When Food Became Medicine For Todd Caldecott

Todd Caldecott, medical herbalist and practitioner of Ayurveda,  says that while Ayurveda is seen as a profession today, he has always understood  Ayurveda to be a spectrum from grandma’s medicine to highly sophisticated technical procedures.  

In his interview with CSP, he says that his journey with Ayurveda has a strong link with India, which although serendipitous was not necessarily positive. He was working as a film and television actor in Canada, which he jumped into right out of high school. Not happy with the roles he was being offered, he decided to move away from it for a while.  “I always thought acting was an artistic discipline but what I saw in the film industry was that I wasn't able to choose parts that I wanted to do. So I decided I would kind of give it up for a little.”

Just 19 years old, he had saved up a bit of money ($2000) and wanted to “just get away from our culture and spend a year traveling around India.” He spent most of his time in India, but also exited India through Pakistan, went up to North Pakistan near the Chinese border and came down through Afghanistan and went through Iran all the way to Istanbul and Turkey. “And when I saw my first McDonalds there, I was like ‘Oh my God, I'm not ready for this, so I flew back to Sri Lanka and studied meditation there. Then I returned to South India  before I returned home.” While it was all fun and exciting, he fell very sick.

 While he had thought he had a lot of money, he realised that he was left with only a  few dollars a day. “I stayed at the cheapest guest lodges and ate at the cheapest restaurants, often being  the only white guy I ever saw in any of these establishments.  I got really sick, because my body just wasn't ready for all of the diversity of the subcontinent. I almost died, and was left with a chronic GI issue.” 

Todd found it really hard to rebuild his digestive health. “It wasn't until I spent some time in a remote village near the Chinese border in northern Pakistan, a famous place called Hunza renowned for longevity, that I began feeling better. I felt amazing when I was drinking this glass of water everyday and eating their food. It was my first experience of just how dramatic an impact a diet could have.”

However, he didn’t spend enough time there and continued his travels  finally returning to Canada with a chronic GI disorder. He sought help from a number of different practitioners but no one was able to help him. “People had different theories on what it was. It wasn't until I met Canada based, Kerala trained Ayurveda physician Dr Sukumaran, that I felt some relief. It was quite a rarity back then to find someone from India with that level of practice in Canada. He told me what to eat and when to eat it and he provided some really simple remedies. It took around two months or so for my whole health to shift. It made such a profound impact upon me that I decided that I wanted to study this and make it a part of my life. So that's when I embarked on this journey of Ayurveda, natural medicine and herbal medicine.”

Dr. Sukumaran gave him a menu to follow, and prescribed simple herbal formulas to enkindle his digestion such as Hingwastak, a blend of hing (asafoetida) and warming herbs such as ginger, pippali (long pepper), and ajwain (wild celery seed).

After recovering, he did continue to go back to acting. He would wear a salwar and kameez, all the time. He says he didn't change his dress for anyone even for his auditions. “I was even flown first class to meet with Aaron Spelling in LA to audition for Melrose Place, dressed the whole time in my shalwar! Although I didn’t get the part, walking around Venice beach later in my shalwar attracted a lot of attention, and I had one African-American fellow who was a rapper ask me where I got my pants. I don’t know who he was, but sometimes I think I might be indirectly responsible for Hammer pants,” Todd has said in an interview.

Todd studied Ayurveda with Dr Sukumaran, through informal classes in the Gurukula style. “But it wasn't enough. I wanted more in depth clinical training and there was no way to study Ayurveda in Canada, at that time. Even now there isn't really any place to study Ayurveda here.” So he joined a three and half year course in Western herbal medicine. Almost immediately after completing his studies, he returned to India, where he did a clinical internship and period study at Coimbatore in South India in 1996. With his son and wife, who would give birth to their second child in India. He spent almost a half a year doing post graduate work and study in Ayurveda and then returned to Canada, where he began his clinical practice around 1997.

In Canada, each province regulates health professions and the Federal Government regulates products including natural health products and drugs. So Todd practices as an unlicensed health practitioner, which means “I have to be careful about what I do and what I say but there's no impediment to me as long as I'm practicing safely.  So it's kind of just a legal grey area, which means you have to be careful with the language you use, making sure we don't use words like diagnose or treatments or prescribe. However, it provides for more flexibility in terms of my scope of practice because, once you are licensed, then the terms of what you can do and what you cannot do are very specific.”

Todd says he always begins with someone's diet first. “My first approach is to work with someone's diet and lifestyle and then later on suggest medicines or treatments, as required. That's why I wrote the book “Food as Medicine”, as I realized that if people weren't making changes in their diet, they weren't likely to get better.”

Healthy eating is made difficult by a food industry determined on pushing artificial, packaged food. When things started to change in the West, with people becoming more aware, food companies faced more resistance.  “They started looking for new markets in countries like India. It has been the same for things like cigarettes.  Cigarettes fell out of favor here and companies began to look for new markets in places like India and China. Similarly for breastfeeding. When I was a child, I wasn't breastfed and it was very common for children here not to be breastfed. That was directed by the industry. You had the audacity of physicians telling moms that scientifically designed formula is better than breast milk. The effect of this is being seen in places like China and India.”

