Variety, the Spice of Life: More on Balancing the Diet & Lifestyle
by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay
We’ve all heard the expression variety is the spice of life. Indeed, life would be quite boring if we were all the same! And imagine eating the same foods over and over and over again... Yet the American diet has been criticized for lacking variety. The acronym for what is known as the Standard American Diet says it all (SAD). Sometimes the American diet is characterized as the ‘meat and potato’ diet or the ‘white on white’ diet (white flour, white sugar, etc.).
Those of us who are health conscious are well aware of the nutritional deficiencies of a limited diet. We ‘strive for five’ servings of vegetables a day, and look for wholesome foods with their natural nutrients left intact, not refined out. We even look to the health of the soil and organic farming practices to insure we are getting healthy foods with a variety of micro-nutrients.
In ayurvedic practice we look to the major food groups to make sure we are eating a good balance of whole grains, beans, cooked veges, raw fruits and veges, supplemental proteins and essential fats. In ayurvedic cooking we look to the six tastes to insure we are getting a fully balanced meal. Naturally sweet tasting and bland foods are complemented with good quality sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent tastes for good digestion and absorption.
In this article however we are going to look at two other methods of insuring good variety in our diet. One method is modern and the other traditional. The modern method is based on the idea of phyto-nutrients as found in different botanical families.
The health protective benefits of various plant compounds have been well studied. So how can we insure that we are getting all the nutritional benefits we need? For example, most of our vegetables come from nine distinct botanic families. If we eat veges from all of these families, we will get a full range of phyto (plant)-nutrients. Let’s familiarize ourselves with these different families.
Brassicaceae: The brassicas are also known as Cruciferae or the Mustard family. They include cabbages, brocolli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, collards, turnips, radishes, kohlrabi, rutabagas, watercress, horseradish, and, of course, mustard! Some people will find them a little too rough and hard to digest, especially raw. But don’t give up! Cook them well. They are nutritional powerhouses.
They are also known as goitrogenic. This means they contain a chemical that can interfere with thyroid function and cause goiters. This can be de-activated by careful cooking. Interestingly, horseradish and mustard are used as digestive stimulants which improve digestion.
Asteraceae: The asters are also known as the Compositae or Aster family. There are two main sub-families, the dandelion sub-family or salad group and the aster sub-family which has nine tribes including the artichoke tribe or thistle group and the sunflower tribe. The asters are considered to be botanically and chemically complex. So eat plenty of lettuces, chicory, dandelions, endive, escarole, radicchio and salsify from the salad group. Eat globe artichokes, burdock root and thistle seeds from the thistle group and sunflower seeds and Jerusalem artichokes from the sunflower group.
Apiaceae: This is known as the Parsley family or Umbelliferae. Many of our culinary herbs and spices belong to this family, including anise, celery, chervil, coriander, caraway, dill, fennel, lovage and of course, parsley We also see many important medicinal herbs in this family, including the angelicas, bupleurum, gotu kola and osha. Common foods include carrots, parsnips, celery and celeriac.
Chenopodaceae: The goosefoot family derives from the seashore and often grows on disturbed soils. The greens from this group can be high in calcium but ironically are also high in oxalic acid which can block calcium absorption. These greens are best for occasional use or can be cooked to help reduce the oxalic acid. Important foods include beets, spinach, chard and lamb’s quarters.
Cucurbetaceae: This is the gourd family distinguished by the cucumbers, squashes, pumpkins, zucchinis and melons. They hold a special place in ayurvedic as well as in Native American lore where they are called one of the Three Sisters along with corn and beans.
Fabaceae: And speaking of beans, the Pea family is also known as Leguminosae. Aside from the wide variety of edible peas and beans, this family includes alfalfa, clover, astragalus, licorice root and kudzu.
Lamiaceae: The mint family is also called Labiatae. There are many other important families of herbs worth studying, but the mint family is known for its culinary herbs such as basil, rosemary, sage, marjoram, thyme and savory along with all the mints. Other important members are lavender, germander, horehound, hyssop, motherwort, catnip, coleus and skullcap.
Liliaceae: The lily family has many sub-families which include the onion, asparagus, agave and aloe groups. For onions eat your onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, and chives. The asparagus group includes common asparagus, sarsaparilla, solomon’s seal, and wild asparagus (aka shatavari). Agaves, yucca, and aloe vera round out the family.
