Nidhi Mehta was struggling with her weight. She was barely sleeping at night and felt lethargic all the time. On top of that, she was suffering from a debilitating cough. When she was hit with the added layer of long Covid symptoms, she decided to explore a centuries-old alternative – Ayurveda. Allopathy as well as consultations with those she called “the best doctors” had failed her too.
To the unacquainted, her symptoms may fall into different realms, each requiring a specialist’s attention. But as per Ayurveda, no health-related issue can be viewed in isolation. Nidhi was subsequently prescribed an “Ayurvedic diet,” one that eschewed counting calories and promoted medicated ghee and tailor-made remedies to combat her ailments. It held the promise of restoring her mental, physical, and emotional well-being.
Through word-of-mouth, she approached Aika Health, a health-tech venture that uses Ayurvedic diets and remedies to combat diseases and “new-age” health problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Polycystic Ovarian Disease (PCOD), acid-reflux, stress, anxiety, and bronchitis. After consultations with an Ayurvedic doctor and then a nutritionist, she was given a holistic treatment plan. She began consuming herbs and spices along with the medicated ghee. The underlying principle was no processed foods and to avoid any chemically infused food items. Everything needed to be Natural. “I started feeling better in about 10 days,” said Nidhi, who went on to lose 10kg.
Today, the variance in diets is staggering. Keto, Atkins, Paleo, low-carb, and Dukan. In this mix, there’s now a new and growing breed of Ayurvedic dieticians who go beyond calorie count and spot reduction and take on a more “holistic approach.” They customise it for each patient and use Instagram and WhatsApp groups for hand-holding a daily diet programme.
Patients appreciate this single-minded focus and attention to the minutiae of their lives. “I had a long conversation (with the nutritionist and doctor). They understood my problems in detail. We don’t have this kind of awareness.”
From 3,000 years ago to now, Ayurveda has donned many hats and been repurposed numerous times to suit contemporary trends and, more recently, consumer patterns. Its latest incarnation is dietary, with Ayurvedic dieticians and nutritionists being the favourites among health-conscious people.
The number of dieticians prescribing Ayurvedic diets has mushroomed, citing Ayurveda’s “holistic approach” as being more effective. They assist their clients in a variety of arenas – from physical to mental, and emotional.
Above and beyond, it is also a trend that is subverting dietary norms, especially through its anti-calorie count approach.
Earlier, people consulted dieticians with specific goals in mind, looking for ways to lose a dramatic amount of weight in a short span of time. Now, new ventures are looking to help their clients drop the extra kilos and solve health problems that stem from frenetic lifestyles and poor environmental conditions.
This return to the fundamentals of food and using it as a catalyst for overall health is a trend that is only accelerating.
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Back to the basics
Nidhi was given a three-month diet plan. “I largely cut down on wheat and rice. I used to feel so hungry earlier,” she admitted. She started consuming millets instead. Millet is a healthier alternative to rice, richer in protein and fibre.
The foundational principle of an Ayurvedic diet is that every person has a specific body type, a doshas defined as – vata, pita, kapha. They are derived from the five elements: earth, water, space, air, and fire. A dosha provides Ayurvedic doctors, dieticians and nutritionists with a framework using which they formulate a patient’s diets and treatment plans.
Each dosha uses a combination of physiological and psychological characteristics. For one, people with vata as their dosha are described as being imaginative, creative, intense, or expressive. They are characterised as having dry hair and skin, and their ailments include constipation, insomnia, and anxiety. This is where the “science of life” veers into territory that isn’t necessarily scientific, though believers insist otherwise.
“These are as per the original texts. Doshas are written in the Charak Samhita (a Sanskrit text on Ayurveda), which is where these traits are described. Practitioners of Ayurveda observed people deeply. These are time-tested principles developed after hundreds of years of observation,” said Mitali, founder of Aika Health. An investment banker of 10 years, she found solace in Ayurveda after being diagnosed with PCOD. Diets are prescribed based on a patient’s body type. Certain grains, for instance, are matched with specific body types.
