Articles for Reading & Learning
Ayurvedic Guidance on Food and Nutrition
Written by Dr Chathurika Harischandra, Resident Doctor, Plantation Villa, Sri Lanka
- 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)
- 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.