Dementia and Diet

When my mom first got a dementia diagnosis, I knew just one way to protect her health: cooking nutritious food. Since dementia has no known cure, my meals were steeped in desperation and love. Yesterday, in a cooking class with an Ayurveda doctor, my ideas about food and healing were confirmed.

Between the Pond and the Woods

Since my mother is tiny and always hungry, I never doubted that good food would help her. But I also believed that feeding her well was a way to transmit compassion. Dr. Shekhar Annambhotla, yesterday’s Ayurveda teacher, fully agreed. “Cooking”, he said,  “is love. You put all of your love into the pot and you share that love with others.”

People in the class raved about his food. Men, women, young, old, vegans and carnivores enjoyed each dish. Local pub crawlers liked the meal as much as the yoga students in the room. As he cooked, the doctor explained how his recipes reflected the principles of Ayurvedic medicine, a health system used in India for thousands of years.

Though I’ve read many articles on Ayurveda, it always seemed too complex for me and nearly impossible to practice. But the class, sponsored by Jim Thorpe Yoga, taught me a lot. First of all, changing to a 100% Ayurvedic life WOULD be hard. However, it’s not that difficult to adopt a 10% approach and build toward 20% if the dietary shift makes you feel good. In fact, the doctor suggested that people take simple steps at first because changing too fast makes it hard to sustain the new habits we’re trying out.

His main advice to me was to eat my biggest daily meal at lunch. My weight’s gone up ten pounds since my mom got sick. Though I walk a lot and practice yoga, age has slowed my metabolism. Shekhar noted that if I eat a bigger meal at mid-day, I’d have enough daylight left for a brisk walk to aid digestion and burn calories. This sounds like something I could achieve without losing my mind or emptying the fridge. The doctor also warned us to avoid lecturing loved ones if they don’t want to change. Preaching may be hard to resist, especially if you start feeling health benefits you’d like your family to share. Caregiver efforts to improve their health can be viewed, instead, as one way of “putting on the oxygen mask before assisting others.” Our well-being will shine through the improved care we offer.

The impulse to preach nearly ruined a chat with my beef-loving boyfriend. When I raved about the delicious Ayurveda food, he asked for a list of ingredients. Coconut oil, he said, was full of saturated fat, very bad for you. (Of course he loves fries and hamburgers!) Then my Internet research pulled up this great New York Times article about coconut oil. It explains the difference between bad coconut oil — the partially hydrogenated stuff full of trans fats — and virgin coconut oil, which has no trans fats and lifts good cholesterol.

Today’s Internet feast of research and opinions makes it nearly impossible to find one health practice approved by all. I would not buy Ayurvedic “medicines” made in other countries. But I do think it’s wise to embrace basic Ayurvedic ideas like cooking your own food and adding more fresh vegetables to each meal. It actually seems a lot like what my grandmother did in the old days, when restaurants were for special occasions and home-made food nourished families through tough times. Is anything tougher than dealing with dementia?

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