For three weeks, my yoga student “Cathy” did a detoxifying dietary cleanse. She followed the bestseller Clean, by Alejandro Junger, and eliminated caffeine, sugar, gluten grains, dairy, soy, eggs, red meat, nightshades, alcohol, and specific fruits, including oranges, strawberries, and bananas.
For breakfast and dinner, Cathy drank liquid meals: soups, smoothies, and Vitamix juices. Lunch could include vegetables, legumes, fish, poultry, and, if necessary (for active people), gluten-free whole grains. She is now re-introducing foodstuff one at a time, to see if any have negative effects.
Another student, “Susan,” has stuck to a high-protein, no-sugar, no-carb diet for six months now. She was vegetarian for seven years prior, but adopted this meat-based diet as prescribed by her naturopathic doctor. Fruits are prohibited, except for coconut and avocado.
In drastically changing to a semi Paleo diet, Susan noticed increased energy and mental clarity. She hypothesizes that carbohydrates overtax her digestive system. On eating meat after years of vegetarianism, she says that it wasn’t off-putting: “My body was craving it.”
Why are they (or any of us) experimenting with various diets? Vegetarian. Vegan. Gluten free. Wheat free. Sugar free. Paleo. Atkins. Ornish. Macrobiotic. Mediterranean. Okinawan. (Fat free and high carb are passé.)
My students are already very healthy, fit, and active. Cathy is a runner; Susan cycles everywhere. They probably started with decent eating habits. But they wanted to feel better, to be healthier, to resolve nagging ailments, to add more variety (and vegetables) to their meals, to test their discipline, to determine whether specific foods affect their well-being. (Neither is trying to lose weight, but that’s probably the most common reason for trying a new diet.) Essentially, both women are trying to figure out, as adults, what foods agree with their constitutions.
I immediately thought of my friend Phiroze’s housekeeper/cook, Abelin, in Bombay. She’d always serve fruit at the end of a meal. One evening, there was extra papaya, cut into succulent chunks, left in the serving bowl. Abelin asked me if I wanted to finish it. “Why don’t you have it,” I said, knowing that she’d eat her own dinner later. She laughed and said, “I don’t eat papaya. For me it is too heating.”
“Heating?” I was puzzled.
“It’s too strong. It makes my emotions rise.”
What? Most people choose foods based on flavor, nutrition, convenience, or cost. Abelin was choosing to eat only foods that agree with her. Never mind their scrumptiousness.
“What about cantaloupe?” I asked, recalling another recently served fruit.
“No,” she smiled. “Cantaloupe make me cold. It’s too cooling.”
I discovered that her favorite fruits include apples, bananas, and pomegranates. She likes fish, including fried bombil, a Mumbai specialty, and Goa-style curry pomfret, along with the staple repertoire of dal dishes. For breakfast, she eats roti with ghee, but not eggs, which, like papaya, she finds overly heating.
She clearly “senses” how different foods affect her–and without consulting books, nutritionists, or the latest trendy diet. Unlike Cathy (and me and most of us), she didn’t need to “detox” to determine, one by one, the effects of each food in her normal diet. She does it automatically.
Abelin is one of my fondest memories of India. Through our lengthy chats, I could tell that she is a woman who knows and accepts herself. For fun, I asked, “Abelin, what’s your favorite color?”
Without hesitation, she said, “Peach.” (Peach!)
“What’s your second favorite color?” I was compelled to press further.
“White,” she answered, immediately.