You are your food. You are what you eat. Food is your medicine. These statements have been recognised by Ayurveda, (and even by the Greek physician Hippocrates who was probably influenced by Ayurveda), for thousands of years. This essential fact has been lost on us in this age of information and convenience, a fact which is at the root of good health. Research has indicated that many common illnesses are preventable by improvements in diet, yet it is taking such a long time to implement positive changes in what we eat and the way we eat.
Ayurveda considers digestion to be an essential foundation of good health. It uses the concept of Agni, or digestive fire, to refer to the physiology of digestion. A strong Agni ensures complete “burning” of all ingested foods. Foods which are partially “uncooked” become Ama, a toxic residue which clogs up the channels and often appears as a coating on the tongue. Eating compatible foods builds up a strong Agni.
This article will encourage you to gain more awareness of how food affects you, and how you can influence your health with food. We will look at various aspects of food and eating:
- The qualities of food;
- The tastes;
- The energy of food;
- Listening to your hunger;
- Eating well.
You may be aware that in Ayurveda, you are considered to have a predominance of one or several of the three Doshas; Vata, Pitta or Kapha. Each Dosha has particular qualities, depending on the elements it is comprised of. If you consistently eat foods with these qualities, the Dosha will increase and cause problems; thus it is preferable to eat foods with opposite qualities. The following table illustrates this:
|Dosha||Doshic Qualities||Preferred Food Qualities|
|Vata||Cold, mobile, light, dry, rough, subtle||Warm, heavy, moist, unctuous, smooth|
|Pitta||Hot, flowing, light, slightly oily, sharp||Cool, slightly heavy, slightly dry|
|Kapha||Cool, moist, unctuous, heavy, dense, gross, slow, sticky||Hot, dry, light, clear, sharp|
Thus a person with increased Vata would preferably eat pumpkin soup, than a lettuce and sprouts salad, especially in cool weather. The Pitta person would preferably eat the salad, without the sharp sour vinaigrette. The Kapha person on the other hand, would benefit more from a clear soup. I can give you a more complete list of appropriate foods.
Tastes are very important – they are the starter keys to our digestion, and signal the qualities of the foods you are ingesting. Your whole body responds in different ways to the different tastes. Become aware of those responses, and you will know what is good for you.
Ayurveda recognises six tastes:
- Sweet: heavy, cooling, nurturing, promoting growth; found in grains, bread, sweet fruits, some nuts; alleviates Vata and Pitta.
- Sour: invigorating, promotes salivation, enkindles Agni; found in fruits, herbs; alleviates Vata.
- Salty: moistening, promotes digestion, improves the taste of food; found in salt, seaweed; alleviates Vata.
- Pungent: heating, stimulates Agni, clears Ama, helps elimination; found in hot, spicy foods, garlic, onions; alleviates Kapha.
- Bitter: cleansing, restores sense of taste, cooling; found in green veggies, salads and herbs; alleviates Kapha and Pitta.
- Astringent: cooling, drying, constricting and binding (as in diarrhea and bleeding); found in salads, leafy green veggies, potatoes, beans and pulses; alleviates Kapha and Pitta.
While it is preferred to emphasise certain tastes to suit your Doshas, it is considered important to have a bit of all six tastes daily.
And while it is important to eat healthily, eating food that gives you pleasure goes a long way towards improving and maintaining a good digestion. And if you have cravings; well, allow yourself to indulge your cravings, but do it with complete awareness and savour every morsel! You may discover something new about yourself…
Food is more than a combination of chemicals that our body needs for metabolism. Food conveys Prana, the subtle energy that keeps you alive. It is the Prana in food which nourishes us, which gives us satisfaction. By becoming aware of the energetics of food, you will naturally move towards high-Prana, high-energy foods.
Food with the highest Prana is freshly harvested and organically grown; this has been shown by research which has measured Prana. The closer we get to these two ideals, the higher the quality of our food. Every stage of food processing reduces Prana, and we need to eat more of it to be satisfied. This is why people who eat highly-processed junk food eat lots of it, and may gain excess weight.
