Let Your Food Be Your Medicine: The Ayurvedic Approach to Nutrition
By Vishnu Dass, NTS, LMT, CAyu
It is ironic how something as obvious as nutrition has become overlooked in the modern health care system, and how in the name of convenience our fast paced society has given way to fast foods, microwaves, quick fix medicines, and eating on the run. Fortunately, there is a growing focus in the important role that nutrition plays in maintaining good health. In Ayurveda, India’s ancient science of life, health and longevity, food plays a prominent role in promoting health and is therefore considered medicine.
Dating back over five thousand years, Ayurveda is still a highly respected form of health care in India today. According to this holistic system, everyone has a unique constitution or prakruti—an individual combination of physical, mental and emotional characteristics determined by many factors surrounding the time of conception and birth. Disturbance of this balance due to emotional and physical stress, trauma, improper food combination and choices, as well as seasonal and weather changes may lead to imbalance and eventually to disease. If we understand how such factors affect us we can take appropriate actions to minimize their effect and eliminate the causes of imbalance. In this sense, the path toward health is always individual. There is no single approach that is right for everyone, whether it relates to diet, lifestyle, exercise or the use of medicinal herbs.
According to Samkhya, the philosophical foundation of Ayurveda, creation expresses itself through the five elements—ether or space, air, fire, water and earth. These elements manifest in the body as the three governing principles or humors called doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. Everyone has all three of these doshas to varying degrees, although one and sometimes two tend to be predominant and the other(s) secondary. In balance, the doshas promote the normal functions of the body and maintain overall health. Out of balance, they create mental, emotional and physical ailments.
Vata is the subtle energy associated with movement and is made up of the air and ether. By nature it has dry, light, mobile and cold qualities. When aggravated, it can cause flatulence, constipation, tremors, spasms, asthma, rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, as well many neurological problems.
Pitta represents the fire and water elements of the body. It has mainly hot sharp and oily qualities. Pitta disorders include hyperacidity, ulcers, skin eruptions, chronic fatigue, Crohn’s disease, colitis, gout and numerous inflammatory disorders.
Kapha is made up of earth and water, and is associated with heavy, cold, damp and static qualities. Out of balance, kapha can cause obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, edema, asthma, tumors and a variety of congestive problems.
Aggravation of the doshas can affect the digestion and can create toxins, or ama from poorly digested food. As ama accumulates in the tissues and channels of the body it slowly but surely affects the flow of prana (vital energy), immunity (ojas) and the cellular metabolism (tejas), eventually resulting in disease.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, one of the main keys to maintaining optimal health as well as to support the healing process is to help the body eliminate toxins and to reestablish constitutional balance. To achieve this, Ayurveda emphasizes the importance of proper nutrition through proper food choices, food combining and cooking methods, as well as herbal nutrition, all based on the specific needs of the individual and any current imbalance of the doshas.
Ayurvedic nutrition is a vast topic that takes into account the individual constitution, the medicinal value of culinary spices, the theory of shad rasa (or six tastes, which should all be present for a meal to be balanced), and more. As I mentioned before, in Ayurveda food is considered medicine. Likewise, herbs are also used for their nutritional and nourishing qualities, or to counteract any doshic imbalance and toxin formation as a result of poor digestion.
For optimum nutrition, care should be taken to insure that food be organic, fresh and whenever possible locally grown. In Ayurveda food, drinks, and spices are categorized according to their taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent), the energetic effect they have on the doshas, as well as their post-digestive effect on the tissues. This is why when choosing foods it is important to understand our original constitution so as to eat foods that have the opposite qualities to those that are already predominant in the constitution. Furthermore, understanding the current state of the doshas is also crucial for making the right food choices.
Vata types tend to more deficient by nature and have light body frames, variable digestion and often have a tendency towards gas and constipation. Therefore, they do best eating warm, nourishing, unctuous and primarily cooked foods, and should avoid dried, cold, frozen and excess intake of raw foods. Also, they should avoid pinto, garbanzo or black beans, which are hard to digest and tend to increase intestinal gas. Vata is balanced by sweet, sour and salty tasting foods.
Pitta types tend to have strong appetites and good digestion, but have a tendency toward hyperacidity and inflammatory disorders. So they should avoid eating greasy, hot spicy, salty and fermented foods, as well as sour and acidic fruits. Pitta is balanced by bitter, sweet and astringent tastes.
Kapha types are large framed with a tendency toward weight gain, obesity, sluggish digestion, lethargy and congestive disorders. They do best on a light, reducing diet low in carbohydrates and avoiding dairy, cold food and drinks, poor quality oils and sweet treats. Kapha is decreased with pungent, bitter and astringent tastes.
Before talking about the use of spices in Ayurvedic cooking I should point out that although Ayurvedic food is traditionally Indian cuisine, it is not by any means limited to it. Also, by the same token, not all Indian food is Ayurvedic. In fact, Indian restaurant food is often overly spicy and drenched in poor quality cooking oils. What makes food truly Ayurvedic is the fact that it is selected and cooked according to the specific needs of the individual, or that it is balanced for all doshas (tridosha).
Many of the spices used in Ayurvedic cooking such as turmeric, ginger, cumin, fenugreek, coriander and cardamom, amongst others, are also medicinal herbs used in Ayurvedic herbology. Cooking daily with those spices can greatly enhance digestion, absorption and assimilation of food, improve one’s appetite and elimination, nourish the internal organs and prevent doshic imbalance. Spices also provide a harmonious blend of the six tastes. Taste is medicinal and is the first form of nourishment. A meal containing a balanced blend of the six tastes, aside from being more appealing to the tongue, is also more digestible at a deep cellular level.
Modern research is now validating the benefits of many of the herbs and spices used in Ayurvedic cooking. Turmeric for instance, is highly effective in the treatment of type two diabetes, skin diseases, infections and hepatic and inflammatory disorders. Cumin, coriander, fennel, nutmeg and cardamom are extremely helpful in the treatment of a wide variety of digestive complaints, as is ginger for the treatment of respiratory congestion, fevers and colds. There are literally thousands of medicinal uses to such spices. Even today in much of rural India the wisest doctors are often the mothers and grandmothers who know the uses of their “kitchen pharmacies.”
Another vital aspect of Ayurvedic nutrition is proper food combining. In Ayurveda not all foods are compatible. Certain foods when eaten or cooked together can disturb the normal function of the digestive fire and promote the accumulation of ama (toxins) in the body. Various factors, such as the tastes, qualities, and energies of certain foods, as well as how long they take to digest, affect how well certain foods will combine. Heavy foods such whole grains, dairy, meats and starches don’t combine well with light foods such as fruit, which digest quicker. Another example, when sour and acidic fruits are combined with milk, which is sweet and cooling, this causes the milk to curdle and become heavy in the intestines. Ayurveda places great emphasis on the art of food combining.
Ayurveda encourages us to take responsibility for our health as much as possible by making appropriate changes in diet and lifestyle. What we eat and how we live on a daily basis can be our strongest allies in restoring and maintaining health. All other therapeutic measures will be strongly supported by this daily effort.
Along with a balanced diet, incorporating other healthy habits into a daily routine can prevent imbalance at its very root. A lifestyle that integrates regular eating and sleeping habits will bring discipline and help maintain the harmony of the doshas, thus promoting overall good health. An Ayurvedic clinician can provide dietary and lifestyle guidelines, as well as herbal nutrition, more specific to the individual constitution, doshic imbalance and situation of each person.
This article was first published in the New Life Journal web site, October-November 2004.
© 2004 Vishnu Dass. No reproduction allowed in whole or in part without written permission from the author.