“Healthy” versus Healthy For YOU

Is this kale salad healthy? Yes.
Is it healthy for YOU? That’s individual.

Eating Right For You

A common Ayurvedic proverb states that “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.

Ayurveda is often considered the mother of medicine, and the oldest medical system in the world. Regardless of whether that is entirely true, Ayurveda is a traditional medical system originating in modern day India. Traditional Medical Systems, including Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western Herbalism and others, use energetics of foods, herbs, and your body to arrive at balanced and optimal health in your whole self. Meaning mind and body (and soul).

The Why: Energetics Explained

Energetics means the quality that is present in the environment, your body, or the ingredient, and the effect it has on whoever is being exposed to it. The most basic energetics to work with are hot, cold, (and thus heating or cooling), and wet, dry (and thus moistening/dampening, or drying).

In most places in the northern hemisphere, the energetics of the environment make fairly big shifts with the seasons. Late winter and early spring tend to be cool or cold, and wet or damp, summer, depending on where you are located, is often hot and dry, or hot and humid (damp). Etc.

When we’re using a food as medicine approach, the best way to achieve balanced and optimal health is by eating in a way that has the opposite quality of the body or of the seasonal environment that we’re a part of – eating in this opposite approach then provides balance for the body to be at, or return to equilibrium, where health occurs.

So in the hot, dry weeks of high summer (where I live), we can return to balance by eating meals that are cooler and more wet/soupy/moist.


An example is sipping on a cucumber infused water (cooling, moist) on a hot summer’s day, or having a mildly spiced coconut-based curry (cooling, moist, easy to digest) instead of pungent and spicy carne asada tacos (heating/pungent) on corn tortillas (drying) with tomato and jalapeño-based salsa (heating/pungent). 

Likewise, using energetics to determine the right food for you vs. what’s considered “healthy,” means tuning in to your own symptoms. 

an example of cold + dry: raw walnuts

Energetics of Your Body

In addition to eating in tune with the weather outside, or the season, it’s equally and sometimes more important, to adjust meals to what’s going on in you. 

Do you tend to be a hot and dry person? Or how about cold and dry? Warm and wet? Or cool and wet? 

Dry symptoms include: having dry skin, hair, scalp, or digestion by way of constipation (either not having a bowel movement daily, or small, dry, difficult to pass bowel movements), having gas, bloating, and achy, popping joints. 

Wet symptoms include: a wet, phlegmy cough, mucous, sluggish digestion, or feeling like food just sits in your GI and smolders after eating, fungal overgrowth, a heavy coating on the tongue, swelling in the lower legs or hands, retaining water, excess weight gain that you just can’t lose. 

Hot symptoms include:  rashes, hives, skin flare-ups, having a hot temper, reflux, heartburn, feeling consistently frustrated or easily angry, night sweats, excess sweating, inflammation, feeling overheated

Cold symptoms include: circulatory constriction, feeling routinely cold, experiencing cold hands and feet, poor digestion or need to take supplements to properly absorb food and meals, feeling emotionally heavy, depressed, or sad, lack of motivation, and fatigue

From those lists, you can probably determine how you feel generally, or from day to day. Eating foods that have the opposite energetics to what you’ve experiencing can be extremely helpful. 

Oatmeal with cinnamon, stewed peaches and tahini

An Example of How to Shift Preparation of a Meal

Let’s take a look at an example of a simple shift at breakfast time. 

Say you’re experiencing lots of dry symptoms (dry skin and hair, constipation, extra gassy, and bloating, as well as popping joints). And you also have poor circulation in your hands and feet, and generally run cooler. Your current energetics are cold and dry.

Instead of eating your routine breakfast of dry muesli and chopped nuts mixed in with cold yogurt and raw fruit, a more balanced and “good for you” breakfast with similar ingredients is a cooked oatmeal (or cooked muesli), with the fruit stewed or cooked in, and some warming spices added – spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, or a sprinkle of cloves. And if you’re consistently experiencing constipation, gas and bloating, leave out the cold, dry nuts for a few weeks. Instead, a simple shift is to cook the oatmeal with a spoonful of ghee or sesame oil to provide moisture, warmth, and an easy to digest fat source while you’re returning your system to balance. 

Summary

The simplest way to describe the process of choosing what to eat and how to prepare meals based on energetics is that like attracts like and opposites provide balance.

What often confuses or sidetracks people is that when we’re out of balance, we tend to crave what makes us even more imbalanced. It’s the like attracts like part of that statement above. And, it can be easy to confuse intuitive eating and eating based on our cravings.

Next Steps

If this topic is intriguing to you, check out another article I wrote on the topic, regarding seasonal eating during late winter and spring. That article gives several spice options for adding more gentle heat to meals, and helping out your digestion.

