The world is awash in diets these days; high-protein, high-fat and high-carb. Veganism, vegetarianism and sugar-free, and then there are the diets that focus on grapefruits, coffee, low calories, eating in the zone, over-exercising, and grazing galore. They all have different approaches (ultimately that are debunked by the next popular approach,) but there is one thing that they all have in common….
Nature is no-where to be seen.
In our modern society, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that our diets, our foods, and even our performance and bodily functions, are all happening in a vacuum. Separate from our lives, separate from our surroundings, and separate from the natural world that we’re still very much apart of. Among the ways that we stay connected (in addition to the myriad of environmental, physical, emotional, circadian patterns that Ayurveda recognizes,) we remain connected through our FOOD. Whether we like it or not, all of our food (even that that comes in packages,) has come from nature in some form in some way. And yet we barely recognize our foods as more than a group of nutrients.
The phenomenon of eating “nutrients” instead of foods dates back the early 19th century when an English doctor and chemist named William Prout identified the three principle constitutients of food. These being protein, fat and carbohydrates – collectively what we now refer to as the macronutrients. Building on Prout’s discovery, a German scientist named Justus von Leibig (credited as being one of the founders of organic chemistry,) added a couple of minerals to these macronutrients and declared that the mystery of how our bodies turn animal nutrition into energy had been solved. Liebig went on to identify the key macronutrients in soil required by plants for them to thrive; these being nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Together, his findings effectively “cracked the mystery of human nutrition,” Michael Pollan states in his book In Defense of Food, and modern nutritional science was born.
The craze of reverse-engineering foods, and tracking the individual macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins and minerals ensued, as did studies done in labs that uncovered all of the “beneficial” and “detrimental” ways that these foods interacted with our bodies. It’s important to note that the number of variables involved in these studies is astonishing, at least in part because few circumstances of the individual, or of nature at large were taken into consideration. The ingredients studied were deconstructed parts of a larger sum. Whole-food had become lost.
And it remains lost in nearly all of the diets that we see grace our Instagram feeds and screens. But I have another approach to suggest; one that’s directly tied to nature and nothing more.
Eating with the seasons is one of the cardinal principles of Ayurvedic medicine; the notion that we’re meant to eat what nature provides in the season that it’s provided runs deep, and is logical when we look at it. Nature provides the fuel that we need to survive and thrive in the geographical location, and climate, that we find ourselves in. Specifically, our gut health – driven by the microbiome – needs feedback and microbes from our immediate environment IN SEASON to thrive, create immunity, and understand how to serve our health best. The way we transfer this information is through our foods. Which means that when we eat foods from all the way across the planet, we’re acclimating to a place far away…often at the detriment of our health in the here and now.
The sheer abundance and false sense of availability in our grocery stores these days, and the neatly packaged superfood blends that bring together ingredients from across the world that would never meet in the natural world without an obscene amount of modern technology muddy the waters and make it challenging to understand how to eat, what to eat and when. For example, there are seasons of the year when our ancestors would not have had grain for bread available to them (spring!) There are other seasons when animals would not have reached maturity, making eating meat inappropriate. But the reality is simple: the way to eat, that supports our health as humans most is the same now as it was thousands of years ago. Back then, and now, it’s important for us to eat foods we recognize, that came from sources we know, grown and harvested as recently as possible. What our bodies need in each season is wildly connected to the three harvests of the year; spring, summer and fall/winter. This approach goes back as far as agriculture, yes, but even further because nature was pushing forward fruits, vegetables and other foods far before we became involved in the cultivation. And this philosophy is the foundation of the three-season approach that Ayurveda takes to eating all year round.
Each season – and rather each harvest – provides a bounty for us to enjoy, and precisely the nutrients that we require to balance the doshas of the body. And, as the seasons change our bodies require a different host of bioenergetic and macronutrient benefits. We all require all of these macronutrients all year round, in different proportions based on our constitutions and activity levels, but the general proportions of each macronutrient needed by the body shifts with the seasons.
In the spring, the seeds that nestled themselves in the Earth through the fall are just starting to burst, through the wet blanket of soil, and into the world. Our bodies are tender, gathering strength just like these seeds and we’re at the mercy of the abundance of kapha dosha present during the spring season; slow, moist, cool, oily, heavy, smooth, and steady. Evolutionarily speaking, we’re moving slow, heavy and steady too after a winter of hard work, nourishing and bolstering against the cold. There isn’t much bounty this time of year, and what is available is tender, light, rough and fleeting.
