Ayurvedic nutrition and conventional nutrition are misaligned in many ways.
- Conventionally speaking, we eat according topersonal preference, habit, body image and emotions. In Ayurveda, the sole purpose of eating and nourishing ourselves with food is to take in life force (prana) in order to live.
- “You are what you eat” according to conventional beliefs. But Ayurveda tells us that “You are what you digest”! A super food to one person may not be suitable for another person because of varying individual constitutions. So, there is no “one size fits all” kind of theory here. Similarly, in terms of food quantity, given 2 people, one may need more food and the other may need less food to function optimally. Each individual should tailor their diet according to their constitution primarily and also other factors like time of day, season, current mental, emotional and physical state etc.
- Conventional wisdom divides foods into groups like protein, carbohydrates, vegetables, fruit, fats, dairy, extras etc. Furthermore, there are guidelines that specify quantity/servings from each food group that individuals are supposed to consume within a given day. Ayurvedically speaking, foods are classified based on their taste or rasa (in Sanskrit). There are 6 tastes – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent – and the recommendation is to include all 6 tastes during a given meal. A meal or particular food that is balanced in all tastes is said to be optimal for consumption since it balances/pacifies all the doshas (tridoshic) in the body.There is more to Ayurvedic nutrition than just taste, but taste is an important consideration.
- In Ayurveda, instead of looking at calorific content of a food, the focus is on the elemental composition of the food i.e. which of the 5 universal elements (panchamahabhutas – ether, air, fire, water, earth) is the food composed of.
- Foods can be described in terms of their qualities i.e. cooling/heating, drying/moist, heavy/light etc.). Each individual has to maintain a unique balance of these qualities during the changing times of the day or the changing seasons or during the ever-changing gamut of physical and mental upheavals. Since opposite qualities balance and like increases like qualities, emphasis on the qualities of the food should also be considered e.g. on a hot day, choose a cooling food like cucumber, on a cold, sluggish winter day, choose a warm, light soup to perk you up.
- In these modern times, we are used to balancing foods according to their ingredients. In Ayurvedic nutrition, the diet is always tailored according to the constitution (prakriti) of a person.
- Food nourishes not just the body, but also the mind and soul.
- It energizes the mind and has a particular mental quality (guna) associated with it. Food can either bring about clarity (sattva), activity (rajas) or lethargy (tamas).
- A good digestive fire (agni) is very important to maintain good health – it should neither be too strong (teekshnam) nor too weak (mandam). Eating balanced food is essential to maintaining balanced digestion (sama agni).
- Inappropriate food choices can easily become the cause of several diseases. So, let food be thy medicine.
The following table describes the 6 tastes (rasas) with regard to their element composition and effect on each of the doshas.
|Sweet (Madhura)||Earth + Water||++||—||—|
|Sour (Amla)||Earth + Fire||++||++||—|
|Salty (Lavana)||Water + Fire||++||++||—|
|Pungent (Katu)||Fire + Air||—||++||++|
|Astringent (Kashaya)||Air + Earth||—||—||++|
|Bitter (Tikta)||Air + Ether||—||—||++|
Dietary Recommendations for the Doshas:
Vatas should favor sweet, sour and salty tastes. They should avoid bitter, pungent and astringent.
Pittas should favor sweet, astringent and bitter tastes. They should avoid pungent, sour and salty tastes.
Kaphas should favor pungent, astringent and bitter tastes. They should avoid sweet, sour and salty tastes.
In general, when the dosha is in balance, the craving will be for the right kind of food. When imbalanced, the craving will be for the food that causes imbalance. Notice how you reach out for salty, fried, spicy, tangy munchies when you have had a bad day at work! 🙂
Food Examples for the six tastes:
Sweet: Complex carbohydrates, sweet fruit, grains, root vegetables, honey, milk, cheese, oil, meat.
Sour: Yogurt, lime and sour fruit, alcohol, vinegar, cheese, pickles.
Salty: All salts like black salt, sea salt, gypsum salt, rock salt.
Pungent: Chillies, jalapenos, pepper, ginger, cloves, garlic, wasabi.
Astringent: Cranberries, pomegranate peel, turmeric, unripe persimmon.
Bitter: Fenugreek, bitter gourd, leafy greens, neem, aloe, bitter melon.
All foods have all 5 elements in them (Panchabhoutik). However, there is a predominance of a certain element in each food.
- Foods predominant in Earth element: are heavy, gross and grounding like potatoes, pumpkin, beets, mangoes. Sweet and astringent tastes usually have the earth element.
- Foods predominant in Water element: are light, cold, moist and mobile like milk, fruit juice, water and fish.
