Ayurvedic nutrition is a vast topic that includes individual constitution, diet, food substances and their properties, cooking, use of spices, the theory of shad rasa (six tastes), and many more. It is a complete science that deals with the foods and the use of foods to establish balance and health in the body and mind. Ayurveda believes that the proper use of food leads to establishing optimum digestion, the formation of healthy tissues in the body and a clear and pure mind and poor nutrition is the root cause of diseases.
Unlike the other modern theories, Ayurveda nutritional approach is individual oriented. It believes no one diet is suitable for all as every individual is unique in his/her body constitution (dosha). The individual’s body metabolism is different and accordingly his/her way of assimilating and digesting food differs. It is essential for an individual to choose the foods that have the opposite qualities to those that are already predominant in the constitution. In Ayurveda food, drinks, and spices are classified according to their taste, the gunas, the energetic effect they have on the doshas, as well as their post-digestive effect on the tissues. All the foods are included in individual’s diet according to the dosha. Dosha is also closely inter-linked with season as every season has it correspondence dosha.
The dosha aggravates in their related seasons and one need to include in his diet the foods that subdued the dosha. For example, summer season corresponds to Pitta dosha, while the winter and autumn is the season of Kapha and Vata. Spices hold a prominent place in ayurvedic cooking and nutrition. Many of the spices used in Ayurvedic cooking such as turmeric, ginger, cumin, fenugreek, coriander and cardamom, etc are also medicinal herbs used in Ayurvedic herbal formulations. When used in cooking on daily basis these spices greatly improve the digestion, absorption and assimilation of food. They are also helpful in improving one's appetite and elimination, nourish the internal organs and correct doshic imbalances.
There are six major tastes explained in Ayurveda (sweet, bitter, pungent, sour, salty, astringent) that have specific qualities and effects on body. Ayurveda recommends the inclusion of all the tastes in the meal and spices provide a harmonious blend of these six tastes.
Ayurvedic theory of nutrition favors the use of vegetables, spices, whole grains and fruits, as they are energy-boosters. These foods are said to have natural healing and nurturing substances to such an extent, that when one is completely on such a diet, the fatigue-causing toxins will not accumulate in the body. Vegetables are very important for their vitamins, minerals, roughage and freshness. Dark leafy green vegetables are specially recommended in ayurvedic diet as they contain minerals that no other vegetable contain. Fruits are also high in vitamins and nutrients, provide instant energy, and termed as power foods.
Another fundamental aspect of Ayurvedic nutrition is proper food combining or food compatibility. In Ayurveda, not all foods are compatible, there are certain foods when eaten together can disturb the normal functioning of the digestive fire and promote the accumulation of ama (toxins) in the body. Various factors, such as the tastes, qualities, properties, basic nature of food, energies of certain foods, as well as how long they take to digest, affect the compatibility of foods. Heavy foods such whole grains, dairy, meats and starches do not combine well with light foods such as fruit, because they are quick to digest. Similarly, sour and acidic fruits are not combined with milk, which is sweet and cooling. If taken together they cause the milk to curdle and it becomes heavy in the intestines. Hence, Ayurveda gives great importance to the art of food combining or food compatibility.
Eat in accordance with your hunger level. Avoid eating when not hungry, similarly do not delay or skip meals.
Try to have your meals at approximately the same time every day. This trains the body and it will be prepared to digest the food properly.
Breakfast is important so do not skip it. But it should be light, just enough to make you charged till lunch. Fresh fruits, sprouts, milk, whole grain cereals etc serve excellently as breakfast.
Lunch is the most important meal of the day and should be the largest. According to Ayurveda, our digestive fire or Agni works best during this period of day hence food is easily digested. It should include lentils, whole wheat breads, grains, vegetables and other food items that provide protein, and fuel your activities throughout the day. The ideal time for lunch is from 12 Noon to 2:00 p.m.
Ayurveda provides a broad description of food and its effect on the body. The food is categorized according to its taste and Gunas (the fundamental attributes). Ayurveda also classifies food on the bases of doshas (body constitution) and seasons. It explains which food item is favourable or unfavourable for an individual and which food should be taken or avoided during particular season.
Food according to Gunas
There are three Gunas in Ayurveda: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. These gunas are fundamental attributes that represent the natural evolutionary process. These three gunas are presented in every human being with more or less domination. An important way to regulate these gunas in body and mind is ayurvedic cooking or food. On the bases of these three gunas food can be classified as Sattvic, Rajasik, and Tamsik.
Sattvic food is most simple and easiest to digest type of food. The food contains the most nutritional value as it is cooked by using minimal heat and modest processing. It provides the necessary energy to the body without taxing it. It is also considered as a foundation of higher states of consciousness, that is why saints and seers survive on sattvic foods. Sattvic food should be taken fresh or immediately after it is prepared.
Fresh juicy fruits, vegetables (that are easily digestible), milk and milk products, whole soaked or also sprouted beans, grains and nuts, many herbs and spices consumed in their natural and near-natural forms are good examples of satvik food. Common spices like ginger, turmeric, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, and aniseed are highly recommended in Sattvic diet while the vegetables like onion, garlic, red chilies and black pepper and such other pungent and astringent spices are forbidden.
