I am often asked what Ayurveda prescribes as a healthy diet. I hesitate to write down a fixed diet plan for many reasons: there are many diet fads these days which have become accepted as healthy diets (for example the vegan diet, keto diet, millets diet, etc). Most of this is contrarian to the principles espoused in the texts.
The second is that Ayurveda is the ultimate customised medicine. The texts opine that health, regimen and medicine should all be customised to the individual, and what works for one individual is especially unique to him / her. Therefore, what works for you is a customised blend of your food culture, what you are used to your prakriti, and where you live.
The third is a very interesting reason: Ayurveda recognises the importance of “patterns and habits” in the way we eat, behave and live. The Acharyas tell us that even a great diet. Or a set of behaviours considered universally healthy cannot be suddenly introduced to the system, as the system, which has reached a sense of balance with whatever it is doing, will rebel in shock. So for someone who has persisted on a diet of fried bacon, bread and no vegetables, cannot be suddenly asked to substitute fish for fried bacon and introduced to a whole lot of vegetables. The Acharyas tell us that for the system that has been used to food which we consider unhealthy will react to healthy food (if introduced suddenly) like it would react to poison!
Obviously our notion of what is healthy food ad not healthy food will have to vary by region, season and availability of food. So if you live in a dry, hot desert I cannot tell you to eat broccoli all the time, despite the fact that it is considered a nutritional superfood.
So rather than speak about specific foods to eat, we focus our posts on how to eat. We saw a post this week on eight Ayurvedic eating techniques, and how chewing food well, eating on time, eating when hungry, etc are timeless principles of healthy living. We saw how even the right foods eaten wrongly can cause distress to the body.
Speaking further on foods to eat, here is our 2 part series on Ayurvedic eating for good health. Again, these posts are in the form of eating principles, and cover aspects of eating like ethical diets (vegan / vegetarian), eating timings etc. These are atleast as important as what you eat, so do read on.
As with all new information, please read this with an open mind. The science of Ayurveda has evolved over thousands of years and is extremely sophisticated in its understanding of both food and its effect on human beings. Many of the things I have written down may seem contrarian to what we believe in now – but the system has survived and thrived for thousands of years
- Timing is everything (in health, food & life)
The time of eating is at least as important as what you eat and depending upon your body’s condition, it is sometimes more important than what you eat.
Every organ system is said to have a particular time to cleanse itself and do necessary repairs. For example, the liver, the seat of pitta in our body, cleanses itself around midnight. Cleansing of organ systems occurs ONLY after digestion is through, nutrients have been extracted and toxins have been removed from the body. So if you are eating dinner at 11 pm, your organ systems will NOT cleanse themselves, and will wait until the next available time slot to do so. Which means your body will feel dull and sluggish the next morning (especially if you are consistently eating late).
This does not mean you can get away with eating junk food like a burger everyday at 7 pm for dinner. Do read point 2.
This is corroborated by many systems of traditional medicine. TCM opines that the window to eat breakfast is between 7 am – 9 am. When you consistently eat breakfast after this window, your chi energy or stomach fire energy gets weak and dampened. This in TCM is said to lead to digestive disorders, high production of gas in the system and an inability to digest foods leading to a high accumulation of toxins.
- Ideal food is local, freshly cooked, lightly spiced and eaten warm. No spoiled food should be eaten. And no food should be stored, re-heated and eaten.
Ayurveda frowns upon the wonders of modern food preservation. In fact, the Charaka Samhita specifically says that for good health one should not eat too much of pickles, traditional papads or even traditionally salted and preserved vegetables (like vadagam and vathal).These references are to HOME MADE preserved vegetables, lentils and fruits. So this definitely rules OUT eating preserved, commercially processed foods like biscuits, sauces, etc which have a shelf life of 1 year or more (so most of the time we are eating stuff that has been made at-least 6 months ago in a factory and would contain several harmful chemical preservatives).
