Health can take on a different meaning as we age. In my twenties I wanted to be healthy with most of the motivation in outward appearances. And while that’s still a concern, it’s overshadowed by wanting to live a full life, free of disease.
Enter Whole Food Plant Based diets, including the Nutritarian Diet by Dr. Fuhrman and Starch Solution by Dr. McDougall. Ayurveda and Asian medicine put me more in the category of being better with a more (but not necessarily always) vegan diet. So here I am. Going Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB). It feels like a good answer for both me and the environment.
At the time I started Dr. Fuhrman’s Nutritarian plan, I lived in Florida so eating salads was easy with those year-round farmers markets. Even in such a warm climate, the first thing I noticed with this diet is that traditional systems of medicine are right:
Cold food is hard on digestion.
Perhaps not as hard as lots of meat, dairy and processed foods, but still challenging at times. It can be discouraging to begin such a healthy way of eating and experience problems like gas, bloating and stomach upset. High fiber foods are excellent for our diets, but sometimes we need some help digesting them without unwanted effects.
So I opened up my professional toolbox to help. While pursuing my degree, I completed nutrition courses based on the principles in both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Both systems advise caution with diets that include lots of cold food, the basic reason being for your stomach to digest food it has to heat it up and ‘cook’ it. It’s simply harder for the stomach to do that to cold and raw food versus cooked or warm food.
I’ll share some of what I used in this blog. I’ve moved to a colder climate with four seasons, so I’ve had to adjust my WFPB diet to be less reliant on salads. But first I’ll give a little background.
What is good digestion? Why is it important? Because good health starts with good digestion. While gas may be embarrassing and uncomfortable, it’s more than that because it’s our digestive system asking for help.
What are some signs and symptoms of poor digestion? Warning: poop talk ahead.
In addition to the obvious stomach signs of gas, bloating and changes in bowel movements, there are some other signs of weak digestion:
- Undigested food in your stools on a regular basis
- A runny nose while or after eating, even when it isn’t spicy food (do you have to blow your nose after meals?)
- Congestion after you eat certain foods, like a cold salad, tofu, cold drinks (including those non-dairy frappuccinos) or dairy if that’s a part of your diet (no judgement here, going WFPB is a journey and I applaud anyone who gives it a go)
- Do you need to use the moistened toilet wipes, or a lot of toilet paper, because your poop is sticky?
In Asian Medicine and Ayurveda, these are symptoms of cold and damp, and are most often at least partially a result of a cold, damp diet of raw foods, salads, smoothies or food straight from the refrigerator. Some of my teachers in acupuncture school even called it “refrigerator syndrome”.
Digestion needs specific conditions to be optimal and balanced. Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry can all lead to digestion and elimination problems. The top concern for people starting a WFPB diet is the increased intestinal gas that happens with the extra fiber and whole foods. And while our gut does adapt to eating much more high-fiber food, there are still great reasons other than gas to use herbs and spices for long-term health. I’ll be quoting from an AMAZING book by an MD Anderson Cancer researcher, Dr. Bharat Aggarwal, titled Healing Spices. This book is his scientific research, watered down into a format we can read like a nerdy cookbook. I’ll add in the wisdom from traditional systems of medicine like Ayurveda and Chinese/Asian medicine, which have included spices and the concept of food as medicine for centuries. At the end, I’ll list the details about the books I’ve quoted from so you can explore them further if you wish.
How do we strengthen digestion? In this blog we’ll talk about two tools: 1. Preparation 2. Spices
Preparation is the easiest to implement because no purchase is necessary. Nutritarian and other WFPB diets that rely on daily salads can be ‘tweaked’ into being warmer and easier to digest.
- Bring the ingredients for your salad out of the refrigerator early, so they have time to come to at least room temperature.
- For non-lettuce ingredients that will go on the salad, like peppers and carrots, can be gently blanched before being put on the salad to warm them. This doesn’t have to take so long that it makes them soggy. Blanching time for chopped vegetables is a mere 1-2 minutes in boiling water.
- Adding beans or chickpeas? Gently warm them before adding to the salad as well.
- Consider adding some of the spices discussed below, to the salad, the bean ingredients, or salad dressing.
The same principles apply to smoothies. Many of my colleagues rant against smoothies, but in some situations it is just the best way to get nutrition in a person. Kids are a good example–my son currently hates the textures of oatmeal and warm porridges (too sticky!). Smoothies give him fruits and vegetables, so there’s good reason to have a smoothie year-round.
