Before I get into Ayurvedic nutrition, let me explain about energy. If you get right down to it, everything is energy. Break down any matter to its smallest particle, and all you have is a lot of emptiness (space) and energy. Although we do not perceive it, this is also true for our body: we are made up of emptiness and energy, as is everything we eat and drink. And the energies in our food influence the energies in our body.
Ayurvedic nutrition and mental wellbeing
Food plays a major role in maintaining both our physical and our mental health. It is an important source of energy. It is said that “food is medicine”. That means that, if we are careful about our diet, we can avoid many diseases. Diet can be an effective treatment in and of itself.
Though dietary results are slower to manifest than those of medicines, they are safe and without side effects. Incorrect diet is the main cause of all our “diseases of affluence”. Ayurveda emphasises correct diet for the individual as the main factor in long term treatment of the physical body.
In Vedantic philosophy there is a saying: “Aharshudhou satva shudhihi”. It means something like this: If we eat a healthy diet then the mind will also become healthy. What we eat affects our emotions and can create a predisposition for both psychological and physical disorders. Just as negative emotions can upset our digestion, bad digestion can upset our emotions. And of course, the same is true for what we drink.
So let’s have a closer look at what Ayurveda teaches us when it comes to healthy diet.
Ayurvedic principles of diet
According to Ayurveda, food care includes the right preparation of food, right combinations of food, right amount of food, right frequency of meals and right times and places for eating. Right emotional and mental state are also important, for good food taken in a bad mood or ill humor can cause diseases. Even the right attitude in the person preparing the food is important; cooking should be done with love and good humor.
You should eat the proper quantity, according to the strength of your digestive power. The proper quantity of food for a person is that which gets digested in a timely manner and does not disturb natural health. You should fill no more than half your stomach with food, a quarter with liquid and leave another quarter for space to properly digest everything.
Eight factors of food that affect our health
- Natural quality of food. How was it produced and processed? Plant-based: Was it treated with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and artificial fertiliser? Did it grow in living soil or in some sort of substrate? Animal-based: Was it fed with soy or other fodder from the other side of the world? Was it regularly injected with antibiotics? Was it kept in a cage? Has it ever seen the light of day?
- Preparation. How was the food prepared? In what kind of vessel? With what emotion?
- Combination. Some food combinations help digestion, others impair it.
- Quantity of food. Learn to listen to your body to know when you have eaten enough. And don’t eat when you’re not hungry. You can express your hunger-feeling on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 means you’re so full, you are ready to burst, and 10 means you’re fainting with hunger. Try not to eat unless you are at least at 7, preferably 8. And never more than to 4 or 3 on this scale.
- Habitat. Your geographical location is important, because you should try to eat food that was produced close to home.
- Season. As in point 5, try as much as possible to eat food that is in season. So eat strawberries in summer, not in winter...
- Rules of use. As described above, under Ayurvedic principles of diet.
- According to constitution. We are all individuals. What is good for one person may be totally wrong for another. Therefore, it is important to know your constitution so that you can adapt your diet to it.
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Food qualities (Gunas) and tastes (Rasas)
Rather than looking at diet from the point of view of calories or particular nutrients in food, as is commonly done in the West, the Ayurvedic approach is based more on the intuitive sense of the qualities and tastes of the food. On what is attractive to the individual based on smell, taste, temperature and texture. Trusting that when the body is healthy it will be attracted to the foods that are more appropriate for it.
Food in Ayurveda is classified by its qualities (Gunas) and tastes (Rasa). There are six main Gunas: heavy, light, dry, oily, hot and cold. Besides, there are six Rasas or tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy and astringent.
All tastes and qualities should be present in each meal, however, the proportions should vary to balance the constitution of the individual. Paying attention to the qualities and tastes in your meals helps to plan the perfect meal.
Things to avoid
- Acidic food. It is harmful to the entire system. Everything in the human body is alkaline in nature. Non-vegetarian food is highly acidic and very hard to digest. Fruits and vegetables are easily and quickly digested. Most fruits and vegetables are alkaline. Vegetables contain natural salts, minerals and vitamins. The fibres in the vegetables are essential for digestion.
- Fast food, instant food, junk food and soft drinks
- Unsaturated oils, white bread, white sugar and tinned and canned foods as much as possible
- The use of aluminium vessels. Steel and copper vessels are better.
- Eating anything before sunrise or after 8 o’clock in the evening, as far as possible.
- Taking any meal when nervous, anxious, angry or afraid, nor when excessively thoughtful or worried Eat in a calm, quiet atmosphere.
- Excessively sour or fermented foods, especially yeasted bread
Some general advice
- Wash your hands before eating, or even preparing food
- Give thanks for what you are about to eat and beware of the fact that there are many people less fortunate, who do not have enough to eat
- Take warm, easily digestible food. Avoid stale or refrigerated food.
- Foods are primarily heavy or light; they can be made lighter through the use of spices or by consuming less. Foods also are drying or moistening. They can be made dryer by evaporation or dry preparing them; they can be made moist by the addition of liquids or oils.
- When there are any signs of improperly digested food (for example: bad breath, heavily coated tongue, gas, cloudy urine, nausea, bloating), it is best time to clean the system and balance it by fasting for a day or skipping a meal until a sense of appetite returns.
- Proper fasting (once a week, a fortnight or a month, depending on one’s general health, constitution, etc.) is good. It helps to cleanse the system. Drink lots of water, herbal teas and/or rice water on the days of fasting
- Chew the food properly. Do not eat too fast nor too slow.
- Be mindful of eating. Watching television, reading or any other forms of nervous stimulation should be avoided during meals. Do not engage yourself in any serious conversation while eating
- Eat alone or with friends and family in whose company you can completely relax. Eat in a quiet, clean place. Facing east when eating is said to maximise the energy of digestion
- Listening to classical or other soothing music can be helpful in setting the mood
- Sip warm water with your meal to aid digestion. Never drink ice water or milk with your meal.
- Food needs to be tasty and easy to digest. Food that repulses you cannot nourish you, no matter what health claims are attached to it.