Experts reveal cultural dietary wisdom
Russian-born Yana Ilinykh, 36, and India-UK immigrant Nina Lindley, 55, represent the multicultural base from which many Vancouverites might draw dieting wisdom. The global variety of tastes and palettes in the city makes the quest for the “ideal diet” particularly challenging.
Ilinykh, who migrated to North America with her husband in 1998 and has been in Vancouver since 2010, decided to have a traditional Russian feast on New Year’s Eve. A rare treat, the hearty meal includes specialties like vingret, a salad made of boiled vegetables, onions, sauerkraut, green peas and pickled cucumber, olivie, another traditional salad of meat, eggs, potatoes and mayonnaise, and crab legs with butter sauce, smoked salmon blintz and caviar.
“Traditionally, Russian food is very heavy,” says the slim, 5-foot-6 mother, who admits to being a frequent dieter in the past.
Among the many weight-loss methods Ilinykh has tried is the popular cabbage soup or “Russian peasant” diet, which consists of eating a low-calorie cabbage soup for seven days.
Lindley shares a few of her own traditional remedies for stubborn pounds and digestive troubles: drinking warm water with lemon in the morning, eating fennel seeds or Ajwain(Bishop’s weed) after a meal and drinking various teas.
“These methods were passed down through generations and word-of-mouth [in India],” says Lindley, who lived in the Yukon for 17 years and moved to Vancouver in 1997.
While neither Ilinykh nor Lindley intend to diet this year, both appreciate the ancestral experience at the heart of their respective traditions.
“Culture heavily influences the way people eat. Our diets are more than just about the physical health of our bodies; it’s also about our emotional health and healthy relationships,” says Vancouver-based nutritionist Vashti Timmermans.
Having travelled extensively through Japan, Central America, Europe, Turkey and Ecuador, the self-described “adventurous eater” literally promotes variety as the spice of life.
“If you’re getting a variety of cuisines using a variety of ingredients, you’re sure to get the diversity of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that you need,” says Timmermans, who also believes the healthiest way to eat is to cook at home.
However, to clinical Ayurvedic specialist and Langara College yoga teacher Madhuri (née Melanie Phillips), the concept of a balanced diet is a little more complex.
“How one digests is unique to the individual and depends on individual constitution, season and climate,” says Madhuri, who received her spiritual Sanskrit name, meaning “inner sweetness,” during her initiation at the Bihar School of Yoga in India.
According to Ayurvedic principles, Madhuri explains, there are six tastes in food – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Everybody needs all six to ensure proper balance and well-being, but the required combination depends on the unique make-up of each individual.
“There is a natural intelligence of the body which, when it’s in balance, will naturally move towards what it needs,” says Madhuri.
This approach is not unlike traditional chinese medicine (TCM), which recognizes energies in food and a range of individual effects based on the Five Element Theory. Like Ayurveda, TCM includes extensive study of the functions and relationships of various systems of the body, mind and emotions which are all considered parts of an integrated whole.
“We hear varying reports about foods having good qualities and bad qualities, but there’s not necessarily any problem with the food. It’s the way we’ve manipulated the food, or that for the individual the food is not suitable,” says local TCM doctor Melissa Carr.
Both Carr and Madhuri attribute the wisdom of their respective disciplines to thousands of years of experience, trial and error and natural observation.
“Most traditional diets are more in line with nature,” says Madhuri who, along with Timmermans and Carr, encourages the habit of choosing locally and seasonally available food.
Yet ever-changing economies, lifestyles and social and cultural interactions present particular challenges for conventional approaches.
Carr refers to the Inuit’s struggle with diseases since the introduction of excess carbohydrates not part of their traditional diet of mostly protein.
“If someone is new or from a different culture, they should find something that is similar to what they have been eating and not just go with whatever is non-fat or talked about in the media as the new superfood,” says Carr, who is of mixed Japanese and Caucasian heritage.
While Timmermans is reserved on the biological evidence supporting theories of ethnic or individual constitution, she agrees the increasing modification and processing of food is more harmful than healthful.
In fact, all three experts recommend reducing the intake of processed and refined foods, watching portion size and eating more vegetables.
“Regardless of where one is from, there is always room for improvement. Eating well is a balancing act,” says Timmermans.
Reprinted from The Source Newspaper.