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Thursday, July 31, 2008

What to Eat?

Reviving ancient insights

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Grunt. “Man hungry.” Grunt, grunt. “Man need food.” Without the guidance of the Food Network and The Joy of Cooking, how did primitive humans know what to eat? Courage, patience and a sturdy gut were mandatory to take a stab at trying scary-looking fruits like the pineapple for the first time—that and desperate hunger. Then again, maybe there were some clues pointing our prehistoric forebears in the right direction.

Teleological Nutritional Targeting contends that whole foods like fruits, vegetables and nuts have a pattern that resembles an organ or a physiological function of the human body. This pattern signals to the consumer which organ or body function the food will benefit if eaten. For example, a walnut looks like a mini brain, complete with a left and right hemisphere and folds that resemble the neocortex.

According to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids, of which walnuts are an excellent source, exert neuroprotective action in patients with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Meanwhile, a cross-section of a carrot resembles the pupil, iris and radiating lines of a human eye. Eating carrots, which are rich in the nutrient beta carotene, as well as vitamin A, “results in a significantly reduced risk of age-related macular degeneration and the formation of cataracts,” according to a study published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Don’t know what your pancreas looks like? Look to the sweet potato, a vegetable the George Mateljan Foundation—which runs a Web site called “The World’s Healthiest Foods”—touts as beneficial for diabetics. Preliminary studies have revealed that the sweet potato helps to stabilize blood sugar levels and lower insulin resistance.

Rima Shah of Milwaukee’s Kanyakumari Ayurveda Education and Retreat Center is considered the local go-to person in the search for a better understanding of the evidence of design or purpose in nature, especially natural foods.

“Ayurveda believes poor nutrition is the main cause of disease, so food is used to heal and prevent illness,” Shah explains. “There’s a methodology of structured diets according to an individual’s specific metabolic function.”

Originating more than 5,000 years ago on the Indian subcontinent, Ayurveda, which translates as the “knowledge and wisdom of life,” is the traditional healing system of Indian culture. Overall, it views health and disease as the end result of how we interact with the world.

“The reason Ayurveda is successful, and I think this is the teleological aspect of it, is that it doesn’t try to fit the nutritional aspect into a one-size-fits-all category,” says Shah. “That’s the difference between Ayurveda and other nutrition systems out there. It’s not just saying, ‘This is good and this is bad for everyone out there.’ It’s a very individualized diet program for every person that walks through the door.”

Ayurveda’s qualitative view of each individual is determined by the percentage of the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether) within each person’s body. “There are three types of constitutions,” Shah says. “Vata, which is governed by air and ether; Pitta, which is governed by fire; and Kapha, which is governed by earth and water.”

Most often, individuals are not one constitution or another, but a combination of them. Similarly, Ayurveda categorizes foods according to their elemental characteristics, as well as their tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent.

“We care about balancing the elements in your body as optimally as they can be,” Shah explains. “If you come to me with acid and a burning stomach, I’m going to suggest you consume cool foods like fennel, tea, salads and aloe vera to counteract the heat.”

Kanyakumari Ayurveda Education and Retreat Center, 2015 N. Lake Drive, offers consultations, therapies, treatments, cooking classes, workshops and a school for those interested in the Ayurveda tradition. “We really believe in the system of food as a healing tool,” says Shah. “Eating properly is going to enable you to live a long and healthy life.”