My first elimination diet of sorts was the Whole30 method. Even though I felt great for the most part while it lasted – except for the occasional and unusual tingling in my hands and feet possibly from oxalate overload from all that spinach – I can’t say it was a very successful endeavor because it fell apart after Day 17 (I attended an Iftar invitation and ate literally everything that was on the ”no” list in one evening), and once I cheated I couldn’t get back on the bandwagon. However, my terrible migraines and joint pain for the next few days left me with a lot of questions.
At this point, I didn’t know much about Prophetic nutrition (I still don’t) but I knew that Sayyidina Muhammad ﷺ liked and ate barley. So I decided that I was going to try some homemade barley flat breads without yeast for the next few days. My joint pain continued. I wanted to eat wheat bread again. Did he eat wheat? An article I found online said he did, but only occasionally. I couldn’t really verify. Another shaykh I respect said he never ate wheat. Possibly – perhaps barley was the staple food in their region at the time, and maybe Harissa, a dish that was suggested to the Prophet by Gabriel, was also prepared with barley grains rather than wheat grains. So why was my body responding with inflammation not just to wheat but also barley? Everything I bought was labeled organic. At least barley was a Prophetic food, and as far as I knew up until that point, I didn’t have any intolerance to grains, so what was the deal? I was mostly concerned with the grains at this point (I will get to milk in a bit) and I found many of the answers in Nourishing Traditions, as well as a little later in life through experience and other discoveries.
I had bought the book Nourishing Traditions after hearing someone I admired mention it as a cherished book of theirs, but as you may know from personal experience, some things have to be learned at a particular time in life. So when I first bought this book, a while before trying out Whole30, it was overwhelming to me (maybe because I was adjusting to married life and a whole new country, trying to crochet multiple projects, trying to catch up with my herbal studies, educating myself about childbirth, and taking lots of naps with my cat all at once).
This was the right time to dig into the book. Parts of the book described what methods ancient traditions used to prepare as well as to preserve food and coincidentally or not, these methods also increased the bioavailability of the nutrients and made it easier on digestion. This made a lot of sense. With our fast-paced modern lifestyles, we were no longer preparing our foods in the same ways. I was excited to incorporate some of these teachings, especially soaking my grains including brown rice & oats for long periods of times before cooking in order to reduce the phytic acid content. Phytic acid is an anti-nutrient that inhibits the absorption of important nutrients. There is a misconception that whatever nutrients there are on a food label, our body actually absorbs in entirety. This is not true. A lot of that depends on the way the food is prepared, as well as your body (whether your microbiome is balanced as well as diverse.) A little off-topic, but much of our soils are depleted, not just from modern conventional agriculture that uses monocultures, poisons and synthetic fertilizers, but also from some organic farming as there is a lot more taking than giving back to the soil in the process of harvesting. Regenerative forms of agriculture on the other hand do not leave the soil depleted; regenerative agriculture enriches the soil (and mitigates climate change). This in turn yields produce that is of much higher nutritional content. In summary, not all e.g. tomatoes are created equal. (I highly recommend you watch the documentary Kiss the Ground on Netflix).
Fast forward, some other experiences after changing countries also taught me that not all wheat is the same. Nourishing Traditions does cover some older and superior wheat varieties, but I never gave it much thought until going off of wheat after having my second baby, and then wanting to re-introduce it. This re-introduction came after discovering einkorn which is the oldest type of wheat, and a re-emerging variety in Anatolia. I had tried cultivating a sourdough starter many years ago, before I even knew what sourdough was just because it sounded cool and it was supposed to be healthier, and gave up on it after my brother asked what that rotten sock smell was in the kitchen and I remembered that I had left it in a bowl on top of the fridge for way too long. Like I said, some things are better learned at the right time. I was ready to give it a second shot this time. I was thrilled watching the bubbles develop after each feeding every day, and my first sourdough einkorn bread was a delightful success. This bread was filling in small quantities, and did not cause bloating or any other digestive issues I experienced from other types of bread. My husband was also on the same page which made life a million times easier. Eventually I started incorporating other types of flour, but almost always heritage varieties, as well as barley and rye. And always sourdough.
