When it comes to fitness and body transformation, there are three fundamental pillars: workout, nutrition, and recovery. Anyone who is embarking on their fitness journey cannot possibly imagine getting great results without understanding the core of this holy trinity of fitness.
When we dissect all three in terms of subjectiveness, we always talk about workout and rest. We develop individual workout plans, exercise plans and recovery plans to suit the subjective needs of an individual. But, when it comes to nutrition, most of the time we try the one-plan-fits-all approach; however, nutrition pivotal when it comes to health, fitness, and body transformation and every individual’s nutrition needs are different.
Our bodies are unique and although we all are anatomically similar; on a cellular level, our needs can be very different. Our molecular cascades govern our cellular health and our anatomical health depends on the healthy functioning of our cellular and molecular machinery. On a cellular level, we all function differently, that is why we have different allergies, food intolerances, different metabolic profiles, reactivity to certain types of foods, and so on. This is the exact reason why when it comes to food, nutrition, and supplementation, it is important to understand that one-plan-fits-all is not the ultimate solution; and why popular plans like a keto meal plan, vegan-only plan or a raw-food detox plan might work for one, but would be harmful to the other.
Nutrition is a very broad subject with different theories, definitions and ideologies. But if we were to classify two roots of nutrition, one would be scientific and the other would be cultural. Branches of scientific nutrition include diet, clinical nutrition, food chemistry and metabolism. On the other hand, we have a cultural branch of nutrition, the food that we grow up eating, and the ancestral knowledge of nutrition that shines in the traditional food of every culture. Before science and data quantification came into the picture, ancestors of every region already developed a cultural database of health food and nutrition. Examples of traditional food and recipes created on the principle of “considering good as a form of medicine” can be seen in various cultures like India, China and Greece.
Modern nutrition and its various branches always find similarities in traditional nutrition. The ancient branches of food and nutrition did not consider food as just something we eat to survive, but more like an additional source of supplementation and secondary medicine that provides longevity, health and vitality. This is why foods included more natural products, roots, subtle sources of fats, including a lot of herbs, spices; and the food incorporated paid exclusive attention to native geography and elements. Food changed with seasons, day and night, weather, and also were dependent on a person’s anatomy and reactivity toward food.
One recent branch of nutrition that evolved to incorporate a similar principle of personalized food and nutrition is called functional nutrition. This branch of clinical nutrition is based on a very personalized subjective form of nutrition and it is different from the regular“one-plan-fits-all approach. A similar branch of nutrition exists in India and has been practiced by many in the subcontinent for centuries. It is a pivotal branch of the ancient Indian medicine system Ayurveda. When it comes to food and nutrition, Ayurveda does not prescribe a one-plan-fits-all approach; rather an Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner would take into consideration every aspect of an individual’s health, where they live, their background, and then prescribe diet and nutrition suitable to that individual only.
What is functional nutrition?
Functional nutrition is a branch of nutrition and diet in which, before prescribing diet and nutrition recommendations, the expert takes into consideration an individual’s history, health, overall lifestyle, ailments, allergies and medications. Functional nutrition is a personalized approach to improve the overall health of an individual rather than just quick fixes. So rather than providing conventional nutrition recommendations to an individual that might temporarily provide health benefits on the surface, like weight loss, functional nutrition provides a recommendation to optimize the overall health of the body.
It is also considered to be a sub-branch of functional medicine, wherein functional medicine experts would analyze every individual right from their genetic makeup, hereditary, illnesses, history, food habits, allergies, reactivity to supplementation and medicines to provide medicinal plans to holistically heal the body. Modern medicine provides quick solutions by treating immediate symptoms of an illness, while a functional medicine practitioner tries to heal the illness by eliminating the root cause. Similar to medicine, functional nutrition is a cornerstone of functional medicine, wherein food is considered as medicine, and the nutrition it provides heals the body rather than quickly fixing temporary issues.
How is this related to the ancient science of medicine like Ayurveda? To answer that, we need to understand the basics of Ayurveda.
Ayurveda is an ancient traditional system of medicine that originated in India thousands of years ago. The origin of the word Ayurveda is a combination of two Sanskrit words Ayur (life) and Veda (knowledge) hence translating into the knowledge or science of life. For over 3,000 years, Ayurvedic practitioners have been practicing this form of ancient medicine in India. The fundamental principle behind Ayurvedic medicine is holistic healing and creating a balance between the life sources; which are the body or body composition (Prakriti), the soul (Prana), and the life forces (Doshas). Rather than treating just immediate symptoms of any illness or ailments, the Ayurvedic doctor tries to resolve it from its root cause by creating a fine balance between these essential life sources.
Like modern functional medicine and nutrition, Ayurveda also incorporates principles of uniqueness. Ayurveda believes every individual is unique and takes into consideration an individual’s health, history, geography, hereditary, body composition, doshas, food habits and lifestyle patterns before initiating the treatment. The key forms of Ayurvedic treatment would be herbal medicine, functional foods and yoga.
As we are going to discuss fitness, and the importance of functional nutrition, we are going to discuss the importance of how Ayurveda can help us reach our health goals by incorporating principles of functional nutrition.