- Omit ice if you use it
- Let ingredients come out of the refrigerator before using them.
- Add hot or boiling water if using frozen fruit. I love glass carafes on blenders for this reason.
- A sprinkle to a few pinches of powdered ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, or pumpkin pie spice blend to add some digestive-boosting warmth.
- I’m not a fan of microwaving smoothies–I prefer to boil water and add that for warmth.
To further help digestion, I often double cook my beans and rice. This double-cooking occurs in traditional cooking methods, most famously in refried beans and Indian dal dishes. With beans, I buy them dry not canned, and err on the side of long soaks and over cooking. With rice, you can presoak like beans. For some dishes, I dry saute the rice first, then add to the recipe and pressure cook or bake.
In multiple WFPB plans, the cutting back on or removing completely of oils and salt can leave our taste buds feeling ignored and neglected. As well as improving digestion, herbs and spices can give a big flavor boost so you don’t notice less oil or fat. I’ll include the research-supported health benefits of these spices, thanks to Dr. Agarwal.
A note on buying spices: pre-ground spices will have a much shorter shelf-life than whole spices. When possible, buy whole and grind at home. Most of them need just a few seconds in a mortar and pestle. I keep a coffee grinder just for spices. Check out stores that sell bulk spices (it can be far cheaper than bottled spices) and online spice shops are there if you can’t find something locally.
Marjoram: Okay, Nutritarians, listen up. If you haven’t met Marjoram, you need to. Nutritarians LOVE their salads, and Marjoram is going to make those salads love you more. The following study is from Healing Spices. Italian researchers created different salads to “calculate the antioxidant power of each salad”. Each salad had all the basics you would expect, like lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, onions, carrots with an herbal salad dressing. “When the researchers sprinkled one of the salads with a teaspoon of Marjoram, the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity, the ability of antioxidants to stop oxidative damage) units doubled.”
Dr. Aggarwal lists marjoram as helping to prevent and/or treat
- heart disease and stroke
- side-effects of pollution
Marjoram is a spicy, warm herb closely related to oregano, both of which are carminatives, meaning they help with digestion. Oregano is Origanum vulgare, while Marjoram is Origanum marjorana or Marjoran hortensis. I think we’re all becoming more aware of pollution in the news, and a study found that marjoram could “protect laboratory animals from liver and kidney damage cause by lead toxicity.” So, worst case, marjoram is a healthy, leafy salad addition. Best case is it’s keeping your digestion humming, your liver and kidneys protected, and helping you get even more out of that huge Nutritarian salad.
Cardamom: The Queen of Spices has a rich history but cardamom is a flavor many Americans aren’t used to. You’ll find it in authentic Indian masala chai, although American versions are often heavily cinnamon-based. Cardamom is a lovely digestive spice, helping with gas, heartburn and indigestion, and surprise! It has been in your pumpkin pie spice blend the whole time. I add whole green cardamom pods to my rice when I cook it for a mellow flavor along with digestive help, and I also sprinkle ground cinnamon into fruit smoothies to help counteract some of the cold. I also add cardamom pods to my rice when I cook it for both flavor and health benefits. Fun historical fact: historically, Arabic coffee was poured out of a pot with a cardamom pod in the spout. Cardamom goes well with coffee, and can counteract the effects of too much caffeine.
Cumin—featured in Indian and Mexican cooking, I didn’t cook with cumin at home until I was in my twenties, and didn’t really get comfortable with it until a few years after that. Which is sad, because it is an amazing spice for so many foods. Cumin is a super-star spice to add to your beans. Other health benefits— thanks, Dr. Aggarwal– is that it helps prevent or treat
- type 2 diabetes
- food poisoning
- blocks bacteria that cause food poisoning.
For WFPB’ers, cumin is great with beans, lentils, chilis, and rice pilaf. It works best cooked, so add cumin during the cooking process, not at the end.
Ajowan, also spelled ajwain, has “more than two dozen medicinally active compounds” (Healing Spices, p. 15) You’ll find it in recipes from India, Pakistan, North Africa and Iran. I only use ajowan cooked as the flavor mellows a lot with cooking. Here are just a few of the things Dr. Aggarwal lists as being prevented or helped by ajowan:
- infections and pain
It goes well with lentils, and you can dry roast it or pre-cook it and sprinkle on top of vegetables. The Egyptian spice blend berbere includes ajowan.