- Foods predominant in Fire element: create hot, sharp, subtle, dry and light qualities in the body like ginger, black pepper, jalapenos, garlic, lime.
- Foods predominant in Air element: are dry, light, subtle like leafy vegetables.
- Foods predominant in Ether element: are subtle, light and clear like greens, fenugreek, bitter melon.
General Guidelines for eating:
There are many benefits to following these general guidelines – keeping digestive fire strong, feeding the body, mind and soul and in general to maintain optimal health.
- Consider age, constitution/body type, season, balance/imbalance of doshas, exercise level while choosing quality and quantity of food to be consumed.
- Eat food to 1/2 your capacity. Drink water to 1/4 your capacity. Leave room for 1/4 your capacity, for the food to move in the stomach for digestion. At the end of a meal, you should feel satisfied, not heavy and be able to breathe, talk and walk easily. Your senses should be sharpened and not made dull by food.
- Quality of food involves many factors:
- Type of food (prakriti – is it light, heavy, dry, moist etc.)
- Processing of food (karana – roasting of grains makes them easier to digest)
- Combination of foods (samyoga – mixing sour fruit and milk curdles the milk)
- Quantity of food (rashi – eat more light foods and less of heavy foods to help with digestion)
- Environment where the food is cultivated affects its qualities (desha – jalapenos grown in Canada are less pungent than those grown in Texas)
- Time or stage of food (kala – raw foods have a different quality than ripe foods, meat becomes spoiled after some time etc.)
- Guidelines (upayogasamstha – like eat only when hungry, do no eat on the go, do no eat too fast or too slow etc.)
- Suitability of food for person who is going to eat it (upayokta – is the food good for the person who is going to eat it e.g. if a kapha person has never eaten spices ever before, very spicy food may not suit him/her even though spices are good for kapha types).
Food in the Modern Age:
Modern living brings with it some “innovations” in food preparation and consumption. Although these interventions save time and offer some convenience in our fast-paced lives, they bring some negatives that compromise the quality of our food and ultimately affect our health.
- Processed/Preserved foods: These are usually fat and sodium laden to increase taste and life. Such foods have no life force (prana) in them and don’t nourish us like fresh foods would.
- Chemicals in Food Production: Produce is grown using artificial fertilizers, hormones, pesticides. Animals are injected with hormones and antibiotics. This causes the food to carry toxins that will ultimately cause blockages in the body’s subtle channels.
- Freezing: During freezing, water molecules in the food become ice, which breaks the bonds between food molecules making it lifeless.
- Chemical Preservation: To increase shelf-life of food, preservatives are added to foods. These are carcinogenic in nature.
- Raw Food: This is a typical case of “too much of a good thing”! Raw foods definitely have their benefits and place in our diets. Some of us (pitta types with our strong digestive fires) can actually thrive eating more of raw foods, while some (vata types) don’t do very well with an excess of raw foods since it puts a load on the digestive system. When we overdo the raw foods, we can experience anxiety, dryness and nervousness – vata traits since the body can’t digest these foods well and so they become useless for nourishment and end up creating a lot of unnecessary air/wind/gas in the system.
- Fermentation: Foods like alcohol, vinegar, sour yogurt, cheese, yeast bread, pickles, ketchup etc. create dullness in the mind (thinktamas).
- Refined Food: The refining process creates end products that are small and highly potent and aggravate vata. When we separate/polish foods to remove the fibrous covering, we are diminishing the food’s nutritive value. Constipation and ADD are results of eating only refined foods.
- Fried Food: Excess oiliness in food that is fried makes it heavy and difficult to digest, creates acidity and increases tamas (dullness) andrajas (restless activity) in the mind. When oil is heated beyond its boiling point, it changes its natural structure and may become carcinogenic. Always discard the oil which is used for frying. Never reheat used oil.
- Carbonation: The carbonation process injects carbon dioxide into flavored, sweetened water, which may enhance taste, but vitiates vata and causes hyperacidity.
- Microwaving and Genetic Engineering: Microwaving foods breaks the bonds between food molecules and life energy in food is lost. Genetic engineering alters the basic structure of food, which is causing serious effects on us.
Guidelines for Drinking Water:
- 70% of our body is made up water. We need to drink water to replenish water loss. Different people have different water needs. It is said that vata types have the highest water needs, pitta moderate and kapha types have the lowest water needs.
- Drinking water before a meal weakens the digestive fire, sipping water during a meal is said to enhance digestion and absorption and is highly recommended, drinking after a meal creates kapha and is contraindicated.
- Drinking a glass of water right after waking up on an empty stomach and just before going to bed both have numerous health benefits.