Around the same time, a friend of mine introduced me to the teachings of Aidin Salih, a pious Ukranian woman with a medical background who converted to Islam after studying Greco-Islamic Medicine. I can’t do her teachings justice in a few words but if I had to summarize it, her philosophy revolves around improving and protecting our health as well as our fitra (innate disposition) by choosing pure, nourishing foods and following sensible guidelines inspired from Prophetic and Qur’anic teachings. Despite the simplistic nature of her advice, it may seem very difficult to implement in our age, because of tainted food sources but mostly because of cultural beliefs and practices. Spending hours in the kitchen preparing a dish that has many steps and many ingredients is not prophetic in any sense and yet this is the case in most Muslim cultures.
To give a few examples, she advises that we should consume fruits before the main meal on an empty stomach as fruits are digested quicker than other foods such as grains and meats (very contradictory to the fruit platter that arrives right after dinner in a Turkish or Arab household). She also suggests that dairy and meats are not combined, very Kosher in practice, not obligatory in Islam but nevertheless a Sunnah. She suggests that different meats are also not combined, like chicken and lamb for example, as different foods require different enzymes, and this is burdensome on the digestion. She emphasized the importance of drinking living water. She is a strong advocate of frequent fasting, especially for those experiencing health issues. We have a fear that revolves around hunger. It seems contradictory to ‘starve’ an ailing person, but even recent findings or I prefer to call them re-discoveries are concluding the benefits of fasts on a body that needs a break from constantly digesting foods, and harmful inflammatory foods at that, in order to direct energy at healing. Unless you live alone most of the time or your entire family is on board, her advice is difficult to implement all the time. However, starting somewhere is better than nothing and I was very thankful to be introduced to her teachings. Sadly, she passed away several years ago. Nevertheless, her guidance continues to bear fruit and benefit many people.
I will never forget an experience I had many years ago. I attended a Mawlid event with a fundraiser, and there was a section of potluck dishes that were supposed to represent ‘foods that the Prophet liked’. With all due respect to everyone who contributed, no doubt with good intentions, nearly the entire table consisted of junk sugary products, because the Prophet liked ‘sweet foods’. It was disappointing as well as shocking to a degree. It made me wonder if these were truly fit to offer to the Prophet had he been amongst us. If I knew better then, I would have prepared something different, but my contribution to the potluck was couscous salad with dates and cucumbers. Initially I planned to prepare it with pearl barley but I was at a different event prior to the potluck, and cooking couscous was quicker than barley.
In cattle too, there is a lesson for you. We provide you from what lies in their bellies, between waste matter and blood, pure milk, palatable to those who drink it.The Chapter of the Bee, 16:66
Amongst other foods that were liked by the Prophet is milk. Prior to deleting all of my social media, I came across a couple of accounts promoting in simple words the drinking of milk as a Sunnah and the benefits of milk. Going back to not all tomatoes (or wheat) being equal, similarly not all milk is equal, and not all cows are equal. There is a world of difference between the milk that comes from a heritage cow that happily grazes on green, living pasture and lives its life in a way that befits its innate nature with limited physiological and psychological stressors, and milk that comes from a hybrid cow that lives, or rather, tries to survive a torturous lifestyle under the oppression of human workers who treat them as a milk making machine, feeding them all sorts of garbage from GMO corn & soy to pesticide laden grains, pumping them with antibiotics and sometimes growth hormones. These cows never step a foot on grass. They live and die a sad life. Their milk is so lacking in nutrients that are otherwise found in real milk that it is then ‘enriched’ (just as refined wheat is) with synthetic vitamins. This milk doesn’t reach our tables in ways that befit prophetic conduct, it is not the milk the Prophet drank and it will not yield the same benefits, not physically nor spiritually. I could discuss honey as well, and why honey bought from conventional stores is best avoided as well as the large scale damage the honey industry is causing, but this will suffice for now.
Living in an urban area for the last few years with the convenience of grocery delivery, I asked my daughter not too long ago where the food came from, to which she responded ”Migros.” Initially I laughed, but then found it alarming. If you asked her a few more questions, she’d recall that food actually comes from seed and the soil, but it made me think of how our lifestyle made it very hard to experience that first hand. Our state as grown ups isn’t much different. We may be aware that milk comes from a mammal, but we should dig a little deeper when making decisions if we want to reap true benefit as well as cause the least amount of harm possible, to ourselves but also to animals and the earth, especially when we are claiming to follow in the footsteps of our Prophet ﷺ.