Choosing Foods for An Ayurvedic Diet
According to ayurveda, every individual has unique needs for balance. Since diet is one of the most important ayurvedic tools for achieving balance, ayurvedic healers generally design individualized diets for people they see, based on various factors such as age and gender, the doshic tendencies that need to be balanced at a given time, the strength of the body tissues and the digestive fires, and the level of ama (toxins) in the body. The place where a person lives and the season are also factors that affect dietary dos and don’t.
Notwithstanding the individualized approach to choosing foods for balance, there are some universally applicable principles that are important to follow if you are living an ayurvedic lifestyle:
1. Include The Six Tastes at Every Main Meal
In ayurveda, foods are classified into six tastes–sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. Ayurvedic healers recommend that you include all of these six tastes at each main meal you eat. Each taste has a balancing ability, and including some of each minimizes cravings and balances the appetite and digestion. The general North American diet tends to have too much of the sweet, sour and salty, and not enough of the bitter, pungent and astringent tastes.
A fruit-spice chutney or a spice-mix can provide a little of each of the six tastes if you are in a hurry, but it is ideal to choose foods from each category for complete, balanced nutrition. Just in the category of fresh vegetables and herbs, for example, you could choose fennel bulb or carrot for the sweet taste, fresh lemons for sour, arugula or endive for bitter, radish or white daikon or ginger root for pungent and cabbage or broccoli or cilantro for astringent.
The Amalaki Rasayana, made from the Amla fruit, offers five of the six ayurvedic tastes–all except salty.
2. Choose Foods by Balancing Physical Attributes
In ayurveda, foods are also categorized as heavy or light, dry or unctuous/liquid and warm or cool (temperature), and different qualities balance different doshas. A balanced main meal should contain some foods of each physical type. Within this overall principle, you can vary the proportions of each type based on your constitution and needs for balance, the season of the year and the place you live.
To keep Vata dosha in balance, choose more heavy, unctuous or liquid, and warm foods, and fewer dry, light or cool foods. To help balance Pitta, focus more on cool, dry and heavy foods, and to balance Kapha, try more of light, dry and warm foods.
If you live in cooler climes, you’ll want to gravitate towards warm comfort foods, and vice versa. Similarly, in winter, when Vata dosha tends to increase in most people’s constitutions, almost everyone can benefit from including warm soups and nourishing dhals, fresh paneer cheese and whole milk in the diet. In the summer, plan on eating more cool, soothing foods to help keep Pitta dosha in balance.
3. Choose Foods That are Sattvic
A third ayurvedic classification of foods is by the effect they have on the non-physical aspects of the physiology–mind, heart, senses and spirit. Sattvic foods have an uplifting yet stabilizing influence, rajasic foods stimulate and can aggravate some aspects of the mind, heart or senses, and tamasic foods breed lethargy and are considered a deterrent to spiritual growth.
Everyone, whether actively seeking spiritual growth or not, can benefit by including some sattvic foods at every meal because they help promote mental clarity, emotional serenity and sensual balance and aid in the coordinated functioning of the body, mind, heart, senses and spirit. Almonds, rice, honey, fresh sweet fruits, mung beans and easy-to-digest, fresh seasonal vegetables and leafy greens are examples of sattvic foods. To get the full sattwa from sattvic foods, prepare and eat them whole and fresh.
4. Opt for Whole, Fresh, In-Season, Local Foods
Authentic ayurvedic herbal preparations are made by processing the whole plant or the whole plant part, not by extracting active substances from the plant. Similarly, from the ayurvedic perspective, the most healthful diet consists of whole foods, eaten in as natural a state as possible, the only exception being when removing a peel or cooking helps increase digestibility and assimilation for certain types of constitutions. If the digestive fire is not strong enough, even wholesome foods can turn into ama (toxic matter) in the body.
Foods that are frozen, canned, refined so as to denude the food of its nutritive value, processed with artificial colors, flavorings, additives or preservatives, genetically altered, or grown with chemical pesticides or fertilizers are not recommended by ayurvedic healers, because such foods are lacking in chetana–living intelligence–and prana–vital life-energy–and will do more harm than good in the physiology.
For the above reasons, it’s best to choose foods and produce that is locally grown or produced, foods that are in-season, and foods that are organic, natural and whole.
5. Rotate Menus and Experiment with a Variety of Foods
The sages that wrote the ancient ayurvedic texts would be horrified by our current fascination with the low-carb diet or the no-fat diet or the juice diet–from the ayurvedic perspective, any diet that is exclusive in nature is by definition incomplete in its nutritive value and ability to balance all aspects of the physiology. Eat a wide variety of foods for balanced nutrition–whole grains, lentils and pulses, vegetables, fruits, dairy, nuts, healthy oil or ghee, spices and pure water all have their roles in the balancing process.
If you find yourself eating the same dishes several times a week, or you gravitate towards the same produce or foods every time you shop, resolve now to start making your meals an adventure. Every week, try at least a few new foods or fix familiar foods in new ways, so that your taste buds and your digestion are constantly exposed to some new stimuli in addition to the familiar.
According to ayurveda, each meal should be a feast for all of your senses. When your plate reflects an appealing variety of colors, textures, flavors and aromas, your digestive juices start freely flowing in anticipation and your body, mind and heart are all fulfilled by the eating experience.
6. Include Spices and Herbs in Your Daily Diet
Spices and herbs are concentrated forms of Nature’s healing intelligence. They are particularly revered in ayurveda for their ability to enhance digestion and assimilation, help cleanse ama (toxins) from the body and their yogavahi property–their ability to transport the healing and nutritive value of other components of the diet to the cells, tissues and organs.
Spices, in ayurveda, are generally eaten cooked. Sauté spices in a little olive oil or ghee (clarified butter) and pour the mixture over cooked foods, or simmer spices with foods like beans or grains as they cook. Fresh herbs such as cilantro or mint are generally added at the end of the cooking process, just before serving.
Ayurveda recommends spices/herbs to stimulate the digestion before a meal, during a meal and after a meal. Eating a bit of fresh ginger and lemon about 30 minutes before a main meal helps kick-start the digestion. Eating dishes cooked with a variety of spices and herbs helps the process of digestion –absorption–assimilation–elimination. Chewing fennel seeds after a meal helps digestion and freshens the breath naturally as well.
Ayurvedic rasayanas such as Amalaki and Triphala offer additional ways to help nourish and cleanse the digestive system. Amalaki Rasayana helps enhance digestion, helps balance the production of stomach acid and nourishes the body tissues. Triphala Rasayana helps tone and cleanse the digestive tract and helps nourish the different tissues.
Note: This information is educational, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have a medical concern, please consult your physician.
Shreelata Suresh is a yoga instructor from the Bay Area who writes for various publications on yoga and ayurveda.