Functional Nutrition in an Indian context
India is a potboiler of multiple cultures. There are twenty nine states and twenty two languages. Just imagine how many traditions of food and lifestyle that brings with it! If you add the number of people who are born from two cultures, and how they’ve evolved food over time, it’s really an encyclopaedia of recipes! Through this article, I explore how some of the principles of Functional Medicine Nutrition can be applied to an Indian perspective, where some of the principles of Functional Nutrition already exist in other forms in India, and provide you some guidelines on where you might want to go back and embrace Indian traditions, and where you might want to adapt some practices to support your healing journey today.
My journey into Functional Nutrition began a few years ago. I call it destiny. Some might call it luck. Some might call it divine intervention. Whatever this perspective, I came across it by chance, and it was a moment where everything made sense. I had battled with such complex health challenges, that I was beginning to lose hope. My journey into homeopathy and Ayurveda both helped. They brought me out of my crisis, when I needed them the most. I stayed with Ayurveda for a few years, and it was transformative. The only problem I had was that I kept falling back into the same set of symptoms and had the same conditions flaring up again, within many months of treatment. I knew I had a place to go whenever I reached that low phase again, yet I did not feel empowered about my own health. I did not even know this, until I discovered functional nutrition. Of course, Ayurveda encompasses so many profound principles, and many of them overlap with functional medicine principles. Yet, I wanted the power within my own hands. And as any Mom would know, it is practically difficult to keep going away every few months, given that I was a mother to a very young boy, who was born with challenges himself.
So how did functional nutrition make me feel so empowered about my own health? I’m going to first explore few of the functional principles. I also connect some of the similarities and some of the differences between the functional approach and traditional Indian customs. I also suggest how some traditional Indian customs include many of these principles, and how you can bring them back into your every day life.
Many cultures in India have traditional foods that are functionally healing, and encompass richness in variety. Feasts from many cultures are full of plant powered recipes. As an example, a Kerala Sadhya, or a feast platter from Kerala, which is also the land of Ayurveda, can have anything from 24 to 68 dishes. They cover a wide variety of vegetables, lentils and healthy fat. Yet, the benefit lies within this variety, which is not practical on a day to day basis. What I observed on my journey to Kerala, was that on a day to day basis, most families eat a mono diet, one that is heavy in rice and extremely low in protein or plants. Sadly, this then becomes the diet that is contributing to how they feel, what they develop, and how they heal. So how can you bring in functional nutrition into your daily life, within the parameters of the Indian diet?
Functional Nutrition and Indian Culture
I’m taking just three premises of functional nutrition and exploring how it exists in India or how you might adapt it to maintain your Indian taste palette.
Bone Broth: Many of the Moslem communities in traditional India, have used Bone Broth as a powerful healing tool for centuries. I spoke to a dear friend of mine, who embraces many of the traditional Moslem customs even today, and asked her about how she used it and how she prepared it. She said that whenever anyone in the family was unwell or had gut issues, they had only traditionally prepared bone broth. Whenever she had pain in her knees, then she prepared bone broth or trotter soup. It is made from the leg which has rich gelatin marrow covered in meat. She said it was well known from her ancestors times that this was heavy in gelatin and collagen, promoting healing to injured joints! She said they did not complicate the method, and yet it was being lost. All it took was cooking certain parts like the neck and the leg, on a slow cooker for a few hours. You can then use it as stock or just as a drink and have it a few times a week. I’ll share a story about her traditional method soon.
What this shows us is that so much exists within Indian ancestry itself. Somewhere along the way, it’s been forgotten or overlooked as lifestyles changed and people got busier, but many of these traditions are not all that complicated at all. My mantra when it comes to traditional practices is to always ask someone who knows why it was being done. I don’t want to mock it or disregard it, but I don’t follow it blindly as well. It’s important to empower myself with the why before I actually decide.
Plant Powered from Vegetables: Because India has had multiple vegetarian cultures, the variety of vegetables used and the methods to make them are simply astounding! In fact, I call the Indian food tradition an evolved vegetarian culture. Many vegetarian proteins can be complex, difficult to break down and even more difficult to assimilate for many people. It’s well known that many vegetarian foods, especially proteins and grains, can cause or exacerbate inflammatory conditions because of this. But, traditional Indian methods of preparing vegetarian food has always made them more bioavailable. Yet I’m by no means a proponent of the vegetarian diet or any diet singularly, for I truly believe that each individual requires a healing diet suitable to them, and this may mean different diets at different times.
