DALLAS "Food is medicine," says Sapna Punjabi-Gupta, as she squeezes half a lime into a glass pitcher.
She's making fresh limeade in her home kitchen in Irving, Tex. To the two squeezed limes, she adds about four cups of water and her own spice blend: chaat masala, which includes cardamom, fennel and roasted cumin seed powder. She stirs them together with a long wooden spoon, pours a glass and takes a sip.
What is ayurveda (ah-yer-VAY-dah)?
It's the traditional system of medicine in Hinduism, she says. It's still practiced in India as a complement to Western medicine. Punjabi-Gupta, a registered clinical dietitian, says that several of its principles can help anyone who wants to lead a healthier life.
Ayurveda's religious roots are deep. It first appeared in written form more than 5,000 years ago in the Hindu scriptures called Vedas, which teach that the universe is made up of five elements (air, fire, water, earth and ether) and each human being is made up of a unique constitution of these elements.
When these elements get out of balance say too much earth or too little fire the body becomes unhealthy, the teachings say. Ayurveda provides guidelines that include cooking, massage therapy and meditation to help individuals balance the elements in their bodies.
Punjabi-Gupta specializes in ayurvedic cooking. She learned it first from her mother while growing up in Mumbai, India, then later by studying under the ayurvedic physician Vasant Lad at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico and while earning her master's degree in nutrition from Case Western Reserve University.
She taught a lecture series on ayurvedic wellness at an area museum this summer and teaches ayurvedic cooking classes throughout the year.
Punjabi-Gupta is quick to insist that you need not be Hindu or accept the premise that the universe is made of up five elements to practice ayurveda. Nor do you need to be a vegetarian.
To practice ayurveda, all you need to do is be aware of what you eat and how it affects the well-being of your body and your mind. It can take the form of eating fresh foods, using spices for medicinal purposes, eating foods that pacify, rather than agitate, your digestive system and eating a balanced diet.
According to ayurveda, a balanced diet doesn't mean consuming the right amount of the five food groups, but rather, eating meals that contain all six tastes. These tastes include sweet, sour and salty tastes readily available in most Western diets and those used less frequently: bitter, pungent and astringent.
By eating all six tastes, you make sure you receive a healthy dose of all five elements, she says..
"Do you know why Starbucks is thriving right now?" asks Punjabi-Gupta. "We are craving the taste of bitter."
For astringent tastes, Punjabi-Gupta recommends any kind of legume: lentils, garbanzo beans and even sprouts. For pungent, she recommends red chile powder and peppers.
In ayurveda, good digestion is the cornerstone of good health, she says. Those who practice ayurveda cook with spices and herbs that she says aid digestion.
"Spices are these magical little pearls, gemstones, I would say, in a cuisine," says Punjabi-Gupta.
She recommends eating a sliver of ginger drizzled with lemon juice before a meal to "kick-start your digestive fire."
A slice of fresh ginger in a morning cup of tea or mixing dried ginger into homemade salad dressings will also do the trick, as will adding a little cumin to a bowl of yogurt or slipping some fennel seeds into a dish of lentils.