My journey with Ayurveda began in early childhood when I was introduced to this science by my parents and grandparents. Later in school, I opted for Ayurveda as a key module and studied it for over 12 years. I was trained in various aspects of Ayurveda by a certified Ayurvedic doctor who taught this class in our school. We were not only trained in the theoretical aspects of this science, but even trained practically in making herbal medicines, lepas (topical ointments), churnas (oral supplements).
I was trained that the three key aspects of Ayurveda are herbs (herbal medicine and formulations), food and nutrition and yoga. My interest and curiosity in this neglected, yet powerful, field of traditional science grew when I started studying life science in university, and I started reading more on topics that include Ayurvedic herbs, spices and plants, and their importance in chronic diseases.
Being a biochemist, I could understand how after dissecting the bio-molecular map of the herbs and spices, one can derive its molecular benefits in treating some of the key human diseases such as cancer, neurodegeneration, allergies, autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disorders, and more. I even developed my Ph.D. proposal around Ayurvedic herbs (such as neem, tulsi, cloves, and turmeric) by dissecting their biomolecular profiles, and establishing a correlation between these key biomolecules in treating cancer.
Enough about me, coming back to the topic: how can we use the knowledge of Ayurveda and incorporate it with our functional nutrition plan?
To do this first we need to derive some similarities between functional nutrition and Ayurvedic nutrition.
What are the fundamental pillars of functional nutrition?
In most cases, a practitioner would follow certain steps to analyze an individual before recommending personalized plans. The plan will follow most if not all steps mentioned:
Evaluate previous medical history
Review of medication and supplement history
Review of current diet
Analyze lifestyle habits
Get reports on previous illnesses and ailments
Biochemical tests to check for any specific deficiencies
What are the fundamental pillars of Ayurvedic nutrition?
Similarly, an Ayurvedic practitioner would include all the details of what to and not to eat, including what kind of foods not to mix.
Analyze patient history
Analyze the doshas
Review the current diet
Analyze lifestyle and habits
Analyze imbalances from a mind, body, soul perspective
Doing both branches of nutrition are not there to treat or cure anything, nor do they provide quick fixes or conventional nutrition plans that apply to all. Instead, they analyze individual needs and formulate a nutritional plan around food and herbs that will benefit one individual only. Now usually one needs to consult a certified dietician or Ayurvedic doctor to help incorporate the correct functional nutrition plan for them to match your individual health needs to help you reach your fitness, body transformation, and weight loss goals.
For starters, these are some recommendations you can keep in mind when creating your functional nutrition plan and include Ayurveda to help you with your health and fitness goals.
Ayurveda says that the body is primarily composed of five key elements: Prithvi (earth), Vayu (air), Jaal (water), Ether (space), and Agni (fire). Every food we eat affects one of these elements, and the idea is to keep these balanced; hence try to have a simple balanced diet.
Know your Doshas: Ayurveda recommends three key Doshas (Vatta, Pitta, Kapha) that primarily govern our body composition; and these doshas are affected by weather, lifestyle, and food. Vatta is dominated by ether and air, Pitta is dominated by water and fire, and Kapha is dominated by earth and water.
Stay away from Tamsik foods (in Sanskrit : tamas: means darkness). These are the foods that generate imbalance and some key examples can be spicy food, a lot of garlic and onion, alcohol, processed food, unhealthy white sugar and red meat.
Incorporate more satvik food, meaning food that is virtuous, like berries, green leafy vegetables, lentils, sprouts, whole grains, spices like cardamom and turmeric.
Pay attention to your gut health: Ayurveda pays special attention to herbs and food that keeps the gut healthy and active. For example, it is recommended to eat herbs like Harde or Haritki (Terminalia chebula) after dinner or before bedtime to keep your gut healthy. Similar to how modern nutrition recommends probiotics, Ayurvedic practitioners recommend buttermilk after dinner which consists of a healthy microbiome essential for healthy gut and digestion. If your gut is healthy, your entire body will feel healthy.
These are just some basic recommendations, and the more we understand Ayurveda, the more avenues and in-depth knowledge of functional nutrition we can incorporate into our lifestyle. If you analyze the above-mentioned tips, these are quite in tune with the basic recommendations that functional nutrition would give you, such as understanding your body, pay attention to your body if you have a body type that is more prone to ailments like cold and flu (Kapha), acidity and heartburns (pitta), migraines and joint pains (vatta), eat raw food, eat whole grains, lentil, and pulses, include more fresh berries, fruits, herbs, and vegetables, do not drink or smoke and pay attention to gut health, including probiotics.
Before you begin this journey, always remember that functional nutrition and Ayurveda is not a one-plan-fits-all or do-it-for-two-months-and-go-back-to-old-habits type of science. These plans are only successful when it becomes a lifelong habit. The goal is to attain long-lasting holistic health and incorporate it with your fitness goals. The process of understanding your body at different stages of life, and bringing in variations to accommodate those changes is the only way forward. With the many complexities, it is always recommended to consult and dietitian or Ayurveda practitioner to help you with your food and nutrition requirements for an effective nutrition plan.
Panthil Dwivedi Wellness Contributor Polo Lifestyles 2021