An interview with a Peruvian Shaman about diet

In 2011 I spent 4 months in Peru and was able to a little investigation into on one of the most unique human-plant relationships on earth. The shamans of Peru are famous for the phyto-spiritual “surgery” they facilitate with their patients. Using the ayahuasca plant, a strong hallucinogen, shamans guide participants on an inner journey with common goals including promoting insights into problems and healing life traumas. As would fit a blog focused on sobriety I will skip the sexy discussion on the controversial psychedelic aspect of the custom and will instead explore the role diet plays in the process.

First light of dawn hits the peak! My tour guide at Machu Picchu claimed the use of ayahuasca inspired much of the Inca religion including the design of this sacred site

All Shamans strongly recommend a period of dietary cleansing from several weeks to several months prior to taking ayahuasca. The belief is that a strict regime prepares one for the vigors of the powerful visions and emotions that wait. Shamans call this “la dieta”, the diet. Typical restrictions include: salt, sugar, vinegar, sweets, spices/chili, fats/oil, seasonings, canned food, stimulants, alcohol, drugs/medications, chocolate, red meat, and pork. Last spring I interviewed a shaman to learn about this piece of the custom.

Why is it important to follow the diet prior to the ayahuasca ceremony? The experience of ayahuasca starts with the knowledge gained during cleansing, the participant arrives to the session with an already modified state of consciousness.

How can following a strict diet effect consciousness? Every food has a message, some are stronger than others. Following the diet cleanses the mind from conflicting messages. Ayahuasca is a planta maestra, a professor plant, it has a great deal to teach. If your body has been influenced by strong foods than it can’t give itself completely to the ayahuasca.

How does not following the diet impede the experience? Sugar, caffeine, flesh and heavy foods (fats) modify consciousness, they have a strong influence, the ayahuasca plant is jealous over the power they have.

How can a plant be jealous? The body isn’t free and independent with those foods exerting their control. The healing and revelatory effects of ayahuasca work much better if the body is free.

Is there a physical reaction as well or are you only talking about the effect on the mind?It is difficult to separate the effects but, yes, those who follow the diet don’t throw up as much, get sick, or feel weak and in general they feel stronger, the experience goes more smoothly for them.

A boxed lunch, Peruvian style. In the mountains many people travel with little sacks of boiled potatoes and beans, both of which are considered good choices by the Shamans

Outside of diet, what recommendations are there for one’s lifestyle prior to working with a Shaman? The goal is to lessen outside influences, one should avoid over exposure to rain, sun, smoke, fire, polluted air and foul odors. One must abstain from sexual activities for at least two weeks, but longer is better. Also, interacting with people that are strongly pessimistic or sick should be avoided.

Why are these practices important? We weaken the power of our material desires and the societal influences that separate us from nature. In this way we can be more open to guidance and power from the plant world, from Ayahuasca. [Interestingly many native tribes from North America have similar practices of isolation from society’s (the tribe’s) influence prior to taking part in vision quests]

What I found intriguing in these conversations was that the Shamans have a firm belief that diet effects consciousness. They have singled out many of the same foods as having undue influence that so many of us crave: sweets, salty foods, rich and heavy foods, alcohol, and caffeine. As a Dietitian I couldn’t help enjoying the respect that these Shamans had for the transformative power of diet.

Personal note: I did not participate in the ayahuasca ritual, though I did follow the cleansing diet and found it to be a remarkable trip of its own, as much of a consciousness changing experience as my shaman friend insisted it would be.


Should fruits & veggies get a divorce?


We always talk about them together, they sit together in the store, they are practically married, so what’s the big difference?

“Eat your fruits and vegetables” “Two cups a day of fruits and vegetables” “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables” Public health officials, doctors and dietitians all repeat the same message. Since fruits are sweet and don’t require preparation time most people respond enthusiastically to upping their fruit intake but conveniently forget about the veggies. Well that’s ok, it’s one or the other, right? Unfortunately that’s not the case and for the overweight the difference is especially significant, fruits and veggies have entirely distinct effects on weight.

How do you define the difference?

Nutritional definitions: 1) Vegetables are low in sugars and calories, high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. 2) Fruits are high in simple carbohydrates (sugars) and contain moderate amounts of calories and fiber.

Fruits, Veggies and your Gut

Vegetables average four times the fiber per calorie as fruits. Whole grains, which are widely praised and advertised for their high fiber, average only 1/8 the fiber per calorie as vegetables. The high fiber of veggies combined with its complex carbohydrates give vegetables a unique role in digestion. Our small intestine needs time to breakdown the long chain carbohydrates and our large intestine works on the extensive fibers, as well as extracting the plentiful water out of the vegetables. When our intestines are busy, weight loss is easier because: 1) hard working intestines send signals to the brain saying we are full 2) the intestines are lined with muscles, which burn calories 3) the additional time it takes to digest veggies slows down the whole digestive process; our meals turn to energy slower and our blood sugars stabilize for longer which in turn delays and diminishes hunger. Meanwhile fruits, being mostly water, simple carbohydrates/sugars, and some fiber, digest rapidly.

Most importantly for weight loss, the divide in sugars and fiber impacts calories. Fruits average 60 calories per serving while vegetables average only 25 calories per serving. The following list shows calories content per 100 grams/3.5 ounces – equivalent to a small apple, 4-6 strawberries, an average sized carrot or a large bell pepper

Fruits Veggies
Watermelon 26 Mushroom 18
Orange 53 Bell Pepper 20
Apple 56 Lettuce 21
Plums 56 Broccoli 25
Cherries 70 Spinach 26
Mangoes 70 Cauliflower 30
Strawberries77 Cabbage 45
Banana 95 Carrot 48
Dates 281 Onion 50

In summary, vegetables are as close as there is to a magic pill for weight loss while fruits are fairly neutral. Raw fruits can be a useful player in a weight loss diet, particularly when used as a substitute for sweets. However fruit, when processed into juices, dried fruit, or in smoothies will contribute to weight gain, but that is topic for another blog.