Registered dietitian nutritionist, Ayurvedic practitioner, and culinary wellness expert Sapna Punjabi-Gupta, MS, RDN, LD, AP, is combining her Eastern and Western educations to inspire others to cultivate a journey of wellness. She emphasizes plant-based dietary patterns, healthy aspects of Indian cuisine, and Ayurvedic practices as strategies to improve one’s nutrition and health status.
Born and raised in a vegetarian family in India, Punjabi-Gupta never lost touch with her roots despite coming to the United States in the late 1990s. In fact, her upbringing, including her mother’s passion for cooking, led her to a career as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). “Food, like many other cultures, was the center of our Indian traditions, customs, and daily rituals,” recalls Punjabi-Gupta. She grew up visiting the farmers market daily with her mother to select seasonal foods for the day’s home-cooked meals. Her love of food prompted her to enroll in a food and nutrition undergraduate program in India to become a RDN. She later completed a master’s degree in nutrition along with a coordinated dietetic internship at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio and pursued credentialing to be an RDN in the United States. In addition to undergraduate and master’s level work focused on nutrition science, Punjabi-Gupta is a certified Ayurvedic practitioner by the National Ayurvedic Medical Association.
Punjabi-Gupta’s career began as a consulting dietitian for an endocrinologist in India, working mainly with individuals with diabetes. After completing her graduate studies at Case Western, she spent over a decade in clinical work at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. She held various positions during her tenure and specialized in women’s health and neonatal nutrition. Now, Punjabi-Gupta is an owner of Naivedhya, a private nutrition practice that integrates Western nutritional science with ancient Ayurvedic wisdom. She also is the star of the YouTube channel “Be Spiced” and curator of an heirloom line of spices. Punjabi-Gupta is utilizing her unique skillset to introduce creative, practical, and accessible ways to integrate the Eastern wisdom of Ayurveda and the Western evidenced-based nutrition science into our everyday lives for better living.
DSM: In addition to being a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition, you are a certified Ayurvedic practitioner. What is Ayurveda, and how do you incorporate the practices into your nutrition and culinary education for clients?
SPG: Ayurveda is made up of two words. “Ayur” means life, and “veda” means science or knowledge. This traditional system of healing focuses on the balance of body, mind, and consciousness. Our mind and consciousness play a huge role in our ability to heal and maintain sound health. The foundation of Ayurveda is a tri-dosha theory, which views the individual’s constitution as a mixture of “Vata”, “Pitta” and “Kapha,” which are three distinct combinations of the universal five elements of space, air, fire, water, and earth. A person’s unique combination of these elements along with diet, self-care, herbal therapy, bodywork, yoga, meditation, prayer, and lifestyle practices are considered when developing a personalized care program.
I incorporate Ayurvedic nutritional practices of living harmoniously with seasons and help my clients understand how seasons affect us in various ways, such as their influence on grocery shopping for seasonal balance. I also emphasize mindful eating and empower my clients to develop a positive connection with their food. I strive to integrate Western nutritional science with ancient wisdom of Ayurveda to make the journey of wellness practical for modern living with my clients in my private practice and also through my culinary and wellness workshops.
DSM: In your opinion, what are the most healthful aspects of traditional Indian cuisine?
SPG: Indian cuisine is deeply rooted in history and is probably the oldest cuisine known to mankind. Indian cuisine is extremely diverse, just as is its geography. So if you think that Indian food is just curry, you are missing out on all that it can offer. The foundation of Indian cuisine is based on the principles of Ayurveda. According to Ayurveda, every meal should have a balance of all the six tastes [sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent]. A standard American meal is predominantly sweet, salty, and sour, and lacks in bitter, pungent, and astringent tastes. I pay close attention to the tastes of my meals in addition to maintain a balance of carbohydrates, protein, vegetables, and fruits when I am planning diets for my family as well as my clients. I encourage you to take a look at your next meal and pay attention to what tastes are present and what might be lacking to see if that might be related to your current health status. Indian cuisine is also incomplete without the use of spices. Spices are the stars of Indian dishes and are very dear to my heart and in my kitchen. Understanding the correct technique and combinations of using spices in our meals can provide everyday healing through our food.
