Ayurveda, a 5000-year science has been using diet as the principal means for creating a healthy body and mind. Food is medicine, is the defining premise of living an Ayurvedic lifestyle. Food selection, meal timing, and state of mind during meals either increases ojas (vitality) or ama (toxicity). Here are the main guiding principles for tapping into the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda, thereby creating health, vitality, and energy.
Ayurveda maintains that each person has a unique mind-body constitution, known as a dosha. If you do not know your dosha, you can take an online test. Your dosha can become imbalance due to seasonal, environmental, mental, emotional, or physiological stress. We all experience dosha imbalances at one time or another. By eating foods that decrease the heightened doshic imbalances, harmony can be restored within the body and the mind. In general, the following Ayurvedic principles can be applied to selecting and preparing foods for keeping the three doshas balanced:
The Vata dosha (air and space elements) is by nature cool, dry, light, and rough. Eating foods that counteract those characteristics creates balance. Persons with excess Vata energy will restore balance through foods that are warm (in terms of both temperature and spice), hydrating (such as soups and stews), full of healthy fats (like olive oil, ghee, organic cream, and avocados), and grounding (think dense, healthy comfort foods).
The Pitta dosha (fire and water elements) tends toward hot, oily, light, and sharp qualities. Therefore, eating foods that are cool (especially in terms of internal cooling such as is seen with peppermint, cucumber, cilantro, and parsley), astringent (beans, legumes, pomegranate, and green tea), substantial, and mild will minimize the aggravation of the Pitta.
The Kapha dosha (earth and water elements) expresses as heavy, cool, oily, and smooth qualities. Eating foods that are light, warm, dry (like beans and popcorn) and rough (think “roughage” such as vegetables) will have Kapha back in balance in no time.
According to Ayurvedic principles, there are three stages of digestion that must be completed after a meal. In the first hour after a meal, the Kapha energies are dominant. The body may feel full, heavy, and sedate. Two to four hours after a meal the elements of Pitta govern digestion. During this time, hydrochloric acid increases, internal heat rises, and the meal is transformed into sustenance for the body. Four to five hours after a meal the Vata energies rise. It is during this time that lightness and space return and appetite increases.
Interruption of the digestive cycle with more food during snacking leads to incomplete digestion. Over time, incomplete digestion results in the accumulation of ama or toxins, which may present digestive issues in the body. For this reason, Ayurveda recommends three meals each day, with no snacks in between to maintain digestion and keep your stomach stress-free.
Imagine that your stomach is a gas gauge with numbers from one to ten. On that gauge, the number one is completely empty and ten is overly full. You want to have your meal when you are at a two and stop when you get to a seven. Eating before you get to a two puts you at risk of interrupting the digestive cycle. Eating past a seven diverts an enormous amount of energy from important physiological tasks to focusing only on digesting your meal.
Aside from the obvious consequence of weight gain, overeating increases free radical production in the body, which in turn speeds the aging process. By setting down the fork when you are satisfied, but not stuffed, you avoid overeating and the body receives the nourishment that it needs without the added burden of digesting and storing unnecessary calories.
Whole, Fresh Foods is the Answer
Prana—not food itself, but your life force—nourishes the body at the most fundamental level and is responsible for the creation of health, vitality, and energy. The various elements of food, such as the vitamin, mineral, and phytonutrient contents are merely reflections of the energetic, or pranic, imprint. Whole foods have the highest pranic imprint.
According to the Ayurveda diet, the best way to increase ojas, the supplier of life force in the body, is to increase prana. Foods with abundant prana come straight from the Earth. Their prana has been derived through the mingling of sunshine, water, and earth energies. The moment food is picked, its prana begins slowly diminishing. Therefore, eating foods that are as fresh as possible will increase prana more readily than eating the same foods further from their harvest time. Local community gardens and farmers’ markets are invaluable resources for finding fresh foods with high life force. Understanding and following this important concept is one of the best ways to support our local and community gardens. It is also the best incentive to growth our own foods.
