I love autumn: the way the Eucalypts never shed their leaves but somehow still change with the seasons. In Summer they surrender their volatile oils to the scorching sun and droop in reverence of Sol's firey power. Today their leaves rustle joyfully as a cool breeze glides between them, that blue bowl a striking backdrop. The vata (wind) element as described in the ancient system of Ayurveda is undoubtedly the primary seasonal force at play.
The unabashed beauty of Mother Nature is quickly shut down like an airtight lock in a spacecraft as I interrupt my walk to dash into a supermarket. I'm here to grab a few ingredients I'm missing for some cookies I want to bake. Since the air-conditioning is cranked at an uncomfortable full throttle and baby is starting to squirm in reaction, I make the diversion as quick as possible.
At the checkout I notice the usual purveyors of diet culture: several women's "health" magazines with impossibly white, thin, able-bodied, rich, heteronormative women on the covers, shouting their dietary dogma at me. In the interests of social experimentation I resist the urge to cover up each of the horrendous women's magazines with copies of Home & Garden, flip open a popular rag, and peruse:
11 Things You Can Do In 5 Minutes Or Less To Help You Lose Weight
5 Surprising Ways With Edible Flowers
12 Foods You'd Never Guess Are Actually Vegan
9 Keto-Friendly Snacks That Will Actually Keep You Full
Master Trainer So-and-So Shares Her Day On a Plate (turns out she only eats protein and raw vegetables, with pumpkin "as a treat")
The Best Way To Deal With Food Pushers (i.e. how to stay on your diet and say no to cake when "pushy" family members offer you their home-baked goods.)
This is sad. It is depressing. And it is bullshit. It's autumn, it's getting cooler, and the last thing I feel like eating are edible flowers. The Ayurvedic cookbook I was flipping through earlier today had some much more appetising options.
It's times like these I'm so fucking glad I found intuitive eating, a flexible, instinctual relationship to food that transcends beliefs and systems, drawing directly on embodied experience.
Curiously, ancient systems like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) seem a lot more accommodating to the seasonal fluctuations in food cravings that I experience. At least they don't suggest that in autumn I should eat raw salads decorated with edible flowers.
But does this mean I should cast aside my intuitive eating principles and rest easy in the comfort of eating according to my dosha (Ayurveda), or whether I'm ruled by the metal or the wood element (TCM)?
Well, not exactly.
Diet culture Vs. Nourishing Traditions
I am ok with the fact that what I need to eat will change, as the seasons change, and indeed as the very cells and biochemistry of my own body - what could be called my constitution - changes.
The beauty and wisdom of systems like Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is that they honour these shifts in body, time and space in the same way my body and heart-mind now direct me to without having an encyclopaedic knowledge of such traditions.
But unlike the flexible, nature-based philosophy of intelligently applied Ayurveda, or the seamlessly shifting directions coming from my wild attuned body, the messages from diet culture are unwavering.
The volume of conflicting dietary advice in just one women's health magazine is enough to send any dietitian mad, let alone a regular person with a very basic understanding of nutrition. But even though the diets being touted vary wildly, the message is consistent:
Lose weight. Be smaller. Eat like a fucking rabbit.
There is no flexibility. There is no room for seasonal change. There is no room for constitutional shift, variable life circumstances, etc. "Just be vegan. Or keto. Or low carb. And for the love of God, don't eat too much lest you get fat! In fact, you should stick to less than 1800 calories a day. Or 1200. Or 800."
Shit. The younger me would have nervously ditched the baking goods and grabbed a coconut water to satisfy my sweet tooth. But I'm older and wiser now.
Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and intuitive eating
And when it's cold, the last thing my body wants are edible flowers in raw salads, vegan smoothies made on ice (to "save" calories), or fucking low-carb keto snacks.
My body wants stews and roasts with seasonal root vegetables. It wants warming herbs, sweet spices and pungent curries. It wants comforting home-baked treats like the Crystallised Ginger and Oat Cookies I'm about to make.
Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) support me in this stance. In TCM, autumn is associated with wind and dryness. It’s also the season associated with the lungs and large intestine, which are responsible for releasing carbon dioxide and food wastes, respectively. It follows that the energy of both these organs is ‘letting go’.
Elimination problems like chronic constipation can be exacerbated at this time of year. In my raw salad-eating and low-carb dieting clients, I find this is the season when that excess cold food and lack of fibre inherent in low carb diets backs them right up, leading to the bloating and appearance of the tummy that they're so desperately trying to avoid.
Similarly in Ayurveda, vata (the wind principle) characterises the cooler autumn months. Dry conditions related to the lungs are common now. Think colds and flus.
Warming, grounding and moistening foods are, according to Ayurveda, best suited to autumn. Soups and stews require longer cooking times, making them warming and easier to digest – a relief for clogged up bowels. Root vegetables such as carrots and sweet potato synchronise us with the inward and downward energy that propels us from warmer months towards winter, as do proteins such as legumes, eggs, and the meat and organs from grass-fed animals.
A delicious bone broth coupled with sweet potato, cabbage, radishes, onions, garlic and warming spices such as ginger and chilli would make a wonderfully nourishing autumn Ayurvedic meal. And that, along with the cookies, is exactly what I have for dinner.
In an ideal world, knowledge from either Ayurveda or TCM is integrated with embodied experience and present-moment awareness. For this reason, when we approach any traditional approach to food and wellbeing, we do so with a solid foundation of intuitive eating.
In Part 2 we will deconstruct the pitfalls of Ayurveda and TCM in our world of diet culture and weight bias, and how to approach these systems in a healthy, sustainable way.