In this article I have collected under 10 categories the heart of Ayurvedic Nutrition.
1. EAT WITH AWARENESS, EAT “ART-FULLY”
Be mindful during the experience of eating, the rest will follow naturally if you have curiosity, openness, and patience.
Awareness Reveals Taste (ART). Tasting fully will make you feel glad to be alive, fully.
Eating and drinking offer a rich sensory experience. Bring enjoyment of food to the foreground by focussing on the direct experience of eating. Focus on the sounds, textures, tastes, colours, flavours of each bite of food taken.
At birth, we are programmed to enjoy food. Many of us have learned to direct attention away from the fullness of the sensory experience of eating food in favour for other distractions (conversation, work, entertainment). Doing so deprives us of the subtle aspects of nutrition, and in time, leads to eating disorders and digestive problems.
Our innate capacity to derive full pleasure from eating and drinking can become chronically distorted for many reasons. We can usually benefit from directing more attention to the act of eating. Most of the following suggestions will themselves serve to heighten our attention on the act of eating. Immediate results will be noticed. Making a commitment to be fully present for the act of eating will transform your relationship to food. This, in turn, will heal you, from plate to soul.
“Eat ART-fully (Awareness Reveals Taste) ”
- Eyes closed. Eat while being as present as you can on the direct sensory aspects of the encounter with your food and drink. Eat with your eyes closed or while wearing a blindfold. This requires organisation. It will seem weird at first. Persevere and be open to what comes up both mentally and physically.
2. ENJOY! FOOD IS PLEASURE
Food and drink are the givers of life. They sustain us. Our body is literally built from the foods and drinks we consume. Our bodies are designed to love foods and drinks.
Healthy people love their food. They experience many kinds of pleasure while eating. Food can be intensely pleasurable, orgasmic for some. It can be both stimulating, enlivening as well as reassuring and grounding.
In order to benefit from the full spectrum of enjoyment that food and drink offer, you may need to use techniques that remove physical and mental blocks that you may have acquired along the way.
A prerequisite to enjoying food is to have a positive attitude towards it. Check in with your mindset towards food. Is it an opportunity to experience sensual pleasure, or more of an inconvenience? Do you think of food as the sustainer of your body or is it just a form of fuel? If the latter is the case, do what you can to think your way back to a positive attitude towards food. Read books or attend workshops that help you figure out why you see food the way you do.
We all deserve the experience of sensory pleasure. It is a natural part of being a healthy human being. Some ideologies, religions, upbringings teach us to downplay or relinquish worldly pleasures (such as those related to food and sex) in favour of purer forms of ecstasy (such as the inner bliss or peace that comes from prayer or meditative practices). What’s to say both aren’t possible? An integral approach to life allows us to transcend and include. Ayurveda is most certainly aligned with this latter ethic. So no matter what your past, open up to a fuller possibility, one that invites awareness, opportunity and gratitude to the table. Allow yourself to indulge whilst remaining fully present. Express to those in your company the pleasures of eating with generous sounds and gestures of appreciation. See how infectious and beneficial this art of enjoyment becomes. It’s never too late to enjoy life to the full.
“Food plus presence equals pleasure for ever”
- Find the foods you love the most and allow yourself permission to eat them with uninterrupted awareness. Keep a diary of what comes to mind while doing this. Be prepared to discover things about your attitude towards food. Allow your findings to steer you towards foods that produce good sensations, pleasure, as well as a healthy mindset. It is hard to eat empty or junk foods once this practice has become integrated.
3. CHEW CHEW CHEW
Many of us eat food in a hurry, whilst on the go or while working. Excuses abound. A great way to heighten the enjoyment of food as well as improve digestion by as much as 90% is to chew foods thoroughly.
Ayurveda proposes that for a normal mouthful of solid food we should make at least 30 mastications (approximately x1 per tooth).
If you know you have a weak or sluggish digestion, or regularly suffer from indigestion, Ayurveda advises you make between 45 and 60 mastications per mouthful.
