Eating is a therapeutic tool that most of us take lightly. Some simple principles should be taken into consideration and applied to what you eat before actually changing the food you eat. These concepts, coming from Āyurveda*, are simple and have existed forever. But a few or many of us do not follow them because we often don’t think or pay attention, or we are looking too much on the micro-level of nutrition.
* you can read about Āyurveda here
Let us look at some basic Āyurvedic principles that you need to integrate.
State of food (raw or cooked)
Āyurveda advises that food should be consumed warm (i.e mostly cooked). It favours cooked food due to the pre-digestion that happens during the cooking process making it easier to digest. Cooked warm food supports the digestive capacity (agni) in the long term. Cooking food enhances digestibility that is why pulses (beans & vegetables) and grains are cooked. It also provides moist and light qualities to the food allowing it either to support or stimulate digestion.
Āyurveda states that raw foods are an important source of life force (prana) & enzymes, but require more metabolic energy to digest. Even though it favours cooked food, raw food also has its own place in Āyurveda. Raw foods are recommended for specific conditions or constitution types depending on numerous internal and external factors like digestive capacity, seasons, body types etc. For example, a person living in a cold climate is advised to avoid raw foods, especially during winter whereas a person living in a warm/hot climate can include raw foods in their diet depending on certain factors.
A balance of different kinds of foods in the right quantity is what your body needs to stay healthy and function correctly. Eating too much impairs the power of digestion whereas eating the right amount as per your constitution keeps the digestive power (agni) balanced, giving you strength and preventing health issues.
But how much is good enough? Ayurveda advises filling your stomach at each meal with 1/3 solid, 1/3 liquid and keeping 1/3 empty so that the food can have the space to mix easily with the digestive juices without overstretching!
In the ancient texts of Ayurveda quality of food is not mentioned, this is normal because this problem is recent! But in today’s world, I feel that it is the most important principle to be considered seriously! The major problem with eating any kind of food today (especially animal products) is the level of environmental pollutants/chemicals in them. All of these pollutants end up in the food chain and eventually accumulate as toxins in our bodies.
Āyurveda considers the body as a progressive development of tissues in which one tissue nourishes the next one. This process of nourishment begins with food as the source of nutrition for tissues and the reproductive system being the last tissue to receive the transformed nourishment. If we consider this view then the digestion of bad quality food leads to the toxins finally getting logged in the reproductive tissues causing several diseases in the reproductive system, discomforts in women like PMS or menopause symptoms & infertility (in men & women)!
Hence choosing where your food comes from has a tremendous impact. Taking the step to buy organic is crucial, you can also try to buy local and understand how your food is grown & in what conditions. It is important to educate oneself concerning different organic labels.
Act of eating
Ayurveda clearly states that one should eat only after the previous meal is digested.
Imagine that you are cooking rice and it is almost halfway done and suddenly a friend comes in and would like to eat with you. Will you add more raw rice into the already cooked rice? No!
The same applies to our digestion: you do not give more food to your stomach while it is in the process of “cooking” (i.e. digesting) what it has already received. Eating between meals does not allow the stomach to digest correctly and move the food onto the next step. When you are always snacking or eating then your stomach is working ALL THE TIME, the intestines are processing continuously and they have no time to clean and rest! This causes poor assimilation of nutrients. The constant intake of food eventually breaks down the body’s ability to metabolise fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Once this happens then even if a person reduces food intake or goes on diet, he/she still continues to gain weight.
If the food is tasty & nourishing to the body and mind, then you do not need to snack. If you need to snack then your meals need to be adapted according to your body type, season & climate so that you feel nourished & satisfied.
According to Ayurveda, the body does not need more than three meals a day. This, however, does change slightly for each type of person according to his/her constitution, workload, environment & imbalances to correct.
Care should be taken to avoid foods with contradictory potency as they can lead to digestive issues like bloating, cramping, acidity etc. For example, drinking cold liquids like ice-cold water with a warm meal.
Most vegetables and grains go well together.
Avoid mixing different kinds of proteins as it is extremely hard to digest e.g meat with dairy.
And remember, fruits are best eaten alone either in between meals or at the start of a meal!
The intake of food should neither be too slow or too fast. Eating too slow, lingering around leads to a lack of satisfaction and we tend to eat more than required.
Eating your food too fast will fill your stomach but it will not satisfy the desire for food. This leads to overeating and obesity. When we eat too fast we do not taste the food, we are not satisfied, and we hamper the digestive process.
Ayurveda says to chew each mouthful 32 times before swallowing i.e. one chew for literally every tooth!
Mind & Environment
How you treat your food and yourself has a direct impact upon the digestion and assimilation of nutrients. The environment at home or work, your profession, your emotional state, your personal relationships, emotions can be the major cause of digestive disruptions.
Hence our basic attitude towards life is instrumental in overcoming any kind of health problems. It is all about the balance because eating the healthiest of foods and not liking it is disruptive to digestion and metabolism but giving excessive importance only to the pleasure of eating is equally disruptive.
Eating should be a conscious act & should provide joy because it is one of the greatest pleasures of life. By taking the above factors into consideration you are converting the food that you eat into a strong & effective therapeutic tool at the physical, mental, and spiritual level no matter what health system you choose to follow.