We may be able to live without food for three weeks, water for three days and air for three minutes. These are our most basic needs. But to thrive, we also need love, fulfilling relationships and harmony with nature, according to Suhas Kshirsagar in his new book "The Hot Belly Diet." The quality of those experiences — from breakfast to the bedroom to the wild blue yonder — affects the quality of our health and ultimately of our lives.
Whether we want to lose weight, gain energy, heal from a chronic disease or simply find more meaning, the Hot Belly diet gives a simple yet uncommon prescription from India’s 5,000-year-old holistic medicine of Ayurveda. As a classically trained Ayurvedic doctor, Kshirsagar sees patients with everything from autoimmune conditions and heart disease to obesity and fatigue that all share a common denominator: a weak “digestive fire,” or metabolism. To stoke that fire in the belly, Kshirsagar says it starts, not surprisingly with our gut.
The gut stops here
You’ve probably had gut instincts about something or gut feelings about someone that proved spot-on. The only evidence you had were butterflies in your stomach or a burning desire to take action. Ayurveda looks at the digestive system as a second brain, and new science backs it up.
The Hot Belly diet explains that nerves in our gut actually process information and generate responses just like our gray matter. Research shows our gut can act separately from our brain to independently control our functions! Pretty wild, huh?
Not to Ayurveda, which has long viewed digestion as the cornerstone of health. Kshirsagar says a whopping 70 percent of our immune system lies in the gastrointestinal tract. Whether you want to lose weight or improve immunity, you need to befriend your digestive system. Nutrients from that butternut squash and spinach curry you ate for dinner feed all your tissues, from arteries to adrenal glands. If digestion is impaired, toxins build up in the organs and over time, cause disease.
Here’s some surprisingly simple gut-nourishing strategies:
Ditch the ice. Just say no to cold, carbonated drinks. Instead of a frosty glass of H20 with dinner, drink it room temperature or warm instead. (I ask food servers all the time and they never flinch.) Cold water extinguishes digestive enzymes just when you need them to break down that Caesar salad. (Raw vegetables require more digestive power than cooked ones.)
Better yet, drink warm water throughout the day to stoke your metabolism, increase the absorption of food (think less bloating, gas and belching), lose weight and dispel toxins. When possible, boil water for 10 minutes before drinking to purify and energize it. We are made of about 70 percent water after all, and interestingly, more than 70 percent of the earth is covered in water, NASA says.
Make a medicinal beverage by adding a slice of alkalizing lemon, warming ginger or herbal tea to hot water. The Hot Belly diet also suggests spicing it up with cinnamon, mint, thyme or turmeric.
Add digestion-enhancing spices to your meals, such as fresh ginger, cumin, black pepper, turmeric, and fenugreek.
Try to shop at farmers markets or natural food stores. (Photo: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock)
It’s about the prana
You may have seen the Sanskrit word prana written on yoga T-shirts. It translates into energy or life force. We extract energy from food. It stands to reason that freshly harvested, whole foods carry more nutrients than processed flours, sugars and fats manufactured in a factory or pesticide-treated produce shipped thousands of miles from the seed to your spoon.
According to the Hot Belly diet, one out of two Americans eats fast food every day. One out of four people drink at least one sugary soda. Is it no wonder more than two-thirds of adults are overweight in the U.S.? Those rates have tripled since 1980, and we’re foisting unhealthy habits on our youngest citizens. One out of every three American children is overweight.
We know now that lifestyle causes up to 80 percent of all illness, according to Kshirsagar. The glass-half-full part: Diet, exercise and stress management can prevent, or even reverse, four-fifths of chronic disease. Empowering, right? Ayurveda goes beyond the typical "eat your veggies" prescription to say what goes into your mouth is only as nutritious as the prana it contains.
The Hot Belly diet fix: Eat super foods made in and by nature. If you can, shop at farmers markets or natural food stores where groceries are organic and non-GMO. Favor seasonal vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, sprouts and lean proteins. Avoid simple starches including flour and white sugar, as well as alcohol, red meat and leftovers. “The wisdom we’re talking about lies in eating foods that are fresh, alive and vibrant,” Kshirsagar says.
Feed your genes
If you climb on a surfboard and do nothing, you’ll soon be under water. Kshirsagar likens this to the dynamism of our body. Our molecules literally respond to the quality of our environment. As we surf life, it’s up to us to ride waves of food, water, air, thoughts, livelihood, people and purposes that are nourishing. It just feels better. And, it actually changes the expression of our genes. Seriously.
Ancient Ayurveda and modern epigenetics reach the same conclusion: genes are not fixed. The Hot Belly diet says just 10 percent of diseases are genetic.
“The old rule was your genes are mechanistic,” Kshirsagar explained by phone. “Once you inherit those from your parents, you can’t change those. Now we understand you can turn your genes on and off. You can actually change your brain structure.”
Imagine the body as an energy and information field with particles integrating and disintegrating in every moment. Take exercise. New science proves that physical activity literally reverses the aging process by altering how genes act. In 2008, Canadian researchers who put seniors on a six-month strength training protocol found the sexagenarians’ strength shot up 50 percent. Not too shocking. What did surprise the scientific community: Seniors showed changes at the genetic level comparable to their 20-something counterparts.
We’re wired to move. The Hot Belly diet recommends doing something active every day. A walk after lunch or dinner works wonders for digestion. Not only does movement improve circulation, release happy-feeling endorphins and turn on good genes, you may feel better in your blue jeans too.