Because of this, we’re well served to enjoy a diet that’s lower in fat and calories; it’s what will suit our state of digestion best AND congruent with what nature has on offer.
It is no coincidence that this diet lower in fat and calories AND it’s the diet that best allows us to reduce the forces of kapha dosha – the dominant bioenergetic force of spring. Eating this way will allow our bodies to lighten up, to shed excess moisture and weight gained logically in the winter to keep ourselves warm and stable. This diet – and the lack of availability of higher fat sources in this season – annually resets the body’s ability to metabolize fat as fuel because we are forced to burn our own fat for energy.
In the summer, we’re wise to enjoy a higher-carbohydrate diet, congruent with our energy output in individual and universal ways, that helps us to reduce the forces of pitta dosha – the dosha that dominates summer. Summer is the season when everything is in full bloom – our bodies, our social calendars, our goals, and the farms, orchards and fields as well.
For this reason, we’re smart to enjoy a diet that’s higher in carbohydrates – because that is what our bodies need for high-intensity, frequent movement and activity – and because that is what nature has on offer. To fuel us now, and to keep us fueled through the season.
If we’ve done our work in the spring, eating what’s local and seasonal, featuring lower fat and lower carbohydrate foods, then our bodies baseline energy supply has been set (and we’re pros at burning fat when necessary, and carbohydrates when we need quicker fuel.) This naturally prevents a rollercoaster of blood sugar fluctuation when the higher-sugar foods of summer burst (literally) onto the scene. Eating the sweet, carbohydrate-rich bounty of summer also serves us well because the sweet, bitter and astringent tastes of foods available in this season (from fruits and veggies primarily,) help to keep pitta dosha at bay, cooling our bodies bioenergetically from the inside out.
As summer winds down, we transition through fall and prepare for winter. A period of time when the land – and our bodies – will become dry, cold, rough, subtle and mobile with the influx of vata dosha, as we prepare to do our hardest work of the year; recovering from summer, bolstering against the winter chill and preparing for the following spring all at the same time. It’s no coincidence that nature provides some of it’s most densely nourishing fuel for this effort; grains are harvested to make bread and porridge, root vegetables and storage potatoes are available, and meat, fats and oils are available to moisturize and revitalize us.
For this reason, we’re smart to enjoy a diet higher in fats, proteins and oils during this time – because that is what our bodies need to protect, moisturize, repair, restore and prepare for the next spring ahead, and because that is what nature has on offer.
If we’ve done our work through the summer, bursting out all of our energy, generating heat and productivity, packing in the goodness, than this heavier, denser diet is what our bodies will crave and require to cool the system, restock our reserves and reduce inflammation. Nature also does us the service of revving our metabolism during this time of the year, to prepare our digestion for the breakdown and assimilation of these more nutritionally dense foods. If we’re eating in season appropriately, we put on a bit of moisture in the winter to protect the body from the cold, but we burn fat more efficiently and can actually streamline physique during this season if, and only if, we are tuning into the foods available where we are.
Recipes to fuel you:
By creating an awareness around these seasonal shifts in nature’s offering and our nutritional requirements, we’re primed to accumulate body wisdom and imprint a healthy cycle of shifting our dietary practices through the season without counts or questions. By following this way of eating, we easily find ourselves craving the foods that we need, when those foods are being harvested. And, when this begins to happen we don’t need long science papers, studies or social media experts to tell us what to eat when. We fall into step with nature and eat with the seasons, just as surely as the birds fly south for the winter.
Start by enjoying nutrient-dense foods in the winter, providing your body and your life with an ample supply of nourishing foods to fuel your winter activities and your body in recovery and replenishment mode. As spring approaches, begin consuming less meat in step with your body’s reduced desire to consume fewer dense and heavy foods. Through the summer, continue this trend of listening to the light, sweet cravings of the system, and as fall and winter approaches again, listen to your system and the types of foods it’s craving as fuel.
If you’re eager to finely tune this plan to your life and activities, then an Ayurvedic consultation can help to take inventory and adjust general recommendations to suit your personal constitution.