Mitali believes that what is deemed healthy is governed by what is considered healthy in popular culture. For a long time, people denounced ghee, which is only now being viewed as an extremely healthy source of fat. She says that chia seeds and avocados, which are popular among the young obsessed with fitness, leave you feeling hungry. Diets advised by Ayurveda practitioners tend to stick to the traditional route – “the methods of Indian cooking and eating.” “You feel like you’re fighting with your body,” said Nidhi, in reference to quick-fix diets. Ayurveda fights the notion of starving yourself in order to lose weight or get fit, as well as other dietary norms.
According to its belief system, salad shouldn’t be eaten with every meal. Shakes that combine every fruit under the sun should not be consumed, and certain fruits, like banana and mango, do not go together.
“Ayurveda nutrition emphasises on meal timings, which one must follow the entire day. It sets guidelines as to when, how and what a person should eat according to the dosha. This is because Ayurveda sees the whole human body as a product of the food it consumes. It also explains how a person can establish the connection with the elements of body, life, and food naturally,” says Dr Shikha Nehru Sharma, founder and managing director of health start-up Nutriwel Health.
At first glance, start-ups – with their thrust on cutting-edge innovation – promoting an age-old practice can seem anachronistic.
But Nutriwel has repackaged Ayurvedic nutrition to develop its own brand – Vedique – like a boutique. They claim to combine modern medicine, Ayurveda, and epigenetics, the study of how the external environment can affect the functioning of a person’s genes.
An initial diagnosis is made using a blood test report to gauge what medical issues the client is suffering from. Personalised diets are handed out, with grains, fats, and proteins distributed as per your dosha. The client receives regular counselling sessions with an Ayurvedic doctor. Nutriwel, which was founded in 2009, has treated over 48,000 patients with the help of over 1,800 Vedique coaches. Dr Sharma refers to her organisation as a platform that is driving the nutrition ecosystem in India.
In this avatar, Ayurvedic nutrition seeks to accommodate the fact that the physical, mental, and emotional aspects are woven into each other. With this rationale, counselling sessions become essential. Nidhi, who consulted with Aika Health, found the 30-minute sessions to be a source of “comfort”. “My doctor wasn’t judgemental about my smoking habit. He allowed me to take things one at a time,” she said.
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Sharp rise in Ayurveda awareness
An increasing number of women are turning to alternative forms of treatment. A third of all menstruating women suffer from PCOD, according to a UNICEF report, and it is these women who are migrating to the Ayurveda world to curb their symptoms.
There’s no India-specific data, but practitioners and nutritionists ThePrint spoke to see a similar trend of women outnumbering male clients. It comes as no surprise.
In her book, Unwell Women, British scholar Elinor Cleghorn explores gender bias in medicine. From fibromyalgia to menstruation to fibroids and menopause, she examines how medicine has pathologised womanhood. Many of the women who approach Vedic nutritionists are uneasy with the “intrusiveness” of allopathy, where the symptom is exercised but the cause is left untreated.
“At least one in every five patients I consult has PCOD-related issues,” said Gurgaon-based gynaecologist Ankita Mittal. Both Aika Health and Nutriwel heavily advertise that they provide treatment for PCOD symptoms. When Mitali was diagnosed with it, she was given the standard fare of hormonal pills.
“Why should I have to be on pills for the rest of my life?” was her immediate reaction. PCOD is often stress and lifestyle related. Gynaecologists typically recommend exercising, eating better and eliminating as many stressors as possible. Ayurveda then becomes a convenient treatment method because it claims to combat all three of these.
While companies like Dabur have been capitalising on Ayurveda for decades, with health-tech startups like Aika and Nutriwel, it is being packaged for a different demographic: women who are neglecting their health and encountering a slew of lifestyle disorders as a result, thus forcing them to slow down. Dr Sharma cites the pandemic as a reason for this upward swing. There was more demand for Ayurvedic nutrition and herbs. “We can see a sharp rise in awareness and consumer interest along with demand for therapies based on Ayurveda. People have now started believing that it is better to rely on nature’s given plants for various illnesses than relying on artificially made chemicals,” she said.
The personalised approach is another advantage. Dr Divya Saxena, who previously worked under Dr Sharma, says she looks at a patient’s entire history before giving them a diet. When it comes to an irregular period, her message is clear. “Don’t go for allopathy. Use herbs.”
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)