Todd says it has become quite common for people to give up eating traditional fats like butter, for example, and switch to consuming things like margarine and corn oil due to the messaging by the food industry. “Today, even in India you go to the local market and you buy this clear refined oil. Sometimes you don’t even know what's in it, it just says edible oil.”

Todd says that as multinationals look for new markets, it's really time for places like India to reassert “their awareness of traditional interventions and practices and dispel with a novelty that the West has introduced. There’s so much novelty in absorbing the information of other cultures. We’ve done that as well with Yoga. Although I would say it’s disastrous, as we've turned Yoga into something it's not. That's not evocative of the authentic tradition, and even some Indians have participated in turning it into a form of exercise when it's actually more a form of meditation.”

Todd says when we look to other cultures for inspiration, we have to really critically assess that just because something is new doesn't mean it's better.  “People have lost touch with their own culinary traditions, they simply don't even know how to prepare the foods they have. All it takes is one generation to lose a tradition and then it's lost for the succeeding generations, and there is a rapid deterioration of traditional knowledge all over the world. I have been going back to India for more than 30 years, and you can definitely see the degradation of traditional knowledge and it's very worrisome. I wrote “Food as Medicine” to help restore some of these traditional practices to create a more sustainable approach to lifestyle and to eating.”

“None of us are born with an instruction manual, and so we traditionally relied upon our elders to teach us how to care for ourselves. The problem is that this elder wisdom has been systematically undermined and discarded, such that even though modern people are pretty smart, they don’t know about simple things like getting to bed early, or having a nourishing breakfast.”

He says when he went to India three decades ago, he used to observe artists hand painting movie posters. There were these big movie posters of Western movies. There was a James Bond film and all the lovely ladies surrounding him. When the Indian painters were representing them they added about 20 pounds of weight to all of them and James Bond had a bit of a double chin. All of the lovely ladies had a bit of extra fat, because that was the Indian aesthetic. Todd says,  “that's certainly changed now and all the Indian heroes look like regular guys. Attitudes changed but now it's kind of a festish, and reduced to just a function of visual appearance and not based on actual physical health and the thing about calories is interesting because it is an objective experimental model that we're applying to real world scenarios.”

Obsession with calories is the new healthy. But, “How do you determine what a calorie is? Essentially you take the food, put it into a box, incinerate it and measure the heat. But I don't know anyone that digests food like that. You don't reduce it to ash inside your abdomen. You can take a piece of chocolate cake, or some different type of food, maybe some rice, some dhal and maybe some chicken. You put it in there and you might get a similar caloric reading from those different foods, but there's no way that those foods are going to be digested and metabolized in the same way. They're not the same foods, so the calorie model is a very basic model.”

Nutritionists say that that if you eat way too many calories more than you're physically able to burn, then you will likely become obese. “The whole model of calories is a gross oversimplification. It depends on the constitution of the person. In Ayurveda, you can give a skinny person lots of calories and they won't actually put on any weight. They will burn it through creative activity and fretting, so we have to consider this. Each of us in our own way, are going to metabolize those calories in different ways, so we need a more sophisticated model and the calories model is really not an appropriate model to apply to human nutrition. It is only really good if we're just measuring very basic components, but that's not enough to figure out what a healthy diet is for you and how much to consume,” says Todd.

He says these sophisticated models exist in Ayurveda where “you are eating a healthy diet that's appropriate to you, to the point of satiation.  Ayurveda recommends eating twice a day unlike the idea of eating multiple times throughout the day.”

He writes about the ‘graduated diet’, or sansarjana krama in Sanskrit, is a measure utilized in Ayurveda to rekindle the digestive fire (agni). “It is used for the purpose of amapachana: to enhance digestion and the processing of wastes, and remove the metabolic and immunological detritus (ama) that is generated with poor digestion. Do read his prescription for a graduate diet here: The graduated diet (toddcaldecott.com) 

The graduated diet can be utilized in a variety of situations, including whenever digestion is weak and in the treatment of diseases such as fever (jwara). The process of ‘rekindling’ the digestive fire (agni) is analogous to starting a fire in a wood stove, enkindling the agni with easily digestible foods as one would a fire with paper or kindling. Once the fire is established, in the form of a strong appetite, progressively denser and more energy-rich foods are introduced in a graduated fashion to feed the digestive fire, but never so much as to cause it to smolder or be extinguished.” 

(Todd Caldecott is a medical herbalist and practitioner of Ayurveda, in practice since 1995. He is the Executive Director of the Dogwood School of Botanical Medicine, and author/editor of three books including Ayurveda: The Divine Science of Life, Food As Medicine, and Ayurveda In Nepal.)