Local in Ayurveda means something that not only grows naturally within 100 miles of where you live. It also means eating foods you and your digestive system are accustomed to. So if you have grown up eating rice, rice will suit your system the most. Not quinoa. And not even millets. Any new food must be slowly introduced to your digestive system. (This does not take away from your responsibility of sourcing high quality food. Most of us grew up eating untainted, pesticide-free food – so this naturally means you should source the same now. And not just buy the first available pesticide sprayed pack of rice you find in the supermarket).
The point about spoiled food is an interesting nuance and goes to our food culture. For example cheese eating is not a practice that is universal to many parts of India. It is usually common only in cold and hilly regions. In hot and humid regions, fermenting a dairy based food will quickly lead to rot, mildew and fungus. However the same food is very well preserved in a cold, hilly region.
Cheese, especially aged cheese, tends to be very salty, sharp and concentrated. In Ayurveda, this has all the makings of a pitta food group. So it makes sense to eat this food, if it is eaten traditionally, in a cold, hilly region where the atmosphere is low in pitta dosha. The pitta in the food is welcome to stimulate digestion.
However in a hot, humid city like Chennai or Hyderabad, where the atmosphere is full of Pitta, the pitta dosha from the cheese would over stimulate pitta dosha. Which is probably why in practice, it does not form a part of traditional food.
If you live in the city of your childhood, it is probably best to stick to your traditional food practice. If you live in a foreign city, it is still better to stock to your traditional food unless the weather and climate is dramatically different from what you are used to. If you are living in an utterly foreign land, it makes sense to slowly acclimatise and add foods and eating practices local to where you live, while continuing to eat traditionally most of the time.
- An ideal food for you is something that is digested quickly by you and puts the least amount of stress on your digestive system. This can differ from person to person.
Ayurveda believes the more effort the body has to take in digesting your food, the more energy is diverted away from your organ systems. Also, depending upon your state of health, if your food is difficult to digest, there is a possibility that your body will not complete the job of digestion within the allotted time. The longer your food sits in your body without being processed, the more poisonous it becomes to your body.
Food that is undigested and sits around in your body becomes “Ama” or undigested waste + toxin. Ama prevents the healthy functioning of your organ systems and leads to faster aging and illness. Ama can accumulate across every organ system, but is linked primarily to an improperly functioning digestive system, brought on by eating improper food.
Now how your digestive system will respond to your food group is completely unique. Some of us can easily digest fried food, and can eat copious quantities of this without losing sleep or productivity. Others are extremely sensitive to certain food groups: a single Chinese meal can set us back by 2 – 3 days when we feel dull and sluggish.
These digestion patterns tend to change as we age, and by season. They also change when we are under a high amount of stress. So it is important to listen carefully to your body and develop a sense of what works for you. Limit food experimentation to a window where you can take the consequences, and always plan for “cheat” or “treat” days.
- Many foods we think are healthy and should be eaten in copious quantities are considered unhealthy in Ayurveda
Many foods that we now consider healthy and are eating a lot of are considered difficult to digest in Ayurveda or are considered unbalanced as they are very high in one particular dosha: these include raw vegetables (yes salads!), raw sprouts, millets, brown rice or cereals with a high amount of husk on them, fermented foods like idly and dosa, cheese, curd, milkshakes. These must be eaten with the proper preparation and caution and at times when the body is capable of digesting them.
Example 1: Fermented foods like idly and dosa are considered high in pitta as they are sour foods. Eating them every day for breakfast will mean your pitta will increase. It is important to balance them with something like a coconut based dish as coconut is both cooling (and high in kapha) and will balance the pitta in the idly / dosa. (Please note that this does not apply if you spike your coconut chutney with an impossibly high amount of green chillies). Eating a fermented food with another pitta heavy dish like a Sambhar high in tamarind or acidic tomato based chutney will not be balanced.