Having said that, Ayurveda considers it important to cook many foods to make them easier to digest. Raw foods and salads are okay for Pitta people, but others should eat them in moderation. Exceptions are highly digestible foods like sweet fruits.
Some foods are known not to mix well – it confuses the stomach! Particular combinations which are commonly used are:
Fruits and other foods. Fruits should be eaten on their own. You can eat fruits half an hour before other food, or 3-4 hours after other food. You can mix most fruits together. Fruits digest very quickly in the stomach and are ideal food for everyone, but when mixed with other foods, they are held up in the stomach and begin to ferment.
Milk and other foods. Milk shouldn’t be mixed with other foods, except sweet grains like rice, tapioca, oats etc. Good examples are porridge and rice pudding.
In order to keep your Agni, your digestive fire, at optimum level, you need to empty your stomach before you take in more food. The best sign of this is a healthy hunger – this is the best time to eat. When you do eat, do so until you are beginning to feel full – Ayurveda says leave quarter of the space for the fire. The best way to be aware of the proper amounts is to eat slowly, allowing time for the signals to get to your brain! This is the main method for losing excess weight, eliminating Ama (toxins), and improving digestion.
This also means that snacking when you are not really hungry doesn’t help! It normally takes about 4 hours to process food properly before you are ready for the next lot; please respect and help the process – each time you dump more food on the mix, its like pouring water on the fire; a sure recipe for that channel-clogging Ama. If you need to snack, then fruits, raisins or dates are ideal.
Another factor, which is especially important for Vata people, is to eat regularly. The body needs routine, and there are particularly good times in the day to eat meals. You will find that, by eating a good diet, your times of hunger will start coinciding with an ideal routine.
The time of the day when your digestion is strongest, is noon. This is really the time for your main meal. Dinner should be at around 6-7pm, and lighter and more digestible; and breakfast is good before 8am, and preferably very light.
Eating well means, be aware of the process of eating. Is it a pleasant environment? Am I in enjoyable company (which may mean just myself)? Am I calm, settled, and ready to eat?
Traditionally, eating was a ritual, an important time in the day for partaking of the fruits of the earth. People got together, gave thanks, and shared in the harvest. We are now so separated from the sources of our food, that we no longer see this connection. Because of this we have fallen into ignorant, unhealthy habits of eating; like eating “on the run,” eating when emotionally aggravated, and gobbling down our food.
Here are a few pointers to help you establish a better awareness of the act of eating:
- Sit down to eat. Make sure you are settled. Don’t eat when you are upset.
- When you eat, just eat – don’t watch telly or read the newspaper.
- Eat at a moderate pace, regardless of your schedules.
- Be aware of the how the food looks, how it smells, the flavours as it enters your mouth, the textures, the qualities (as in the table above). Eating and digestion is at its most beneficial when you give food your full attention.
- Engage only in light, pleasant conversation – avoid politics, religion and arguments!
- Drink in small sips. Don’t drink before eating. Don’t take ice-cold drinks. Drink moderately at the end of the meal, if you have to. Avoid coffee after meals.
- At the end of the meal, sit quietly for a while. A gentle walk is good. Avoid stressful situations while digesting.
Please consider the above points carefully. How we eat is very much as important as what we eat. Your digestive system is very sensitive to your emotions and your state of mind. Would you accept a valuable gift on the run, in a noisy place, with emotions in turmoil? Accept the gift of life – food – in an appropriate manner. This is not moral preaching – it is factual information to optimise health; based on long experience.
By slowly adopting these ideas, you will develop a new relationship with your food, with the way you eat, with your digestion – with yourself. I am confident that you will benefit from it, and that it will keep growing and developing. These tools are based on concepts that have been kept alive for thousands of years; use them, to help yourself and to help others. And above all – enjoy!
For a wellness plan that includes diet, please see Dr Priya Punjabi for specific recommendations for your health needs.