“We are what we eat” is a phrase we have all grown up listening to but seldom paid much heed to. I was just the same, prioritizing my taste buds over my gut health and settling for momentary sensory pleasure while dealing with gastritis-induced stomach discomfort for hours.
I remember my father sitting me down one afternoon and asking me a question that changed my perception of health and lifestyle choices. He asked me a simple question, “What would you do if you were granted only one car for the rest of your life?” and without wasting another second, I promptly replied by saying that I would take good care of it as it would be the only one I ever have. That is when my father drew an analogy between the car and our bodies. Just like the car, we only get one body for the duration of our entire life, and if we are so willing to take care of the one car we get, why are we so careless when it comes to our bodies? That conversation is engraved in my memory and in a way has helped me make better health choices from then on (that and the fact that I didn’t want to suffer from the pangs of gastritis anymore).
As I write this article to emphasize the importance of diet, I hope it will in some way initiate a shift in the mindsets of those who live by the “You Only Live Once” (YOLO!) motto and think diet is something only applicable to those wishing to lose weight or suffering from a chronic disease. As for the ones who already know and are mindful of their diets, it’s always good to get a reconfirmation now and then. So, go ahead and read on!
Food, shelter, and clothing have always been the three essential commodities of life, and amongst the three, food is the most important one. It is the driving force behind all our actions and the driving fuel for our bodies. And like everything around us has energy, the food we consume is no different. The right kind of food provides us with good energy and nutrients that nourish our bodies. In contrast, the unhealthy kind leads to a release of unwanted energy and accumulation of toxic substances that result in health issues, in the long run.
The energy stored in food is expressed in terms of calories, and it varies from one food item to another. For the proper functioning of the body, the energy intake (calories consumed in the form of food) should be in balance with the energy expenditure (calories burnt during physical activities). The average person requires about 2,000 calories per day for his/her optimal functioning, but this number varies with age, sex, and physical activity. On the one hand, the under-consumption of food that fails to meet the per-day calorie-requirement leads to malnutrition, stunted growth, and other deficiencies. On the other hand, the overconsumption of food that surpasses the per-day calorie requirement leads to unhealthy weight gain and related disorders.
It is important to note that, along with calories, our food should also provide us with the essential nutrients needed for the growth and development of our body because the food we eat is not just a means of satisfying our hunger, but it is also the critical component that nourishes our being and optimizes our health. Foods that only contain calories but no real nutrients, are known as “empty calorie foods” and are the ones that should be avoided. The only way to ensure that we get enough calories without over or under-indulging and staying away from empty-calorie foods is to be mindful of our diet.
Importance of Diet in Gut Health
Yes, diet is the key. Just like gut health is the key to overall health; similarly, diet is the key to a healthy gut. Our diet comprises everything we eat daily from morning to night. It is the source of our nutrition and energy, and so eating a balanced diet is of utmost importance. A balanced diet comprises different food groups that provide us with all the essential nutrients to sustain and promote good health. It is a combination of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fibers, vitamins, and minerals, which are consumed in the form of fruits, vegetables, meat, pulses, dairy products, grains, etc.
Now, our gut is the direct recipient of the food we eat, and so is the first one to be affected by our dietary choices. The food is first received by our mouth (which is the anterior end of our gut) and it then slowly goes down our gastrointestinal tract, where it is broken down into smaller absorbable particles by the process of digestion at different points of the tract. These particles are then absorbed into the bloodstream to provide nourishment to our entire body, and the remaining undigested or excess food is released in the form of feces through the opening of the rectum (posterior end of the gut).
As mentioned in our previous article, our gut is the multitasker that coordinates with the rest of our body to ensure the proper functioning and overall well being. It is the engine of our body, which is fuelled by our diet. The type and quantity of food we consume directly affect the components of our gut and their functioning.
For example, the intake of fibers is extremely beneficial for gut and overall health as it leads to a process called fermentation by the gut-bacteria (a process in which the microbes break down the carbohydrates in the absence of oxygen to release energy and other by-products) resulting in the formation of short-chain fatty acids (these are the building blocks of fat, containing less than six carbon atoms) which fuel our body and promote gut health. Whereas, over-indulgence of spicy foods causes the over-secretion of digestive enzymes (mainly HCl), which results in corrosion of the inner lining of the gut. Corrosion of the inner lining for an extended period leads to the formation of ulcers in the tract.
These are just two examples to demonstrate the positive and negative effects of diet on gut health. Many more such cases can be seen.
Diet and Gut-Microflora
Other than the organs and tissues, the gut-microflora is the most sensitive to our dietary choices. Our gut-microflora is composed of mainly bacterial cells, along with a smaller population of fungi and protozoans. These bacterial cells are more in number than the cells of our bodies! They are categorized as beneficial and harmful, and their number varies with our dietary and lifestyle choices.
Now, the beneficial bacteria are like good house-guests who help out with the chores of the house and are the keystone species when it comes to the gut ecosystem and health. But they are not permanent residents, and so their population needs to be replenished regularly with a gut-healthy diet. Regular intake of fiber-rich food, prebiotics, and probiotics ensure the replenishment of the beneficial-bacteria population and keeps them thriving.