In this there is obviously a gradation. Freshly fermented idlis are lower in pitta dosha than 3 day old batter. Batter made at home is obviously superior to something bought from outside, because we can guarantee that no other additives like baking soda have been added. Idlis eaten in cold winter season are better for the body compared to idlis eaten in summer.
This is because in winter, the heat of the Idlis through Pitta dosha is opposite to the cold produced by the winter – so the load on the body is less. But an idly eaten is summer is far more stimulating to Pitta dosha.
When you are suffering from an intense imbalance of Pitta dosha, eating an idly everyday for breakfast can throw you out of gear and is not advisable. The key, as always is finding balance.
Example 2: Raw foods are considered “lekhaniya” (scraping quality), and depending upon what kind of raw foods we are describing, they may be “rooksha” (dry), rough, and “guru” or difficult to digest.
An example of a “guru” raw food is raw beetroot. An example of a “rooksha” and “guru” raw food are raw sprouts. From a western, raw food perspective, eating raw food is considered healthy as we get access to many nutrients, vitamins and minerals that are destroyed when cooking. So eating the raw food as a juice, smoothie or as a salad is considered health boosting.
Ayurveda however says that the process of digesting this raw food dampens or weakens Agni, hence this food is not properly digested (especially when consumed in quantities that are much higher than what we are used to). So despite eating healthy foods, we could be increasing the ama in our body as the act of digesting this healthy food has weakened Agni.
Seasonal fruits and fruit juices are not necessarily a part of this list. But even here, temperance is advised – you cannot suddenly force the body to eat, digest properly and assimilate a very large quantity of fruit juice of fruit salad. Depending upon your constitution this can aggravate Agni, leading to diarrhoea, or leave you feeling sluggish and listless.
Example 3: Millets are now extremely popular across South India as a healthy replacement to rice. Ayurveda however considers many Millets as dry and difficult to digest, which makes sense as they are traditionally dry land crop. Substituting rice completely with Millets will mean that your vata dosha will increase. This is welcome if you have a health condition like diabetes where kapha dosha is high – so here the vata of the Millets will balance excess Kapha. In fact, millet is prescribed in diabetes for just this reason instead of rice. But if you have no such health conditions and have decided to substitute rice completely with Millets, you will be drying out your body, especially if you do this very suddenly.
The benefits of Millets must of course be experienced by you. But this should form a part of your experimentative 10% and must be prepared using the correct format and in doses where your body does not rebel or where other symptoms like aggravated vata dosha develop.
Here are some of the ways you can experiment with Millets:
Changing the format of the cereal changes how your body digests it – In millets, flour is easier to digest as you have broken down the cereal physically and are not depending upon your digestive system to do this job. So if you would like to introduce Millets into your diet, perhaps Millet flour is a better first step instead of the millet grains.
The timing of eating is everything, especially for a difficult to digest food. Noon time, when the sun is at its peak, is considered the time when your digestive system is the strongest. So this is the time your body can handle the rigors of digesting a difficult to digest food. Like millets. OR Quinoa. (After preparing it properly).
This list which I have compiled is by no means complete or a prescription in itself. This merely represents a starting point to think about your diet and your health. As with everything, your body and your health are unique and what works for you is something you will have to evolve with time and experimentation.
Part 2 of this post will tackle more of what Ayurveda says about food. In the meantime, do remember, there are no shortcuts to good health and good looking skin and hair. It is built meal by meal, and choice by choice.
Krya’s range of skin care products for pitta prone, normal to oily skin can be found here. Our skin range for vata prone, normal to dry skin can be found here. Our anti acne skin care products can be found here. Apart from this, we have a range of products for Sensitive Skin (skin that is eczema, dermatitis & psoriasis prone) and for Sun Tanned skin . We also have a large range of Abhyanga-Snana products.
Our products are inspired by Ayurveda. completely natural, toxin free and extremely effective. If you would like help choosing the right Krya product for your skin, please call us (075500-89090) or write to us.