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Eating for balance, sustainability and joy

Eating for balance, sustainability and joy

Food is a friend that supports you in your well-being.

Divya Alter grew up in Bulgaria. What remains of her from childhood is the way her family related to food.

“I grew up in a family where we always had a piece of land and still grew different types of fruits and vegetables today,” says Alter. “We were closely tied to how we grow our food, how we preserve it for the winter and how we ferment the cabbage.”

His family’s connection to the food they ate laid the foundation for Alter’s later love affair with food.

“I’m very grateful for that because not all cultures have this close relationship with food,” Alter says.

When she discovered yoga as a teenager, Alter began exploring plant-based eating. As a culinary intern at the yoga ashram, she learned to cook healthy plant-based foods in exchange for yoga lessons.

“That’s how I fell in love with cooking and food,” says Alter.

How food supports healing

Subsequently, Alter lived in India for five years and came into contact with Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine. She tells the story of how she first approached a Western-minded Ayurvedic doctor.

“I would go to the Ayurvedic doctor and say, okay, give me all the herbs I need, and he would say, ‘Yes, I will give you the herbs, but first, here is the list of foods that are good for you right now.’” , he shares.

This helped Alter understand how food can support healing.

“I was like, wow,” he says. “This is really how food can be used as medicine.”

Share his work

Alter brought her philosophy to life when she began teaching cooking classes in New York City in 2009, and later with her first cookbook, “What to eat for how you feel: the new Ayurvedic cuisine.”

From there, a meal delivery service eventually became a plant-based restaurant Divya’s kitchen opened on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 2016.

There, Alter serves freshly prepared seasonal dishes with an Ayurvedic twist.

Her most recent offerings include the 2022 cookbook titled “The Joy of Balance: An Ayurvedic Guide to Cooking with Healing Ingredients,” and a series of five online Advanced courses to accompany the book.

Do you want to learn the principles of healthy eating that Alter applies in his cookbooks and menu? Read on to get his advice.

Alter’s lessons from her Ayurvedic studies and life experiences inform how she cooks and eats food today.

There is no good or bad food

One of its fundamental principles? There is no good or bad food.

“Everything in nature can be used as medicine,” he says. “The question is, is it good for you right now or not?”

The answer to this question may depend on the weather, the seasons and even the season of your life.

“Our body needs to adapt to all these changes, and part of that adaptation is also adjusting our diet so that whatever we eat supports where we are now,” Alter says.

He remembers an answer one of his teachers always gave to the question, “Is this right for me?”

“The answer is always: ‘it depends’. It depends on what you need right now,” Alter says.

Eat food that your body says “yes” to.

When asked to describe the cuisine at Divya’s Kitchen, Alter answers definitively, “We serve food that your body says yes to.”

That means delicious, deeply nourishing and energizing food.

“This is the main reason we eat,” Alter says. “It’s not just meant for entertainment. This is the creative aspect, which is also very important. But if it doesn’t nourish you deeply, if it just entertains you, you won’t be satisfied.”

As an example, Alter cites the common experience of feeling full but not satisfied. He says this is usually due to something lacking in terms of nutrition or taste.

In addition to offering deeply satisfying food, Alter is committed to providing food that is easy to digest. He describes the overall effect as feeling full, but not like I need to take a nap.

Eat foods that work together

Additionally, Alter says combining certain foods can lead to indigestion. For example, don’t serve raw fruit with cooked foods because it may cause gas or bloating.

While there isn’t much scientific evidence to support combining foods in general, some studies indicate that combining certain foods can have specific effects.

For example, a 2022 study of simulated digestive conditions found that milk mixed with fruit or green tea extract produced a lower antioxidant effect than other, more favorable food combinations.

A 2017 study they found that consuming carotenoid-rich vegetables along with healthy fats helps increase nutrient absorption.

Vegetables that contain carotenoids include

  • carrots
  • tomatoes
  • Red peppers
  • spinach
  • broccoli

Furthermore, a 2022 study they found that consuming vitamin C can help the body absorb iron more effectively.

“I apply the principles of food compatibility to every dish on our menu (and) to all of my recipes,” says Alter. “We often think we have a chronic digestive problem, but it’s nothing serious. It’s just that you’re eating two foods that don’t go well together and your body says, ‘hey, that’s not right.'”

Any food can be Ayurvedic food

Alter notes that there is a common misconception that Ayurvedic food is the same thing as Indian food. In reality this is not the case.

“Ayurveda comes from India. It is a traditional medical healing system of India and many of the ancient traditional recipes are Indian,” he explains. “But the principles of Ayurveda in relation to food are universal.”

Therefore, the menu at Divya’s Kitchen is diverse.

“I love Italian flavors, so we have lasagna and risotto… but I don’t define it as a particular regional dish,” says Alter. “What I try to do with my recipes and menu at Divya’s Kitchen is show how to apply these universal principles of food to any type of cuisine.”

Eat the food you grew up with

Because Ayurvedic principles can be applied to any type of food, Alter emphasizes respecting one’s cultural heritage as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

For example, she talks about an Iranian friend who grew up with Persian cuisine.

“It’s pretty spicy, really flavorful, a lot of saffron and cinnamon and all these different spices, a lot of rice and pomegranates,” says Alter. “This is the kind of food that will make her healthy. You will feel healthy when you eat it.

Food that offers comfort and reminds you of loved ones can be just as healing as so-called “healthy” foods, Alter notes.

However, he points out that creating whole-grain versions of your favorite dishes will always result in maximum nutrition.

When asked what traditional Bulgarian food she likes, Alter had a ready answer.

“It’s called banitsa,” he says. “It’s filo pastry and you can have all kinds of fillings… ricotta, spinach, pumpkin or grated apples, a kind of strudel. It’s really, really delicious.

Eat how you feel

Just like her cookbook says, Alter places a lot of emphasis on eating based on how your body and mind feel.

He suggests tuning in by asking, “What is happening in your body right now?”

For example, a pregnant person will probably need more constructive and nutritious food. If you do very heavy physical work, you will probably need heavier foods, not just salads.

Alter offers celery juice as an example.

“Some people go crazy with celery juice. It may or may not suit you,” she says.

Alter says celery juice can help cool acidity and heartburn. On the other hand, it can increase the cold and dry characteristics of the body, making it less than ideal for a cold, windy day.

“It will just increase the energy in your body,” says Alter. “You need to have a basic understanding of the properties of the ingredients so you can determine when to invite it onto the plate and where to keep it on the shelf.”

Relax in your relationship with food

Knowing what to eat can be confusing, even stressful.

“It’s important to relax in your relationship with food,” says Alter. “You could eat the healthiest food, but if you eat it in a state of stress, even the best-for-you food won’t be good for you.”

Alter underlines by focusing above all on the joy of eating.

Choose organic when you can

“Our menus contain maybe more than 85% certified organic ingredients,” Alter says. “They are always freshly prepared, so we don’t serve leftovers. We cook it fresh every day.

This freshness ensures the highest quality nutrition, but also ensures it is easy to digest, he says.

A local focus

Additionally, he notes that imported health foods can sometimes become disproportionately popular. This can create a distorted view of what is truly best for people and the planet.

“Amla or amalaki is a very famous Ayurvedic fruit,” he says. “If you go to the Netherlands and amla fruit doesn’t grow in your garden or in your neighborhood, that’s okay. Maybe you need dandelions growing in your garden.

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