Have Six Tastes at Every Meal
Ayurveda recognizes six tastes, each of which communicates a unique combination of energy and information to the physiology. By incorporating each of the six tastes into every meal, the body receives a bio-diverse energetic palate. This energetic palate supplies the body’s cells with instructions specific to one of the taste categories. In general, the six tastes inform the body with the following cellular information:
Sweet: Grounding, strengthening, nourishing
Sour: Cleansing, purifying
Salty: Balancing, regulating
Bitter: Detoxifying, mineralizing
Astringent: Anti-inflammatory, cooling
Pungent: Warming, stimulating
Try to include a small amount of each taste into every meal. It may be only a pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon, or a slice of pepper but if the taste is present, the energetic puzzle will be complete.
Note to the reader: here in America, we tend to eat more foods in the sweet and salty categories.
Ice Cold Foods & Beverages not Recommended.
The inner fire, known as agni, is the digestive power of the physical and energetic body. Agni is similar to a blazing campfire. It is hot, bright, and able to digest food, thoughts, emotions, and experiences. To stoke one’s inner fire, it is necessary to avoid dimming agni’s intensity with ice-cold foods and beverages. The agni of all doshas can become depleted by consuming a steady stream of cold food or beverages. People whose doshas are in Vata and Kapha, should lean toward warm foods and teas, while Pitta doshas may enjoy cool (but not frozen) beverages and foods. In this way, the digestive power will remain strong.
Focus on Eating
How many times have you read a book, watched TV, checked emails, or returned phone calls while eating? If you are, like most people, the answer is, many! The Ayurvedic diet suggests that mealtime is an opportunity to connect with the inherent energy and information of the food you consume. See the colors, taste the flavors, and bring awareness to the sunshine, soil, earth, and individuals that have collaborated to create the bundles of energy of food you are about to eat.
If eating with deep awareness is new to you, begin by taking just one meal a day in silence and focusing on each of your senses for a few minutes at a time. Have a relationship with the food you are eating! Be thankful!
No Food Three Hours Before Bedtime
During sleep, the body repairs, heals, and restores while the mind digests thoughts, emotions, and experiences from the day. If the body’s energy is diverted to physical digestion, the physical healing and mental digestive processes are halted. For this reason, Ayurveda recommends that the last meal of the day be relatively light and completed three hours before bed to avoid this imbalance. In this way, the body’s prana is available to do its rest, restore and repair work at the deepest levels during sleep.
Enjoy Herbal Teas between Meals
Tea is not just a palate-pleasing beverage, it is also a powerful healer that can aid in restoring health, vitality, and joy. To avoid diluting agni, beverages, including teas, should be minimally consumed with meals (no more than 1/2 cup). However, between meals, teas can be enjoyed liberally and act as herbal remedies/medicine. Drinking tea between meals pumps the body full of “liquid medicine,” curbs snack cravings, facilities detoxification, and stokes the digestive fire.
Vata doshas will find grounding and calmness in warm, spicy teas such as cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Pittas, can take their tea either hot or cool, will find cooling herbs such as peppermint, coriander, and rose to be balancing. Kaphas will increase energy, digestion, and optimism with licorice, black pepper, and cardamom.
Eat Largest Meal of the Day at Lunchtime
Agni is strongest when the sun is highest. By consuming the largest meal of the day at noon, the body is able to use its powerful inner fire to breakdown and assimilate nutrients with less energetic output than at other times of the day. The noon meal is the best time of the day to integrate heavier or difficult-to-digest foods. This is also the most ideal time for a splurge food (think an icy drink or sugary treat). By eating the largest meal at midday, the body remains well supplied with energy throughout the afternoon hours, thus helping to alleviate the “afternoon energy slump.”
Each of these ancient Ayurvedic principles will help you remain healthy not only by virtue of the food you are eating but how you eat it. And don’t forget to take your time to enjoy your meals and be grateful for the foods you eat along the way.
A client uses the mantra ‘Thanks Full’ at every meal. Before she puts the food in her mouth she silently says Thanks and after she swallows she silently says Full.
What a beautiful way to enjoy a meal!
Om Shanti, Shanti