Cow’s milk - the most Sattvic Food
Cow’s milk is regarded as the most complete, nourishing, and sattvic among all sattvic food. Though buffalo milk is also used widely, it is not considered to be as nourishing, and is usually not form the part of a sattvic diet. In the absence of cow’s milk, goat’s milk is recommended as a substitute. Milk products like butter, ghee (cooked and dehydrated butter) also used prominently in sattvic diet as they are prepared with very nominal amount of heat and retain their sattvic qualities.
Benefits of Sattvic Food
Sattvic diet is best for health and vitality. A person who eats sattvic food has an ideal combination for physical, mental and emotional harmony. Sattvic food increase person’s well-being, and inner peace; and helps you remain focused in work, sleeps less and stays energized all day long.
Sattvic food keeps the person disease and disorder free, and be sensitive to the various nuances of the sensory being. He/she is less affected by exposure to adverse conditions. Even if they falls sick, the recovery is very fast. Having sattvic diet propotes a calm disposition.
Rajasik food is rich in flavour but heavy to digest. It is suitable for people who do arduous physical work. Vegetables cooked in excess butter, with spicy and strong flavoring agents, are typical example of rajasic preparation. Cooked fresh, rajasic food is rich in nutrients with minimum dilution with water. Such food is heavy on salt and sugar and takes longer period to digest than sattvic food. It calls for extended sleeping hours and is sexually stimulating. A rajasic food eater is usually aggressive and overflowing with energy as the rajasic food increase the speed and excitement of the human organism. According to Ayurveda this energy can be beneficial if used wisely, it can lead a person towards prosperity, power and prestige.
A person living on a rajasic diet has a love for life and all the worldly pleasures. Rajasic food is the foundation of motion, activity and pain hence the rajasic person has the capacity to suffer the pains, as well as the trials and tribulations of life. In comparison to a sattvic person, a rajasic person would lead an eventful but shorter life. He/she would be a good worldly being, while a sattvic person is more focused on exploring life beyond physical pleasures.
Tamsic food is considered the worst among all types of food. Dry, unnatural, overcooked, stale, decaying and processed food makes for a Tamasic diet. Tamaasic diet consumes a large amount of energy while being digested. Refined food - be it cereals, oils or hydrogenated butter, stimulants and beverages like tea, coffee and soft drinks, fast and ready-to-cook food, canned or frozen food, precooked and warmed food items like burgers, pizzas, pastries, and chocolates, incompatible food as well as intoxicants like tobacco and alcohol are tamasic examples of tamasic food.
Tamasic diet is foundation of ignorance, doubt, pessimism and leads to a sick and painful life. A tamasic person is in serious discomfort with himself and forgets to lead a healthy and happy life. Tamasic foods must be avoided as much as possible.
Food according to Tastes
There are six major tastes in Ayurveda that have specific qualities and effects on body. A balanced diet should involve all the six tastes in every meal or at least have them once everyday.
The six tastes are
Food according to Doshas
Ayurveda considers each person as an individual with different composition and needs. There are five basic elements in Ayurveda air, water, earth, fire and ether that forms three basic doshas. each individual has his/her own composition of these elements which determines his/her dominant dosha. Thus every individual requires different diet according to the dominant dosha. A food, which is beneficial for one, could be detrimental for another. For example, Vata is a cold dry dosha, hence person with Vata as predominant dosha need warm, nourishing foods, while the Pitta person requires cool food to balance his fire element.
Ayurveda Cooking and the Seasons
According to Ayurveda with the changes in season our body needs different foods to adjust itself to the outside environment. Every season brings about nurturing qualities and the body needs plug into the nature for rejuvenation. The main role of food is helping the body to maintain its normal temperature. As the outer temperature swings with season, our body needs energy to maintain its own temperature. For example, summer is hot season when temperature rises and our body need cool foods to subdued heat. Ayurveda further explains the relation between season and doshas and recommend foods accordingly. Summer is a pitta season, in which individuals are prone to sunburn, acne etc, so cool, light fruits and salads are recommended to pacify the pitta imbalances. Winter is a vata season and cold, arthritis, rheumatism etc are more likely to occur, so Ayurveda recommends warm, oily and hearty meals like beans, whole grains and meats to lubricate the system against dryness of Vata season. Spring, which is a kapha season, increase the chances for bronchial ailments and common colds etc, hence honey, millet and greens are advised for season to dry the body of the mucus.
Common Tips for Healthy Food
Use organic foods as much as possible.
Avoid frozen, canned, processed, and genetically modified foods.
Avoid consuming fake foods which have small nutritional value, refined white flour, white sugar, margarine, preservatives, artificial flavors, and colors.
Avoid leftovers, either cold out of the refrigerator, or reheated.
Cook foods slowly, on a lower heat, and avoid microwave.
Use fresh, ripe fruits and veggies.
Eat fresh food that is freshly prepared.
Add a wide variety of seasonal, wholesome foods in your daily diet.