A Doctor Discusses Ayurveda and Diet

We recently spoke with Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf, former Medical Director of The Raj in Fairfield, Iowa, and co-author of A Woman's Best Medicine, about the general dietary habits of Americans today and ways to incorporate ayurvedic principles of healthy eating into one's daily dietary schedule.

Q: According to ayurveda, diet, along with sleep and lifestyle, is a fundamental pillar of good health and longevity. You see many people every day in your practice. Do you think Americans in general are eating well these days?

Dr. Lonsdorf: Nobody's eating well in America. I see people every day in my practice, and I ask every one of them to write out their diet. I have found that very few people who have not yet seen an ayurvedic doctor are really eating properly.

Q: What do you think is the reason for poor eating habits?

Dr. Lonsdorf: I think it's mainly because our culture is not focused on the development and maintenance of good dietary habits. We learn some basic things in school about eating more vegetables and fruits. And most of us do know about the need for balanced nutrition and what the right way to eat is. However, our culture isn't set up to promote proper eating. We're very oriented towards our careers and material achievement, and we put cooking and eating very low on the list of priorities of the day.

Q: We are a "fast food" culture.

Dr. Lonsdorf: Exactly. Most people are grabbing food on the run, they're eating in their cars, they're having business lunches where they're having sandwiches and chips brought in, and they're drinking coke with it. Whatever's convenient, whatever's simple, whatever's readily available, that is what people are eating. And at night, if they actually have a good home-cooked meal, often it's at 8:00 at night. If you eat a heavy meal so late in the evening, even if the food quality is good, you are probably not going to digest it well because your digestive fire is muted.

Q: All of these poor habits probably lead to digestion problems, like acid indigestion, stomach disorders and general poor health. Correct?

Dr. Lonsdorf: Yes. According to ayurveda, if the food you eat isn't digested properly, for whatever reason, it can cause indigestion. Worse yet, it results in a waste called ama, which builds up in the body. Ama blocks the channels in the body and is at the root of disorders such as higher cholesterol and weight gain, joint problems, sinus problems, chronic fatigue and waking up with a puffy face and achy back.

Q: According to the ayurvedic perspective, when you eat and how you eat is as important as what you eat. What according to you is a good dietary schedule?

Dr. Lonsdorf: Ayurveda considers lunch to be the most important meal of the day. Lunch is better called dinner. In our American culture, when we were more of an agrarian or rural culture, we had the main meal at noon. And that was called dinner. And there was a lighter meal in the evening called supper. This schedule is actually more in tune with nature and the natural rhythms of digestion in the body. The main meal should be at noon, which means we should eat a full meal — cooked food, a warm meal — sitting down in a relaxed environment around noon.

Q: What would the ideal ayurvedic lunch include?

Dr. Lonsdorf: It should have some vegetables, some grains, and some higher-protein foods like legumes, lentils, chickpeas, tofu or paneer, which is a type of fresh cheese. Persons who are non-vegetarian should eat their chicken or fish or other meats at lunch only. Pure water is the best beverage with the meal, and it should preferably be at room temperature or warm, not ice-cold. Ice water cools down digestion and turns off enzymatic activity, which is temperature-dependent and works best at body temperature, around 99°F. Ayurveda also suggests that we should have lassi, which is a yogurt drink, at lunchtime — it supplies good bacteria and extra help for digestion.

Q: What about spices?

Dr. Lonsdorf: Spices are crucial to the ayurvedic diet, and unfortunately the typical American diet does not contain enough spices as a rule. Turmeric, for example, is a potent antioxidant, known to have anti-cancer properties, and is good for detoxification of the body. It's an incredibly powerful spice. It works best if you sauté it in a little oil or ghee, or you add a little bit to soups or stews. It has water-soluble and fat-soluble components like most spices. So you should have a little bit of this spice sautéed in some olive oil or ghee in your dishes at lunch and you should have a little bit in a soup or water-based sauce poured over cooked vegetables or other foods.

Q: We see some individual herbs and spices being offered in capsule form. What is your opinion on that?

Dr. Lonsdorf: Spices are really best eaten as food rather than in a capsule. Today, many people are taking capsules of turmeric or ginger or garlic in hopes of gaining their beneficial effects. However, that can sometimes be quite harmful, actually, because they're too concentrated. Powdered turmeric by itself, for example, can be very hard on the liver, creating a "heating" or irritating effect that can worsen Pitta-related problems. You should sprinkle spices on your food, cook them in ghee or oils, or add them to your soups or your lentils, etc., while they are cooking.

Q: Tell us a little bit about how eating properly can help health and well-being.

Dr. Lonsdorf: Just having the main meal at noon — a very balanced meal that includes spices and lassi — would go a long way towards counteracting the damage caused by the stress and wear-and-tear on the body from day-to-day life. Digestion would improve dramatically. This would help people get rid of a lot of problems associated with ama — constipation, gas, bloating, and heartburn. Good eating habits that aid digestion will also help people sleep better at night, because then they are not eating heavy at night, which disturbs sleep and often will wake people up at 2-3 in the morning.

Q: What about energy levels?

Dr. Lonsdorf: If you eat a balanced diet, at the proper times each day, and are able to get a good night's sleep each night, you have the basis for a stable, balanced physiology and your mind and body will function at optimum levels. If you digest your food properly, your body can use the nutrients to build the different types of body tissue and replace worn cells and tissues quickly. When ama is not building up in the body, energy levels are high — you don't experience post-lunch fatigue or early-morning lethargy.

Q: Food, indeed, is powerful medicine. Thank you, Dr. Lonsdorf, for speaking with us today on this important issue.

Dr. Lonsdorf: It was a pleasure.

The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.