Prebiotics are mostly fibers that are indigestible by humans and so are available to the gut-microbiota for fermentation and production of fatty acids. They are present at low levels in whole grains and certain fruits and vegetables such as bananas, celery, artichokes, kale, etc. Other than being the food source for the gut bacteria, they also aid in relieving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and other bowel dysfunctions.
Probiotics are live beneficial microbes that are available in yogurt and certain fermented foods and are consumed to replenish the bacterial population and to aid the gut-microbiota in warding off harmful bacteria. They also interact with the lining of the gut to initiate a healthy immune response.
On the contrary, a not-so-balanced diet with regular servings of junk, alcohol, and mindless pill-popping leads to the depletion of the beneficial-bacteria population. It causes a surge in the growth of harmful yeasts and bacteria.
Ayurveda and Diet
“When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need ” is an old Ayurvedic proverb that highlights the importance of diet in achieving optimal health. Ayurveda, the science of life, has always holistically viewed health and emphasized the correlations between the different components of the body. It believes that good health is a direct reflection of our ability to digest what is ingested, be it physiologically in terms of food, psychologically in terms of thoughts, or emotionally in terms of feelings.
The gut is the primary energy pathway and has a special place in the workings of the body and Ayurveda. It is considered as the epicenter of health as it houses the three doshas along with Agni, and is the place where digestion takes place. The doshas are the essential humors of the body that control various functions and activities. Any imbalance in one leads to disruption of the normal bodily functions and manifests itself in terms of poor health and disease. Also, Agni is the digestive fire that presides over the digestive and metabolic activities. A decrease in its potency leads to the formation of ama, which is considered the root cause of all diseases.
Ahara (diet) and Anna (food) are the two cornerstones of health and nutrition, according to Ayurveda. They are considered as the means to a healthy gut and overall well being. Healthy food (anna) and a balanced diet (ahara) nourishes the body, mind and soul, and rectifies any imbalance found in the body. The right kind of ahara and anna also enhances the digestive power (agnibal) and facilitates proper digestion preventing the build-up of toxins (ama).
The Ayurvedic diet is a system in which no food is considered good or bad, but it is judged based on being suitable for a particular individual or not. It also involves eating whole foods, instead of their processed versions, in definite quantities, and at specific intervals to optimize the digestion and assimilation processes. It aims to get the maximum nutrition out of the food we eat while ensuring the proper functioning of the digestive elements.
Eating, according to one’s dosha, is the primary component of the Ayurvedic diet. It states that eating food that has similar properties to a person’s dominant dosha leads to aggravation and poor gut health. Whereas, consuming food that has different properties to the predominant dosha, keeps it in check, and maintains the balance. And so, a person’s doshas are studied, and the predominant dosha is determined before coming up with a diet plan.
For a Vata-dominant person, the ideal diet would consist of freshly cooked, whole foods that are seasoned with a variety of spices and are soft, rich in fats and proteins, and served hot or warm. The warmness and heaviness of the diet is the perfect antithesis to Vata dosha’s coldness and lightness, as it helps in grounding the dosha. We should also note that the Vata dosha is pacified by sweet, sour and salty tastes (rasas), and aggravated by pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes. These specifications are necessary as they calm the Vata dosha and nourish the tissues while promoting digestion.
Those with a dominant Pitta should indulge in a diet consisting of fresh (cooked or raw) whole foods that are cooling, energizing, comparatively dry, and rich in carbohydrates, as these foods calm the Pitta dosha by minimizing the internal heat, preventing inflammation and balancing the digestive fire. The cooling, dense and dry properties of the diet, balance out the over-heating, lightness, and oiliness of the dosha. The inherent taste of the food also needs to be taken into consideration as sweet, astringent, and bitter tastes pacify the dosha, whereas, sour, pungent, and salty tastes aggravate it.
Finally, the Kapha dominant ones should follow a diet consisting of freshly cooked whole foods that are light, dry, and warming. This kind of diet balances out the mucous production and moisture levels of the Kapha dosha and supports smooth digestion. It also cancels out the excessive heaviness, coldness, and moisture associated with the dosha. In terms of taste, pungent, bitter, and astringent are the go-to options as they calm the dosha, whereas the sweet, salty and sour ones are a no-go.
This practice of eating, according to one’s dosha, reaps many benefits. Not only does it aid in proper digestion and good gut health, but it keeps the doshas in check and contributes to a balanced body and mind, wherein all the components and elements are in a state of equilibrium.
The Bottom Line
Diet is crucial to health, and there is no debate in that. If we follow a healthy diet that is in sync with our bodies’ needs, then we grow and glow. On the contrary, if we keep feeding our bodies trash, then that is what will show. We can’t expect exercise or medications to work if we cannot fix our diet. Our diet is the most exceptional medicine of all, and no other alternative can act as a substitute for it.
Balance is what we all strive for in life because balance correlates with a state in which all elements are in sync with one another and seamlessly functioning. It is a state of inner peace. And amongst all the things, a balanced diet is the most important one because it is the foundation of good health, and as we all know, health is wealth. If you’ve got health on your side, you can deal with everything else. And so I urge you all to make changes in your diet because what we put into our bodies is within our control. You don’t have to make drastic changes just yet. You can start small.
Our health is in our hands. So drop that bowl of extra-cheese loaded fries and swap it with a tasty mixed fruit bowl to pack in the extra vitamins and boost your health!