic or not, really destroy our health. They’re often made with a lot of artificial ingredients, bad oils; they’re not fresh; they don’t give energy to our body. On the contrary, they drain our energy.

Then learn to cook. Try to incorporate home cooking as much as possible. Fit it in your schedule, make it part of your life, because cooking fresh meals — without even worrying if they’re Ayurvedic or not — just cooking fresh meals is one of the best things you can do for your health.

How will a person’s life transform in the long term if they stick to such principles and continue on the path of Ayurvedic eating?

One of the first things people notice is that they come to their natural weight.

For example, before I started practicing Ayurveda, I was underweight. I had an autoimmune disease, and I was very skinny and weak. Ayurveda helped me completely cure my autoimmune disease and also I gained my optimal weight.

​​I know a lot of people who lost weight just by eating the Ayurvedic way, without limiting their calories. They had full meals, but they switched from eating fast and processed foods to cooking at home under my guidance, using real natural foods and spices. They were amazed at how they really enjoyed their meals, feeling full and energized but not heavy after eating.

Another benefit is that you’ll feel more energy. You feel energized and experience sustained energy throughout the day. You’ll hopefully need less coffee, or give up coffee altogether because you’re feeling that natural energy. You’ll also sleep better. Especially if you follow the meal timing and portion recommendations, you’ll be able to sleep well and wake up easily.

Another very visible positive change is your skin. I’ve seen a lot of people with skin issues clear their skin from acne, rosacea, or rashes. The skin is the external representation of what’s going on in our gut. When you eat Ayurvedically, and regularly incorporate cleansing foods (some examples are bitter melon, red beets, okra, asparagus), you will support the natural detoxification of your blood. You may notice, “oh wow, my skin is better.” And if you follow the oil self-massage and other body treatments recommended by Ayurveda, then you’ll feel and look younger, too!

Ayurveda can help you come back to your optimal health for your age. It can help you integrate your human experience physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But it is a participatory healing system. If you want Ayurveda to work for you, you must do your part by giving up the habits that lead to disease and embrace the habits that can help you heal. Align your eating patterns, your lifestyle habits, and your relationships to support your personal growth and wellbeing. Then you can experience profound personal transformation and the empowerment to offer your best contributions to the world.

By Syama Allard

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