Food is a friend to support you in your wellbeing.
Divya Alter grew up in Bulgaria. What stays with her from childhood is how her family related to food.
“I grew up in a household where we always had a piece of land, and we cultivated different kinds of fruits and vegetables, even today,” says Alter. “We were very closely connected to how we grow our food, how we preserved it for the winter, and how we fermented cabbage.”
Her family’s connection to the food they ate laid the foundation for Alter’s later love affair with food.
“I’m very grateful for this because not every culture has this very connected relationship to food,” Alter says.
When she found yoga as a teen, Alter began exploring plant-based eating. As a kitchen intern at the yoga ashram, she learned how to cook healthy, plant-based food in exchange for yoga classes.
“This is how I fell in love with cooking and with food,” says Alter.
How food supports healing
Later, Alter lived in India for five years and got in touch with Ayurveda, Indian traditional medicine. She tells the story of how she first approached an Ayurvedic doctor with a Western mindset.
“I would go to the Ayurvedic doctor and say, okay, give me whatever herbs I need, and he would say, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you the herbs, but before that, here is the list of foods that are good for you right now,’” she shares.
This helped Alter understand how food can support healing.
“I was like, wow,” she says. “This is truly how food can be used as medicine.”
Sharing her work
Alter brought her philosophy to life when she started teaching cooking classes in New York City in 2009, and later with her first cookbook, “What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen.”
From there, a meal delivery service eventually became a plant-based restaurant when Divya’s Kitchen opened on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 2016.
There, Alter serves freshly-prepared seasonal food with an Ayurvedic twist.
Her most recent offerings include the 2022 cookbook called “Joy of Balance: An Ayurvedic Guide to Cooking with Healing Ingredients,” and a series of five online Masterclasses to accompany the book.
Want to learn the healthy eating principles Alter applies in her cookbooks and on her menu? Read on to get her tips.
Alter’s lessons from her Ayurvedic studies and life experiences inform the way she cooks and eats food today.
There’s no good or bad food
One of her major principles? There’s no good or bad food.
“Everything in nature can be used as medicine,” she says. “The question is, is it good for you right now or not?”
The answer to this can depend on the weather, the seasons, as well as your season of life.
“Our body needs to adapt all these changes, and part of this adaptation is also adapting our diet so that whatever we eat supports where we are right now,” says Alter.
She recalls an answer one of her teachers always gave in response to the question, ‘Is this good for me?’
“The answer is always, ‘it depends.’ It depends on what you need right now,” Alter says.
Eat food that your body says ‘yes’ to
When asked to describe the cuisine at Divya’s Kitchen, Alter replies definitively: “We serve food that your body says yes to.”
That means food that’s delicious as well as deeply nourishing and energizing.
“That’s the main reason we eat,” Alter says. “It’s not just meant for entertainment. That’s the creative aspect of it, which is also very important. But if it doesn’t nourish you deeply, if it only entertains you, you’re not going to be satisfied.”
As an example, Alter points to the common experience of feeling full but not satisfied. She says this is usually due to something lacking in terms of nutrition or taste.
On top of offering deeply satisfying food, Alter’s committed to food that’s easy to digest. She describes the overall effect as feeling full, but not like you need to take a nap.
Eat foods that work together
In addition, Alter says that combining certain foods can lead to indigestion. For example, she doesn’t serve raw fruit together with cooked food because it may lead to gas or bloating.
While there isn’t much scientific evidence to support general food combining, there are some studies to indicate that combining certain foods may have specific effects.
For instance, a
Vegetables that contain carotenoids include
- red bell peppers
In addition, a
“I apply the food compatibility principles to every dish on our menu [and] with all my recipes,” says Alter. “Often we think that we have a chronic digestive issue, but it’s nothing serious. It’s just that you’re eating two foods that just don’t go well together, and your body says, ‘hey, that’s not right.’”
Any food can be Ayurvedic food
Alter notes there’s a common misconception that Ayurvedic food is the same thing as Indian food. That’s actually not the case.
“Ayurveda comes from India. It’s a traditional medical healing system of India, and many of the old traditional recipes are Indian,” she explains. “But the principles of Ayurveda in relation to food are universal.”
As such, the menu at Divya’s Kitchen is diverse.
“I love Italian flavors, so we do have lasagna and risotto…but I don’t characterize it as any particular regional food,” Alter says. “What I try to do with my recipes and the menu from Divya’s Kitchen is to show how to apply these universal principles of food to any kind of cuisine.”
Eat the food you grew up with
Since Ayurvedic principles can be applied to any kind of food, Alter emphasizes honoring your cultural heritage as a part of a healthy, balanced diet.
For instance, she shares about a friend from Iran who grew up with Persian cuisine.
“It’s kind of spicy, really flavorful, lots of saffron, cinnamon, and all these different spices, lots of rice and pomegranates,” says Alter. “That’s the kind of food that will make her healthy. She will feel healthy when she eats it.”
Food that provides comfort and reminds you of loved ones can be just as healing as so-called “healthy” foods, Alter notes.
However, she emphasizes that creating whole-food versions of your favorite dishes will always result in the most nourishment.
When asked what traditional Bulgarian food she enjoys, Alter had an answer ready.
“It’s called banitsa,” she says. “It’s filo pastry, and you can have all kinds of fillings…curd cheese, spinach, shredded pumpkin or apples—kind of like a strudel. It’s really, really delicious.”
Eat for how you feel
Just like her cookbook says, Alter puts a lot of emphasis on eating for how your body and mind feel.
She suggests tuning in by asking, “What’s going on in your body right now?”
For instance, a pregnant person will likely need more building and nourishing food. If you do very heavy physical work, you’ll likely need heavier foods—not just salads.
Alter offers celery juice as an example.
“Some people go crazy with celery juice. It can be good for you or not good for you,” she says.
Alter says celery juice can help cool down acidity and heartburn. On the other hand, it can increase cold and dry qualities in the body, making it less than ideal for a cold, blustery day.
“It will only increase that energy in your body,” says Alter. “You have to have basic knowledge of the properties of the ingredients so that you can determine when to invite it on your plate and where to keep it on the shelf.”
Relax into your relationship with food
Knowing what to eat can be confusing—even stressful.
“It’s important to relax in your relationship with food,” says Alter. “You may be eating the healthiest food, but if you’re eating it in a stressed state, even the best food for you will not be good for you.”
Alter emphasizes focusing on the joy of eating above all.
Go organic when you can
“Our menus are maybe more than 85% certified organic ingredients,” says Alter. “They’re always freshly prepared, so we don’t serve leftovers. We cook it fresh every day.”
This freshness ensures the highest quality nutrition, but it also ensures that it’s easy to digest, she says.
A local focus
Additionally, she notes that imported health foods can sometimes become disproportionately popular. This can create a skewed view of what’s really best for people and planet.
“Amla or amalaki is a very famous Ayurvedic fruit,” she says. “If you go to the Netherlands and amla fruit isn’t growing in your backyard or your neighborhood, that’s OK. Maybe you need the dandelion greens that are growing in your backyard.”
Though food can sometimes seem complicated, Alter emphasizes that it’s not about rules.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of not being afraid of eating food,” she says. “The way I was able to heal my relationship with food is to think of food as my friend—as my companion that’s here to support me in my wellbeing.”
She invites her diners and cookbook readers alike to find joy in being nourished.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses at Simple Wild Free. You can find her on Instagram.