Within my nutrition practice, I specialize in endurance athletes and digestive imbalances. If you routinely struggle with any of the above symptoms,  I encourage you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Transitioning Your Eating into Spring

When it comes to eating and ingredient choices, eating in tune with the seasons can go a long way towards creating an internal environment that leads to lasting health.

You know you don’t choose the same foods on a hot, sticky summer day as you do in the middle of winter. But what about a blustery spring day when the options at the farmers market (or grocery store) can be a little lackluster?

Below are a few tips for transitioning your eating into spring, as well as a deeper look at the why behind them.

Tips for Eating in the Spring

  1. Avoid congestive foods – these are generally foods that are heavy, cold, and wet.
    This includes refined grains and sugar, dairy (especially cold, sweetened dairy products, like ice cream, and fruit-sweetened yogurt), processed / pre-packaged meals and takeout, high fat foods, excessively salty foods (miso, soy sauce, restaurant meals), wheat products – a heavier grain that is inflammatory when digestion is compromised.
  2. Add in more dark leafy greens!
    What grows in spring? GREENS! Early spring greens tend to be bitter, pungent and cleansing. They’re perfectly designed to balance us after a winter of heartier fare.
  3. Sip on warm beverages rather than cold water and drinks.
    For many individuals with compromised digestion, this tip will always be true, but spring is a time of year when this is true for everyone.
  4. Sip on dandelion and/or burdock tea.
    These are bitter, detoxifying roots, and are nearly always included in any herbal “detox” formula. They support healthy liver function and help the body get rid of unwanted waste products and excess moisture.
  5. Try to eat three meals each day with little snacking.
    Or if you’re quite active, four balanced meals with no snacking in between. Giving the digestive system time to rest by about 3.5-6 hours after each meal really supports its ability to fully digest the last meal before the body has to begin digestion again.
  6. Get Moving!
    Getting your heart rate and circulation up and breaking a sweat regularly is an excellent way to promote optimal detoxification – of environmental toxins and pollens, of hormones, of inflammatory substances from foods. Moving promotes lymph flow, which when stagnated leads to congestion, mucous, retaining water, and sluggish digestion.
    If you’re already active, and perhaps training for a spring race, make sure you balance some of that heavier training with slower movement, and gentle yoga or daily self-massage that can gently move out some of the extra inflammation that can accumulate during this season.
  7. Up your spices!
    In the springtime, spices help the body to warm up and remove mucus. They also promote optimal digestion, and help to digest more difficult foods such as beans and legumes.

Broccoli Olive Sourdough Pizza – emphasis on the broccoli topping!

The Why: Energetics of Early Spring

First, look at the energetics of the season, or the energetics of the weather outside today. Energetics means the quality that is present in the environment, your body, or the ingredient, and the effect it has. The most basic energetics to work with are hot, cold, (and thus heating or cooling), and wet, dry (and thus (moistening/dampening, or drying).

In most places in the northern hemisphere, late winter and early spring tends to be cool or cold, and wet or damp. When we’re using a food as medicine approach, we do so by eating in a way that has the opposite quality of the body or of the seasonal environment that we’re a part of – eating in this opposite approach then provides balance for the body to be at, or return to equilibrium, where health occurs.

So in the cool, damp weeks of early spring, we want to eat meals that are warm and perhaps slightly drying in nature. One of the easiest ways to work with this component is by eating all meals cooked, and adding in more spices as we’re preparing foods. In terms of spices, nearly every common cooking spice will be drying in effect. Many of them will also be warming, and some will be more warming, or just plain hot, than others –like garlic, chilies, onion, and ginger.  

Energetics of Your Body

Now take a look at what’s going on in your body. Do you tend towards having symptoms of spring allergies, mucus, a wet phlegmy cough, swelling of the lower legs, retaining water, lack of appetite, or sluggish digestion where you eat and feel full for hours, like food is heavy and just sitting in your belly? This means you can use more warm and drying foods and spices! 

Key spices to incorporate into meals in late winter and early spring season include black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, horseradish, cayenne and chili in small amounts, garlic in small amounts, fenugreek, mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, ajwain, rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano.

Putting Them Together: Cook with Three Spices


One of the best ways to start spicing your foods without it becoming an overwhelming task is to choose three spices to use in each meal. For breakfast, if you’re having something warm and porridge-like, such as oatmeal, incorporating a trio of spices in the total amount of ¼ – ⅜ teaspoon is just about right.

A couple combinations to start with include:
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, anise seed, and cardamom
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon

In midday and evening meals, we can slightly increase the total amount of spices to about ½ – ¾ teaspoon total per person.

