Two weeks into the new year, you may be finding yourself struggling with the resolutions you had sworn to keep. If a gut reset was on your agenda, but you didn’t know where to start, we’ve got the perfect guide for you. We spoke to New York-based Ayurvedic practitioner, Nidhi Pandya Bhanshali, to find out more about how eating affects our body, and how to bring a gut battered by the party season back to balance.
From an Ayurvedic point of view, are there any benefits of eating oil and sugar?
Not processed sugar and not refined oil. According to Ayurveda the primary taste for nourishment is the madhura or ‘sweet’ taste, but it's not sweet like sugar. It basically refers to complex carbohydrates or complex sugars, which means greens, potatoes, milk, ghee, etc. Processed sugar, which is pre-digested, basically just goes to your blood and spikes your levels up, which is good for nobody. Ayurveda does use forms of less processed sugar, like raw sugar and jaggery, and those are considered useful in various cases, but no processed sugar, or cane and rock sugar, is considered good for regular use. Honey is definitely a more useful substance, but it’s used more medicinally [than in food].
Ayurveda has great use of oils, but more for application on the body in medical treatments such as abhyanga or shiro abhyanga, and in pain-related or joint treatments. In terms of consumption, in certain cases sesame oil and coconut oil could be advised for a short time depending on certain seasons and body types. Ghee is the fat of choice [for cooking]. Refined oils are not recommended.
What happens to your body when you’re consuming foods with refined flours, sugars and oils over a long period of time, such as during the party season?
Firstly, late dinners are one of the biggest problems with the party season. Dinners are not supposed to be a full meal to begin with, forget party foods. That being said, nothing hurts once in a while. Ayurveda talks about having the agni to once in a while be able to digest and process anything. If you start consuming these foods on a regular basis, it causes undigested toxic waste called ama to accumulate in your body. It sits in your channels, ferments, blends in with your own bodily tissue and gives rise to all kinds of diseases.
This can start out by feeling like excessive lethargy, brain fog, and body odour, and it can go on to create bigger issues in your body like autoimmune diseases. In the short term, you will notice its effects on your skin, sleep and overall digestion, but these are just preliminary symptoms.
In Ayurveda there's a term called sankirna bhojana, which is mixing all kinds of foods which ends up in a terrible consistency in your body and then it's very heavy on your agni. This happens during parties, when there’s a variety of food and snacks. I often suggest having a bowl of soup or a small bowl of khichdi before going out for dinner, so you’re already 50 per cent full. When you go out to a party, choose only one item that you're going to eat rather than eating everything, because that mixture of foods and the variety is actually really bad for your body.
Does alcohol have the same effect on your body?
No, alcohol does not create ama. But alcohol can give rise to various vata and pitta disturbances, eventually depleting the mucous lining and soft tissues of your body and heat it up to an undesirable level. That's why people often experience acidity, lightheadedness and dehydration after drinking.
Are these effects reversible with diet and lifestyle changes?
Yeah, absolutely. You definitely have the power to come back into balance depending on the level of abuse in your body. But it's very important that when we come out of this cycle of going out, weddings, parties—to think of how you can give your body a break.
Ayurveda condemns juicing and juice detoxes. Post party season, I recommend intermittent fasting or light fasting, and restricting your diet to rice broth with some dry ginger powder. Some people may need more than that, so they can have a rice gruel. Some people may need even more, so they can have rice gruel and a little bit of light watery dal. But it's important to fast like this for three, four days and then gradually build up a normal appetite using sattvic foods.
How do you ease into your normal diet after this kind of fast?
So you start out with sattvic foods, which means you stay away from meats, and using tomatoes, onions and garlic in your food. You start with foods that are less spicy, like rice, khichdi, some nice green vegetables. Then, you gradually increase the spice levels, and come to whatever you're normally used to. So I would say three-four days of fasting, then three-four days of sattvic foods, and then by the seventh day, you can start introducing some of your regular foods.
The other thing that is really important during this period is exercising. It releases endorphins, which help keep cravings under control.
What is your advice to someone who is trying to make healthier resolutions this year?
I will tell them to not be too ambitious in the start. Take baby steps. After bingeing, there is a natural tendency to go into a sort of deprivation mode, due to the guilt. But if you actually go into deprivation, it will bring you back to bingeing. Whatever it is that you choose in the new year for your health, build it up slowly and gradually. Be very aware of the withdrawal symptoms that may come up, and journal them down. Journaling brings self awareness and that self awareness allows you to actually change patterns. Be very aware of the temptations, the cravings and the withdrawal symptoms, journal them, as well as find effective ways of dealing with them. Some people find that when they feel a craving coming, they like to go for a little walk. Some people find drinking water helps; and for some, breathwork helps.
Another thing that is very useful is to sit and eat meals quietly. At parties, you become very used to standing and talking and eating mindlessly. Eating without distractions brings a great amount of mindfulness to the activity; something as simple as this can go a long way.