DSM: Individuals who aren’t familiar with cooking traditional Indian dishes at home might be intimidated by the list of ingredients required. What are your top three culinary tips for approaching healthy Indian cuisine?
SPG: Indian cuisine can appear complex, but believe me, home-style Indian cooking can be simple and very well balanced.
Tip #1. Always soak beans or lentils before cooking. Do not skip this important step. Soaking not only cuts down on cooking time, but also helps reduce the indigestible sugars and enzyme inhibitors that may cause flatulence.
Tip #2. When cooking Indian cuisine, don’t shy away from spices. If you have never cooked with Indian spices, introduce them one at a time. Spices don’t have to be a part of just cooking Indian dishes. For example, it is so easy to add turmeric when you are cooking mac and cheese, pasta, or even plain rice. Remember, don’t be bland — be spiced!
Tip #3. Cook with mindful intention and love. Don’t let cooking be an act of removing frustration or anger. What we eat becomes a part of who we are. Set the right intention before you begin cooking.
More tips for enjoying Indian cuisine
Choices to try
• Rotis, parathas, and tandoori rotis are breads made with whole wheat flour.
• Lentils and beans are great sources of plant-based protein and healthy carbohydrates and generally have a low glycemic load.
• Paneer, or Indian cottage cheese, is high in protein and calcium and low in carbohydrates. Saag paneer is a dish made with spinach and paneer cubes.
• Non-starchy vegetables; Indian vegetables such as bitter gourd and fenugreek have been found to have a mild hypoglycemic effect.
• Cooking with the right spices can transform a dish.
Choices to limit
• Naan, although a very popular bread, is made with all-purpose refined flour.
• Limit your intake of white rice, a popular grain in Indian cuisine.
• Indian curries made with lots of cream and nut-based gravies can add extra fat calories.
• Carefully monitor your portions of the popular snacks pakoras, or fried vegetable fritters, and samosas, fried pastry with potatoes and savory fillings.
• Ghee, or Indian clarified butter, is healthy if used mindfully in cooking. It is best to limit portions to create lower-calorie and heart-healthy dishes.
DSM: What are your favorite spices?
SPG: I cook with spices in every single meal, every single day. An Indian kitchen is incomplete without a spice box. Each spice box may have different spices depending on the region of India one belongs to. My spice box has seven of my favorite spices: turmeric, whole cumin seeds, roasted cumin seed powder, whole black mustard seeds, coriander seed powder, dry mango powder, and red chili powder.
DSM: How do you like to incorporate your favorite spice into your meals?
SPG: Turmeric powder is my favorite spice and is referred to in Ayurveda as the healer for the whole being — body, mind, and spirit. It treats the entire individual and has countless healing properties such as anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antifungal. Cooking with turmeric is very easy, but one must always add turmeric while cooking because the volatile compounds are released when they come in contact with heat, especially when they are infused in hot oil. Turmeric pairs well with a variety of dishes such as soups, stews, rice, and cooked vegetables.
DSM: You have created your own line of heirloom spices. Tell us a little about your product line, where individuals can purchase the products, and why you believe incorporating spices regularly into one’s diet is good practice?
SPG: In Ayurveda, incorporating the six tastes balances a meal. Spices offer a great way to complete all the six tastes in our meals and provide antioxidants and other healthful benefits. I have a select retail line of heirloom spice blends and spice products that were created due to multiple requests from my clients over the years. Naivedhya’s versatile spice blends and spice products can be used in many non-traditional ways to add flavor to everyday foods. These spice blends are homemade and ground in small batches with lots of love and affection. At this time, I sell my products at local farmers markets and direct to customers. You can find details about my products on Naivedhya’s website.
Connect with Sapna for more information about Naivedhya, recipes, health tips, and more.
Want to learn more about using herbs and spices? Read “Cooking With Herbs and Spices: More Flavor, Better Health,” and the eight-part series, “Spice It Up: Boosting Your Health With Herbs and Spices.”