• The principles of a healthy diet don't need to be so complicated, says Dr Rupy Aujla – the key is trying to be consistent in meeting your needs every day

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We’ve been led to believe that the secret to good health lies in a set of specific ingredients and restrictive diet plans, when in reality the health benefits of food rely on eating consistently well daily. Good food doesn’t have to be expensive or out of the ordinary; on the contrary, healthy eating should be enjoyable and achievable over the long-term.

People are driven to eat well for different reasons. Perhaps your family doctor has told you to cut out certain foods for health reasons. Maybe you feel sluggish and overtired most days and somebody suggested it could be your diet. You may have recently started a family and have resolved to finally look after yourself so you can keep up with the kids, or perhaps you feel slower, less responsive, less vivacious with each birthday and this realisation has spurred you on to take control of your wellbeing.

In addition to the science of nutritional medicine that underpins every one of my recipes, my Indian culinary heritage has been the gateway to my food-as-medicine ethos. At the heart of Punjabi cuisine is an emphasis on vegetables and beans, cooked with freshly ground spices to create subtly perfumed dishes. Alongside the basic principle of less meat and more vegetables, the foundations of an ancient Ayurvedic diet – which I grew up with – still form the basis of my cooking.

Beyond the clichés of turmeric milk and garam masala are the lesser-known Ayurvedic practices that most Indians have come across. The importance of a balanced, flavourful plate that includes salty, sweet, sour, pungent, astringent and bitter – the nutritional elements needed for complete nourishment and absorption. The focus on gut health to maintain equilibrium across all bodily systems. The use of rejuvenating plants (rasayanas) in both culinary and medicinal contexts to support everything from pain management, brain function and enhanced virility.

While I question the evidence for and efficacy of many Ayurvedic practices, the principles of mindset, movement, rest and nourishment as a formula for health are hard to argue against. I’ve been on the receiving end of many an ‘I told you so’ from family members whenever research emerges on the importance of traditional herbs, like ashwagandha, or fermented foods.

When you dig a little deeper and examine the traditional diets of Mexico, Korea, the Levantine region and Italy, to name a few, it all feels strangely familiar to my experiences from childhood. Corn and beans spiced with jalapeños, sour kimchi paired with earthy sesame paste and short-grain rice, and the combination of aubergines, garlic and hazelnuts enlivened by the tang of ruby red sumac. Those salty, sweet, sour, pungent, astringent and bitter elements that I used to associate solely with an Ayurvedic method of cooking appear to be present across the traditional diets of many other cultures.

Regardless of heritage, our ancestors cracked the code to good health and wellbeing through food. This may sound odd coming from a conventionally trained doctor who is used to working in Accident and Emergency, but we need to take notice of these ancient practices and realise that the foundation for our health starts on our plate. We need not restrict ourselves to an Ayurvedic, Japanese Washoku or even Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. Inherent in traditional diets from across the world are common threads of dietary principles that, when examined through the lens of recent discoveries, all appear to support health.

My favourite food fixes

Precooked lentils: These are my go-to ingredients whenever I need to add extra fibre and protein to supplement a salad and bulk up a meal. Lentils are a wonderful easy and cheap way of increasing your fibre intake and supporting gut health.

Za’atar spice mix: This blend of cumin, sumac and sesame, popular in Palestinian, Egyptian and Lebanese food is such a versatile ingredient. I use it to add flavour to roast cauliflower, cooked chickpeas or even a sprinkle over hummus completely changes the dish.

Frozen peas: People forget that peas are frozen at the source and this actually preserves their nutrient content when transported. I always have these to hand and throw them into my stews and curries for an easy vegetable boost.

Kimchi: I’m addicted to this probiotic and fibre rich ingredient that has a fiery flavour and can transform simple cooked rice. I throw it on the side of poached eggs and avocado at the weekend for a twist on typical brunch food and it’s a combo that works well.

My top foods for powering your brain and why

Greens can impact multiple systems of the body including the brain and are one of the most important parts of a healthy diet. Ingredients such as cavolo nero, spinach, rocket and sprouts contain high amounts of phytonutrients that drastically reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a key component of why brain processes can become disrupted leading to symptoms of fatigue and sometimes low mood. 

Dark leafy greens are also a source of fibre that could benefit the gut bacterial population found in the digestive tract, which is also involved in the regulation of inflammation in the body.

Omega-3-rich fats Found in oily fish, nuts and seeds, plus extra-virgin olive oil. The long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids are of particular interest, as they have been shown to promote the growth of brain cells which can help maintain the adaptability of the brain. These sorts of fats are potentially key components of the brain's neuroplastic ability. Another benefit of nuts, seeds and oily fish in the diet is the quality protein they provide. These ingredients are broken down into amino acids (the building blocks of protein) which are used for the production of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the brain that are created every time your brain centres need to send signals. Adequate stores of good-quality protein ensure the availability of these nutrients for the production of these essential chemicals.

Berries have received a lot of attention for being brain protective, with good reason. They are rich sources of polyphenols, including anti-inflammatory resveratrol and quercetin, but they may also be involved in the production of brain­ derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).28 BDNF is involved in the maintenance and survival of nerve cells and could be a critical component of protecting the brain against disease but also enhancing cognitive ability. I always have a mixture of berries in my freezer at home for convenience because they are as nutrient-dense as fresh and much less expensive.

Whole grains including red rice, rolled oats and quinoa., are great sources of antioxidants, fibre and 8 vitamins, which are essential for brain health. The brain is a sugar-dependent organ but excessive sugar that disrupts the normal mechanisms governing the control of glucose in the bloodstream has been shown to negatively impact brain cells.This is why whole grains with the fibre attached are so important from the perspective of sugar control. 

Rather than blindly counting carbohydrates and removing anything labelled a 'carb' I urge patients to consider the quality of ingredients. Barley, com and millet are nutritionally very different to breads, pasta and cakes, yet they are all lumped together under the same banner of 'carbohydrate'. Whole grains are what we should be eating as they release sugar into the blood gradually and have not had the important nutrients stripped away from them.

Water is the easiest to access and the most commonly forgotten ingredient of all. Discounting certain medical conditions that would contradict 2 litres of plain water a day and excluding tea and coffee (which can actually dehydrate us), this is how much we should be aiming for. It is essential for nutrient transfer across brain cells, delivering oxygen as well as maintaining the integrity of cell structures. 

The simple act of hydration has been demonstrated in clinical studies to improve cognitive performance and there's no reason why we shouldn't all be drinking adequate amounts. Drink for your mind.

Herbs and spices - most of these contain key antioxidants and phytochemicals (chemicals produced by plants) that can reduce oxidative stress. As a general rule of thumb, using simple kitchen herbs like rosemary, basil, oregano and mint in your cooking is a great way to reduce inflammation and improve the enjoyment of food.

Dr Rupy Aujla is the author of Dr Rupy Cooks: Over 100 easy, healthy, flavourful recipes

Further reading

Forget perfect: consistency is key in fitness

Is dancing the best medicine? How movement stimulates the vagus nerve

How limiting self-beliefs can get in the way of a healthy lifestyle

The importance of integrating movement into daily life