Some Spring Spice Combinations include (amounts per serving):
¼ fresh garlic clove, ¼ teaspoon each of rosemary, and oregano
¼ teaspoon each of cumin, mustard seed, turmeric
¼ teaspoon each of fenugreek, sage, and rosemary
¼ teaspoon each of fresh ginger, turmeric, and a pinch of black pepper

If you’re using other people’s recipes to cook with, adjust the spicing according to what you’ve learned above, particularly about your body. Most modern recipes over-rely on heating spices and condiments. 

An example is a recipe with several cloves of garlic, chilies, several tablespoons of fresh ginger, tamari, soy sauce, or miso, all in one. This is a recipe that’s probably going to burn us up internally, even if you and the season is running cold! You can tame the recipe and spice level by slowly reducing the amounts of each spice, or switching an ingredient out for one that has a milder effect of the same quality, such as using a pinch of black pepper instead of a ½ teaspoon of cayenne, or using 1-2 teaspoons of finely grated fresh ginger in a recipe that calls for 3-inches of the fresh root.

Signs of Balance and Imbalance

Ultimately, the goal is to feel good in your body and mind in each season. 

During this time of year, signs of balance include slowing down more than other times of year to rest more, having steady energy throughout the daylight hours, maintaining a healthy immune system and response, and eating to nourish yourself with no signs of impaired digestion.

Signs of imbalance include over committing, feeling depleted throughout the day, stagnation (mentally or physically), depression, mucus in the respiratory system, overeating  (especially high sugar, extremely rich, or cold foods), and having heavy, sluggish digestion with reduced or no appetite.

Rooibos Masala Chai

Let’s talk about tea, and more specifically caffeine.

The last few years, I’ve taken a semi-annual mini break from my morning (caffeinated) black tea ritual. In part because caffeine can be both good and bad, helpful to athletic performance and health, but also contributing to imbalance.

The bad includes disrupting female hormone metabolism and stress hormones, providing another chemical for our often overloaded livers to break down and excrete, drying out the body over time leading to constipation and dryness, raising blood pressure, and being just a little too stimulating on certain days when we’re already naturally over-stimulated (hello, way too many open tabs and general 21st century overwhelm).

Perhaps because of my history with disordered eating and controlling-my-food tendencies, I also think it’s a good idea to periodically question what it is we’re attached to. Why are we attached to it? Can we loosen up the mind’s attachments, and then the body’s? Is it contributing to some of our other health symptoms?

My planned caffeine break coincided with just having finished reading Michael Pollan’s latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants. In his typical great-storytelling pattern, Pollan takes us into the history and politics of caffeine use in one third of the book, as well as his own personal experience going off, and then back on, caffeine. It made me even more curious about my — and our — attachment to the daily cup or two of warm and fuzzy stimulation.

In my case, going off my not-that-much-caffeine daily tea ritual was much more symptomatic than the idea of it I was attached to. (It turns out when you decide to change your mind about what you’re attached to, you’re already no longer attached to it). And though my mind was not suddenly cloudy and unable to do anything productive without caffeine – like Pollan’s– it also wasn’t suddenly more focused and productive when I added a little back in after a couple week break.

While I was on break from black tea, I began making this Rooibos Masala Chai instead, and still am most days. Its’ simple, lightly spicy, and nuanced. Red rooibos is a popular caffeine-free herbal option from South Africa, and is often pronounced “Roy Buhs.” Rooibos literally translates to “Red Bush” in the Afrikaans language, so think of that if it helps you to remember it’s pronunciation.

This is a nice break from caffeine option or when you’d like to enjoy a quick at-home masala chai. When making the masala chai spice blend, using freshly ground spices will result in the best, most potent flavor. Diaspora Masala Chai blend is an excellent alternative to purchase and supports the real cost of spices (premium quality, fair trade / fair wages).

Prep:  3-5 minutes   | Infuse: 10 minutes  | Serves: 1

12 oz. water
1 Tbs. red rooibos tea (loose-leaf)
1/2 -3/4 tsp. Masala chai blend (see below)
Non-dairy milk of choice, optional

Masala Chai Blend (makes enough for about 13-18 cups)
1 Tbs. ground cardamom
1 Tbs. ground ginger
1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground fennel seed
⅛ tsp. ground black pepper
1/16 tsp. ground cloves

  1. Bring water to a boil in a tea kettle or in a small pan on the stove. 
  2. In a tea basket, measure out the rooibos leaves and masala chai spices. 
  3. When the water has boiled, pour it over the tea and infuse for 10 minutes. Then add a couple splashes of non-dairy milk and enjoy warm.

To make the Masala Blend: 

  1. Combine all freshly ground spices in a small container with a tight-fitting lid. Stir to mix thoroughly or cap the lid and gently shake.