Solanaceae: This is the nightshade family from the tropics. Members are the potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillo, paprika, peppers, eggplants, chilis and tobacco. Please note that over-use of nightshades can lead to allergies and inflammation in some people.
In fact, one of the reasons to study food families is to avoid creating dependencies and potential allergies from overuse. A standard technique for managing food allergies is to practice a rotation diet, rotating food groups in and out of the diet and noting their effects. Other botanical and animal families can be studied for this purpose as well.
For now, consider the families above and see if you are over-relying on any of them. Then try adding in an agreeable member of any missing family. Of course other standard considerations such as time of year, availability, and method of preparation should also be considered. And by all means, enjoy getting to know your foods!
The traditional ayurvedic method of rotating foods is to practice the colors associated with each day of the week. The colors are derived from the planetary association for each day. This is a very soul-satisfying method as the soul reflects the light of pure spirit. Try it!
Sunday: Sunday represents the Sun. The main colors are gold and brown, but any sunny color like red, yellow or orange can be featured. The traditional food offering is wheat. Brown rice, oats and buckwheat are other good choices Try eating yellow and red foods like split mung and an assortment of yellow and red fruits and veges. Ginger, cardamon, saffron and cinnamon are said to enhance the solar energy. One tradition is to avoid cooking with oil on sundays.
Monday: Monday is for the Moon. The main color is milky white. Other colors are white or pale shades of blue, green and pink. The traditional food offering is rice, especially white basmati rice. Barley is another choice. Think of foods like milk, cauliflower, white potatoes, white onions, or white poppy seeds Also consider watery foods like squash and cucumber as the moon is considered to be watery.
Tuesday: Tuesday represents Mars. The main color is bright red. Other colors are jet black and bright shades of orange and pink. The traditional food offering is red lentils. Think of red rice, carrots, strawberries, red apples, red beets, tomatoes, red cabbage, red pepper, black pepper and turmeric. Please note that the idea is not to eat only red foods but to accentuate or feature red foods. This applies to every day of the week.
Wednesday: Wednesday represents Mercury. The main color is green, especially pear green. Other colors are neutral or mild tones of blues, grays and browns. The traditional food offering is whole mung beans. Be sure to eat your greens on Wednesday! Also consider brocolli, green beans, Brussels sprouts, peas, green cabbage and asparagus. Of course pears and green apples fit here as do the herbs cilantro, mint, basil and gotu kola. Good grains are brown rice, wheat, and oats.
Thursday: Thursday is Jupiter’s day. The main color is yellow. You can also feature orange, gold, or bright colors in general. The traditional food offering is chickpeas so it’s a great day for your hummus recipe! Other traditional Thursday foods are nuts and fruits (especially yellow fruits) and yellow veges. Yellow corn or millet are the grains of choice. Like Sunday, one tradition is to refrain from cooking with oils. Some practitioners will stop using oil topically on Sundays and Thursdays as well.
Friday: Friday belongs to Venus, the planet of beauty. The main color is radiant white which contains all colors within itself. You can use an assortment of colors on Friday, especially pastels and flowery tones. The traditional food offering is lima beans or any white bean. Basmati rice, barley, coconut, sweets made with dairy and lotus root are a few white choices. Combinations of different colors work well. And don’t forget the edible flowers! One practice is to avoid citrus fruit or sour foods on Friday.
Saturday: Saturday belongs to Saturn. The main color is black or dark blue. Any dark color will do, including dark browns and grays. The traditional food offering is sesame seeds or black gram (urud). Think of black beans, blue corn, black-eyed peas, eggplant, plums, blackberries, blueberries and black seeds. A special practice is to use plenty of good quality oil in cooking, on salads, or for massage as Saturn is said to be drying.
The main point is to be creative, have fun, and realize that the colors of food do indicate the presence of different phyto-nutrients in a very direct way. And, by the way, the daily colors are a fantastic way of organizing your wardrobe! If you’ve ever changed clothes several times not sure of what to wear, or if the clothes you are wearing just don’t feel right, try spicing up your wardrobe with the colors of the day. You’ll feel great and will begin to notice a subtle harmony with the quality of the day. The goal is not just variety but variety with harmony.