Whether you are know a little or a lot about Ayurveda, you can probably guess that food is an essential part of its tradition. Among the first major points in one of Ayurveda’s most ancient texts is: “Any life form that has to sustain itself on earth must rely on food.” There’s no question that food is a fundamental need to get prana, or the life force, and that prana is contained in food. Therefore, food is the sustainer of life.
The Basic Principles of Eating According to Ayurveda
For this reason, food is a celebration in Ayurveda. Nourishment is given the utmost respect, especially considering that what we consume influences us on three distinct levels: there is a 1) physical effect on the body, 2) a psycho-emotional effect, which is experienced through the sense organs and the mind, and 3) a spiritual effect that has the power to uplift our consciousness and spirit.
Today, food is something that is often taken for granted in certain parts of the world. In the U.S, for example, Americans eat anywhere and everywhere without giving consumption much thought. This way of eating does not correspond to Ayurveda guidelines, which are largely based on one key rule: You should not approach food with greed. This is a fascinating concept because every time you ingest food, greed innately takes over. Ayurveda says that you have to check yourself mindfully to take away that greed and attachment to food. When you eat, you should be in a very peaceful state of mind and atmosphere.
Another vital rule is that you should completely focus on the act of eating. You should sit, settle down, and give respect to what you’re about to consume. Then, you can bring your attention to utilizing all five senses while you eat. The tongue is the most important because it tastes and mixes the food. Sight is equally valuable, so take a moment to study your meal. Is it colorful? It should be. Also, use your hands to eat instead of utensils. Touching the food is crucial for having the complete experience. Lastly, smell the food and listen to the different sounds that are made while eating. In this way, all five sense organs are put into play.
The Age-old Battle: Quality vs. Quantity
The fundamental difference between Ayurvedic diet principles and modern dietetics is that we give a lot of significance to quality opposed to quantity of food. What I mean is that we don’t use calories as the governing principle of food. In Ayurveda, we don’t eat to achieve a certain number of calories per day, but rather, we eat food for its physical and, more importantly, for its psycho-emotional effects. Think about it this way: If you eat chocolate, you’re probably not eating it because of the number of calories it has. You’re eating it because of how it makes you feel. Quantity is given importance, but the whole networth of food has to do with certain attributes like taste, texture, and temperature—not how many calories are in it.
Other food qualities to consider are location and season. Ayurveda says that food needs to be consumed seasonally because your body processes food differently depending on the time of the year. Preference is also given to whatever is available in your local region. Ayurveda says that whatever is grown locally is very well-understood by the body. Funnily enough, the “eat local” movement is very Ayurvedic.
The Classification of Food
There are several ways that Ayurveda divides foods into groups. One is by physical qualities, such as whether a food is dry, oily, heavy, light, hot, cold, soft, or hard. Every sensory input is measured in terms of the physicality of a substance, and these physical traits have physical impacts on us.
Taste, on the other hand, goes beyond the physical. There are six different tastes that food can have in Ayurveda: sweet, salty, sour, pungent, astringent, and bitter. These six tastes are given a lot of importance because they go a layer deeper. Whereas the physical qualities of food have an impact on the body, taste has a physical impact and can influence the mind.
For example, if someone is having a stressful week at work, they may want to eat something that’s heavier and more grounding. That means they may gravitate toward something that’s sweet, salty, or oily. Oily is a physical quality that creates a sensation of being taken care of or consoled, whereas sweet and salty tastes ground nervous energy and, in turn, the mind. So when people are stressed out, they gravitate towards these qualities and tastes because it helps to balance them. In this way, you can see how food is deeply and subconsiously connected to emotions. Below is a guide to the different tastes, which may surprise you.
Sweet: Rice, wheat, milk, fruit, honey, sugar
Salty: This category only contains salt, but there are different classifications depending on where it comes from, i.e., Himalayan pink salt, sea salt, mineral salt, and lake salt.
Sour: Lime, lemon, sauerkraut, fermented foods, yogurt
Pungent: Cumin, oregano, cayenne pepper, chiles, black pepper, ginger, wasabi
Astringent: This taste is often confused with sour, but it really means anything that makes your mouth dry and pucker. This includes lentils, green leaves, and turmeric.
Bitter: Arugula, escarole, bitter melon
How Digestion Works
Food should be consumed when there is enough hunger to warrant it. This is difference between consuming food for physical and emotional needs. Ayurveda says that food should always be consumed for physical needs. When you are physically hungry, the agni, or ability to digest food, is stronger. When the agni is weak and food is just consumed for the sake of eating, then food becomes toxic to the body. When your stomach is growling and you can feel your own peristalsis (the movements your digestive system makes), then the wind energy, or vata dosha, is dominant. It’s almost like a nervous energy, which sends a signal to the brain that says it’s time for food.
If you’re very hungry, you should start your meal with a little bit of something sweet, because it satisfies this wind energy. Dessert comes first in Ayurveda, but instead of a cookie or cake it’s just a small piece of date or apple or something similar. After that, you consume something salty and sour, usually food that is fermented, which always brings a sour taste. Then, the main course of the meal you eat something mildly sweet, astringent, and pungent and salty like some grain with lentils or meat with vegetables. Lastly, you might want to eat something slightly bitter and astringent, like a salad.
This approach is for when a person is really hungry, and this order is reversed when a person is not very hungry. Then, activating the physiology of digestion is given more importance than appeasing it. As you can see, the rules of Ayurvedic eating are flexible; nothing is totally mandated.
Any Food Can Be Ayurvedic
One major misconception is that Indian food is Ayurvedic food. In fact, every food is Ayurvedic (even Lean Cuisine) as long as we apply the right principles. The fundamental difference is that most food, including Indian cuisine, is driven by taste and pleasure. Ayurvedic food is driven by taste and health. Health is given a lot more importance than pleasure in the Ayurvedic diet. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy your food when you eat in an Ayurvedic style, but rather, you acknowledge that what you eat has the power to nourish your body, mind, and spirit, thus, helping you achieve your best possible health.