Food plays a very crucial role in a person’s physical and mental wellbeing including our emotional wellbeing and happiness. Whilst our choice of food today is largely based on our taste desires and emotional needs, the primary role of food is to sustain life, maintain growth, reproduction and health. Ayurveda recognizes that food gives prana (life-force), varna (good complexion), indriya prasada (pleasant sense organs), sausvarya (good voice), jeewithah (longevity), prathibha (intution), sukha (comfort), thushti (happiness), pushti (nourishment), bala (strength), medha (wisdom).
When explaining about nutrition, Ayurveda refers to Ahara, which in Sanskrit means anything that we intake to nourish our body and mind including food, water, breath and inputs we take in from our senses. Ayurveda notes that when Ahara is consumed in proper quantity, proper time and in proper way, it gives Bala (strength), Varna (good complexion) and Ojas (immunity). It also describes that the origin of most diseases is the intake of wrong Ahara. Therefore it is clear that to ensure right nutrition, one needs to focus and balance all of the above, whereas most modern discussions about nutrition is limited to food. For the purpose of this article we will focus on food from an Ayurvedic perspective.
There are many distinctions between the Ayurvedic approach to nutrition and traditional Western approaches:
- Western approaches largely tend to focus on a biochemical analysis of food and thus identifying the perfect ratio / quantity of different food groups (e.g.: carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, etc) and / or nutritional content in each food item / group and its benefit to all humans. In stark contrast, the Ayurvedic approach is based on the constitutional make-up of food and the person consuming it. Ayurveda focuses on the constitutional make up of each individual, which is largely categorized using the three bodily humors: Vata, Pitta & Kapha. This constitution then determines an individual’s mental and physical tendencies including their digestive strength and careful attention is given to how each individual external interaction (such as intake of food, water, quality of breath and sense inputs) impact their constitutional balance.
- Ayurveda places high emphasis on the digestive capacity whilst western approaches assume the digestive capacity to be the same for all individuals. Therefore, Ayurveda does not have concepts such as identification of a specific food as a ‘super-food’, because a food which could be highly nutritional for one could be the cause of disease for another if their body is unable to fully digest it. Focus is on eating food that is easily digestible for each person and maintaining a strong digestive strength.
- Western modalities are now starting to correlate the impact of food on the mind. Ayurveda describes in detail how food we consume has an important effect on the mind. Ayurveda described Manasika Gunas or qualities the food can create on the mind and the need to consume food that would create a Sattvic, or calmness of the mind. Thus, food is categorized based on the effect on the mind and best would be to eat food which create a Sattvic impact. These foods also need to be eaten in a way that is easily digestible and therefore recommended cooking guidelines and food combinations are given in Ayurveda.
- There is also a focus on the environment in which we consume food, a concept not present in other approaches. Ayurvedic scriptures notes that “one should eat food alone, in a pleasant, unpolluted and clean place, which is decorated by aromatic flowers”. Eating alone avoids being interrupted by others allowing for mindful eating; a pleasant place keeps the mind happy; unpolluted and clean environment avoids food being contaminated; and a place decorated by aromatic flowers to help one relax and enjoy the meal.
- Ayurveda describes balancing of tastes when planning a meal because of its impact on the mind and body. A meal with all six tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent, is considered ideal and most balanced.
- The order in which foods are to be ingested is also important. Sweet items should be eaten first to pacify hunger which is then followed by sour and salty tastes to enhance digestive process and end the meal with pungent, astringent and bitter tasting foods to reduce over eating and lethargy. (Su.su.46/460-464)
In addition to the above principles, Ayurveda describes good practices for the intake of food. These are summarized below:
- One should consume food when he / she feels hungry and at proper times. It is important to eat only when the previous meal is digested properly. If you eat before proper digestion, it can result in undigested foods in the digestive tract leading to harmful chemical reactions that will flow through the body impacting one or many bodily organs. Ayurveda introduces the concept of Ama – a harmful substance created / resulting in the body from improper digestion. This Ama is believed to be a sticky and heavy substance which travels throughout the body with the essence of digested foods. It creates blockages of shrotas (body channels) resulting in the origination of diseases. Ayurveda recommends a healthy adult to eat twice or thrice a day, ideally morning, midday and evening.
- Speed of eating is also prescribed: one should not eat food very fast neither very slow (both may cause indigestion).
- Food should be light, warm and unctuous; light being easy to digest, warm and unctuous qualities aiding the improvement of digestive fire.
- Quantity of food is very personal and can change at every meal time. Sufficient amount is described as one which will cause no pain in the abdomen after meal, no pressure in flanks, no gripping sensation in the heart, and no heaviness in the abdomen. It is individualized and easy to measure than prescribing how much of carbohydrates, proteins or fat.
- Ayurveda recommends eating foods close to the form produced by nature. Each food item contains prana or life force which reduces with each stage of processing.
- As mentioned above, a key focus on Ayurveda is good digestion. Spices such as black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, and coriander seeds, are common examples of the spices which can aid digestion. These spices help to activate the digestive fire and are commonly used in Ayurvedic cooking.
- Eating local seasonal food: local foods are wholesome for those living there. Our bodies have specific orientation for the food from our home region. Nature also provides what is needed to survive in that locality. Furthermore nature itself try to maintain the balance of the universe and seasonal growth of food is based on this balance. Therefore Ayurveda recommends eating local seasonal produce.
Our food habits and selection have changed much from the ancient times. The modern rush to save time has lead to an increase of instant foods and fast foods. Food preparations are minimized as people rely more on processed or semi processed food to save both time and effort. Most of these foods claim to have fortified vitamins and minerals which are meant to increase our strength, vitality and brain power however it is a far cry from the way in which these nutritional requirements are provided by nature. Our food habits are made more complex by the abundance of food availability with supermarkets selling foods from all over the world breaking geographical and seasonal distinctions. Our busy and stressful lives lead us to ‘treat ourselves’ to foods to satisfy our taste buds and cater to our emotional eating regardless of nutritional value and actual physical need. Meals are also rarely eaten mindfully and instead eaten in front of a computer or TV if not in a social environment. Scientific research on food and medicine is at an all time high and yet many people seem to be unwell. Majority of the population of developed countries are on prescription medicine and digestive disorders such as IBS, constipation, heart burn and indigestion are so common that we are learning to accept it as ‘normal’.
Food plays a very important role in our health and wellbeing. Perhaps time is ripe to return to the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda on how and what to eat to bring back physical and mental wellness. In consideration of the above Ayurvedic principles on food, keep focus on these important factors: have awareness about your body constitution; have a good understanding about your digestive capacity; be aware of your capacity to assimilate nutrients; and know how to recognize if food is not digest properly. Then, using this awareness and principles, and the good practice guidelines given above, you can devise your own food choices. Living in harmony with nature, eating right and maintaining a feeling of wellness will provide good health and happiness.