What I do mean is that the Indian tradition allows for a richly diverse use of vegetables and multiple ways of preparing them. Plants are required as they are powerful antioxidants filled with phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. They help keep your blood sugar stable and maintain balanced Serotonin. Except for Vitamin B12, they contain all the vitamins and minerals. More than that, they contain fibre! Fibre nurtures your microbiome, helps reduce inflammation and helps to heal a leaky gut. They are prebiotics that feed the good bacteria in your gut, which then improve your immune function. What might be good to let go of are recipes which are of starchy vegetables like white potatoes and some of the nightshades like eggplant if you have inflammatory conditions or if you are sensitive. I know that many Indian vegetables and traditional recipes have been forgotten today. Indian food has always used a number of vegetables which are high in water and fibre, and very anti-inflammatory. Ask your parents or grandparents for ways you can use the ones available to you, wherever in the world you are, and share them with us! Just ensure minimal cooking and eat them as fresh as possible. The other way to increase what you use, is to get out of your food rut! If you’ve eaten something today, tell yourself not to use the same vegetable for about ten days! However healthy a specific food is, and however much I love it, I stay away from using the same thing every single day. When it comes to plant power, Indian food is powerful! Just enter that exploratory maze of Indian tradition!
Gluten Free: What I noticed whenever I went on an Ayurveda treatment, or even when I went to an Ayurveda doctor, was that I might be made to starve all morning or drink huge amounts of ghee as cleansing, but later in the night I would get rice kanji. This was meant to keep digestion light. But within a day after a detoxification program, I would be given rotis, bread made from wheat gluten and served with fried onions. I didn’t think anything was amiss till later. As you know, many traditions of India rely heavily on gluten.
When I first studied Functional Nutrition, and was told that the top three inflammatory foods were gluten, dairy and sugar, I was aghast! This was practically my entire palette! I contemplated quitting my studies seeing it as impractical and impossible. But, I tried. I went on longer than I thought i was capable of doing so. Eventually I noticed that my need for detoxification was coming down, my acne was going away and my anxiety was vanishing. I also realised that my Indian taste buds did not allow me to throw out my rotis. I wanted to eat my rotis, and I also knew that there are many Indians who want their rotis. So I started with one gluten free roti recipe on my blog. I started telling my clients that deprivation was not practical, yet replacement was very possible. I have many gluten free flours in my kitchen, which include quinoa. Many Indian Nutritionists have demonised quinoa as the foreign grain. My take is to embrace local as much a possible, but also to take some of the goodness from global as well, including quinoa. Staying with local Indian grains, I still have Jowar, Amaranth, Buckwheat, Ragi, Bajra, Tapioca, Chickpea as flours. I use them in various combinations to make gluten free rotis and parathas. Most of these are available all over the world, including at Whole Foods. Even if you have moved to a deeply therapeutic diet and are grain free, you can still use quinoa or buckwheat. The only thing to keep in mind is to not make this your mono diet, but to be plant powered to a large extent and to include clean proteins and healthy fats. Today, I teach many of my clients how to be gluten free, yet without compromising their Indian taste. Rejoice in traditionally prepared vegetables and have them with gluten free rotis.
On this note, I do want to also add, in case you wonder that gluten is an ancient grain in India, and whether you should stop eating it, that there are some considerations. Gluten was traditionally prepared in India, and hand milled to include the husk. In traditional times, our ancestors did not have sedentary lifestyles. They worked hard, perhaps for hours on the field. They had adequate sleep and many Indian traditions included detoxification practices as part of their life. I recall my grandmother taking castor oil frequently to cleanse the gut. Yet, today farming has changed, soil has changed and our lives have changed. What toxins we are exposed to has drastically changed. We no longer live clean lives and breathe clean air. our electronic world bombards us with EMF and neurotoxins keep building up. It still might work for many people living traditional lives. What you need to ask yourself is this. Do you have any health challenges? If so, removing gluten may need to be step one on your path to healing.
There is still so much I could talk about when it comes to applying Functional Medicine Nutrition principles to the Indian context. But. I don’t want to leave you overwhelmed. I will leave you today with these three thoughts alone. Applying some of these to your life, and just thinking about where overlaps lie between a Functional approach and traitional India, can be so powerful.
Your body requires micronutrients of vitamins and minerals to support you with multiple functions. To understand how each vitamin and mineral supports your body, and which foods can supply each of them, download my free e-book Vibrant Vitamins Mighty Minerals, if you haven’t already. You can download it by clicking the image below. Print yourself a copy and keep it on your kitchen table as a guide! Please do write in and share your thoughts about it!