Eat breakfast between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. with the sun. (Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)
Rise, set and dine with the sun
Since we Homo sapiens migrated indoors, we often overlook that teaming ball of fire that powers our solar system. Like all life, we’re inextricably tied to the sun, which regulates when biochemicals, acids, hormones and other substances are released in our body. Our digestive fire runs hottest at high noon, for instance. Why? The sun is literally highest in the sky and in Ayurveda we have the same element of fire within us — along with water, earth, space and air.
“I see so many patients in my practice that eat whenever they want, they sleep whenever they want, they have sex whenever they want. They are totally violating all the rhythms of nature,” Kshirsagar says. “When they are sick they would like to find a natural cure for their unnatural living. Ayurveda is a true natural medicine. It talks about respecting food, air and water that is given to us free by mother nature.”
Recent studies indeed show when people consume most of their calories midday, they lose weight compared to people who eat the same number of calories later in the day, according to the Hot Belly diet. If you want to improve your metabolism, make lunch your primary main meal and eat a light supper. I experimented with this protocol when writing about Ayurveda’s ideal daily routine and lost 12 pounds in a few months, even though that wasn’t my intention. (I feel so much better skipping a heavy dinner that I’ve continued this regimen and haven’t regained the weight.)
Here’s the Hot Belly diet meal plan to maximize your digestive fire, shed pounds and just plain feel better:
Eat breakfast between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.
Indulge in lunch as your heartiest meal from noon to 1 p.m. If your diet includes harder-to-digest foods such as meat, dairy, nuts and raw vegetables, you can best metabolize them midday. Only eat until you’re about two-thirds full, leaving space for your stomach to digest all that food!
Dine lightly for supper before 7 p.m. on soups, cooked vegetables, grains and other vegetarian fare.
In "The Hot Belly Diet," Kshirsagar explains the body metabolizes waste and revitalizes our immune system primarily between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. If we’re awake during those hours we lose vital functions that don’t happen any other time. No wonder studies show poor sleep habits contribute to brain fog, memory loss, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression, according to the Hot Belly diet.
Let us eat while we eat and fast while we fast
Wolfing down a burrito at your desk, binging on leftovers and Showtime or snacking while surfing Instagram — sound familiar? What about grazing throughout the day while doing just about anything? In a food and media-saturated land, we tend to treat eating as a robotic nuisance, forgetting what we put into our mouths gives us the fuel to live and literally becomes our bodies. Staring at an electronic screen while eating may be the social norm, but there are downsides. The obvious one: We miss our body’s fullness cues and eat more. Distracted eating also compromises our digestion since we’re not taking the time to chew properly, the first step in breaking down food. And Ayurveda contends we can only digest so much at once — whether that’s food, drink or information.
Here’s a simple fix that may take practice for us multi-tasking moguls: Take small bites, savor the smells and flavors of your meal, notice how it feels in your mouth. Try eating with your left, or less dominant, hand to slow you down. Before eating, Kshirsagar also suggests looking down at your plate and asking, “Do I think this is good for me to eat at this time?”
Then, when you’re sated, stop eating. That’s right, don’t eat again until your next meal. “Of all the lessons I teach, one of the most important one goes against conventional dieting wisdom that says ‘you should never wait until you’re hungry to eat,’” Kshirsagar says. “This is perhaps one of the most harmful pieces of advice out there in diet circles. Hunger is a vital marker of health.”
He says appetite means digestive acids and enzymes are building. If you snack between meals, especially when you’re not hungry, you sap your metabolism, storing excess fuel as fat and toxins. Remember, our DNA is still wired from our ancestors who, by necessity, went long stretches without food while hunting and gathering. We may fly by a drive-through for a double cheeseburger, supersize French fries and 32-ounce soda, but our biology is designed to work up an appetite before feasting on something as labor-intensive as meat.
Sure enough, the New York Academy of Sciences published a study in 2002 stating that grazing all day can put one at risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, according to the Hot Belly diet. NBC News reported on a 2013 study showing diabetics who ate only a large breakfast and lunch lost more weight than those who consumed six mini meals with the same number of calories. Kshirsagar says we’re made to relish well-deserved meals when we’re truly hungry. Ayurveda’s takeaway is to find pleasure in food when you do eat, offering thanks for this bounty with your attention.
Scenery, silence and sex
Lest you think Ayurveda is about deprivation, Kshirsagar advocates cultivating a healthy sex life. “Just as we need water, food, and oxygen to live, so do we need to practice one of the greatest creative forces through which we can express and share our love,” he writes in "The Hot Belly Diet." Not only can lovemaking be a potent source of pleasure and intimate bonding with our partner, science shows that sexual appetite and performance is indicative of overall health and longevity.
As you’re probably gathering, Ayurveda advocates that our well-being rests on the health of our relationships with ourselves, others and the greater world around us. Nature can be a portal into our place in a grander picture. With lives that are electronically connected 24/7, Kshirsagar believes it’s even more essential to disconnect from that flat stream and experience the living sensations of the natural world.
Walk, hike, swim or cycle in the fresh air. Explore local parks. Feel your feet sink into the grass, sand or dirt. Move your chair to a skyward window. Bathe in the metamorphosis of dawn and dusk. Stargaze on a clear night. Whether in nature or somewhere private, find a few minutes for quiet self-reflection every day. Ask how your body feels. And your heart.
“Slowing down aligns you with what’s happening around you in the universe,” Kshirsagar says. “I always like to say to my patients for fast acting relief, try slowing down. When you find times of quietude and silence, this is the language nature speaks. You’re able to turn into that language which is very nourishing.” Ayurveda speaks of immortality, not that the body is immortal. Rather that there is a part of our self that is never born and never dies.