If you can’t use it in the dish you’re cooking but you have gas and bloating, try this quick infusion recipe: combine a teaspoon of ajowan with teaspoon or two of freshly ground coriander seed (not the green cilantro leaves, the seed) to eliminate gas and bloating. Simmer them together for 20 minutes in a cup or two of water. The long simmer really mellows the ajowan and brings out the lemony flavor of the coriander seed. This is a perfect after-meal or pre-bedtime decoction.
Celery seed: I use this in soups and stews, and when I’m cooking eggs for someone else. You don’t need a lot to add some gentle flavor to your cooking and reduce the need for salt. It’s great for bloating and Dr. James Duke highly recommends it for gout, which is also a condition helped by improved digestion.
Caraway can help prevent or treat cancer, cholesterol imbalance, constipation, food poisoning, heartburn, GERD and indigestion.. It’s in the Tunisian spice blend Harissa. Ancient Greeks and Romans used it to help digestion and fight viral infections. (Healing Spices, p. 59) Caraway is helpful if you have
- digestive pain
Have you tried the fennel-based after dinner treat at Indian restaurants? While most restaurants use fennel that has a candy coating (not so good), the premise is a good one. Fennel is excellent after meals. You can skip the candy coating, and either chew on fennel alone or have a fennel tea after dinner, simmering a teaspoon or two in water for at least 10 minutes. In Morocco, they use caraway instead of fennel the same way, as an after dinner digestive aid. Both fennel and caraway help with blood sugar and digestion, helping keep gas and bloating at bay. In Asian medicine, fennel has been used for the same reasons: to warm the interior helping with pain in the stomach and abdominal area, including pain from menstrual cramps. (Asian medicine rarely uses an herb alone–they are always part of a group, or herbal formula.)
Turmeric. Who hasn’t seen golden milk recipes floating all over social media, claiming turmeric as magic for x,y,z? Well, it’s not magic but research backs up its benefits. There are 33 –thirty-three!– conditions listed in Healing Spices that turmeric can help with. It’s been used for centuries in both herbal formulas and cooking in Ayurveda and Asian medicine. I’m not going to list all 33 benefits but here are a few that turmeric helps with:
- type 2 diabetes
- gall bladder disease
On WFPB diets, golden milk wouldn’t be made with dairy milk, but turmeric is absorbed better by the body if there’s a fat to help it. Try recipes made with alternative milks like coconut or hemp. This goes for capsules, too–the best turmeric supplement will have at least one other ingredient like black pepper to help the turmeric be absorbed. You can add it to many dishes when cooking (it has a lovely color when added to rice). It’s great with lentils, rice, curries, soups and any vegetable. I love it in my salad dressings—it’s healthy AND it makes it look pretty.
In Asian medicine, turmeric is included in formulas that treat pain and stagnation. Turmeric can also be used topically for skin conditions but be forewarned, it will turn your skin a lovely turmeric orange!
Ginger is often right by turmeric in the grocery store. Ginger also makes an excellent salad dressing, adding warmth and digestive benefits. Ginger helps with digestion by “increasing the wavelike muscle contractions (peristalsis) that move food through the intestine. (Green Pharmacy, p.276) Use it in cooking, or alone in a tea, be it fresh or powdered ginger. A friend taught me a neat ginger-preservation trick: freeze the whole fresh roots and then grate into recipes or water for tea.
This is just the beginning of herbs than can help with digestion! It was hard to keep this blog THIS short, there was so much to share. I’d love to hear how you incorporated these tips and spices into your WFPB diet!
In addition to drawing on my education in Asian Medicine (I have a Master’s in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, Diplomate of Oriental Medicine through the NCCAOM and Registered Herbalist through the AHG) I drew from the following two books that sit on my bookshelves with their tabs and dog-eared pages. You couldn’t go wrong picking them up from a library or book store!
Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease. By Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD with Debora Yost. Published by Sterling New York in 2011. He also has extensive scientific research you can find online and through research databases.
The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions. By James A Duke, PhD. Rodale Press, PA in 1997. Dr. Duke has many books out, and recently had an article written about his extensive scientific career in the New York Times. Any and all of his books and articles are valuable. He is missed in the herbal community.