If you are new to this practice, it will seem difficult at first, perhaps unpleasant. Be patient, you will get used to it.
The idea is that food should be almost completely puréed before swallowing. This advice is especially important for plant based foods.
We should also explore how we ingest beverages. Even though it is possible to quickly swallow liquids, we ought to allow more time to mix drinks with saliva (especially if they contain fruits or vegetables).
“Drink your foods, eat your drinks”
“Stay you, stay young, chew chew until you’re done!”
- At the start of each meal, play “chew & count” for the first three mouthfuls. Notice how many mastications you take. Experiment with chewing more, until the mouthful of food is totally liquefied. Repeat this throughout your meal. If you are forgetful, use a smart phone to set 3-minute reminders. Soon a new habit will form.
4. SLOW DOWN
Eating should not be reduced to a simple refuelling mission. Slowing down while eating is related to the above (chewing food adequately). It is vital that we learn to eat food slowly. Rushing the meal will cause us to under-chew each mouthful. This is the primary cause of acute and chronic indigestion and digestive diseases. Slowing down is only possible if we bring awareness to eating and change our attitude towards food.
“Eat slowly, age slowly”
- Put your fork or spoon down as soon as you have taken a mouthful. Wait until you have thoroughly chewed, fully experienced the current mouthful. Swallow with awareness. Try and feel the food as it travels down towards your stomach. Notice how each mouthful feels. Notice changes in your body as you eat. Feelings like satisfaction, calm, groundedness, warmth, etc. Only when you have given some attention to each swallowed mouthful will you prepare the next one. In this way, eating slows down and becomes increasingly pleasurable.
- Switch hands! If you normally hold your fork in your left hand and knife in your right, switch them around. This will force you to slow down and bring more awareness to the act of eating.
5. TRADE QUANTITY FOR QUALITY
Aside from eating with awareness, an attitude of pleasure, chewing adequately and eating slowly, the next most important issues to address are quantity and quality.
If you are living in modern society, chances are you eat too much and too often. You probably also eat foods that are of lower quality than ideal. High quantity plus lower quality equals poor nutrition.
The digestive system was designed to benefit from short daily phases of micro-fasting, i.e. going hungry for a few minutes between meals. During these empty phases, the digestive system performs essential cleaning procedures. Failing to give the digestive process adequate time for this house keeping leads to digestive imbalances. Symptoms creep up very slowly, the initial stages go mostly unnoticed unless you are tuned into your body. Years go by and the gut gradually becomes sluggish, grumpy then irritable. Disease follows.
The UK serving sizes (as well as sizes of bowls and plates) have increased by 30% in the last 20 or so years.
Much could be said about quantity and quality. But as a general rule, before we become interested in the specific foods that might be more or less suited to our body types and lifestyles, we should first make a concerted effort to improve the quality of our diet and to eat as little as possible so as to maintain a healthy gut, body weight etc. A sensible use of natural dietary supplements (herbs, some superfoods etc) would form a part of this vision of high-quality foods.
Ayurveda observes that when food is balanced according to body type, age, lifestyle etc, we should be able to gauge the amount we take at each main meal using the ‘fist rule’. It states that the total volume of solid and liquid intake per normal meal should equal one-and-a-half fists worth in total. The unit of measurement is the volume of one of your fists. The general rule is to take 1 fist of solids, 1/2 fist of liquid and 1/2 fist worth left for empty space. The empty space is needed to allow for efficient mixing of stomach contents. This approach works well for most people who have a high quality and balanced diet. Poor quality foods (fast foods, refined foods, poorly adjusted foods not suited to your body type) will not suffice and you will feel hungry or undernourished which will lead to snacking or other forms of nutritional compensation.
“Quality not quantity”
“The first half of your plate feeds me, the second half feeds my doctor!”
- Eat fresh, non-refined wholefoods, organic where possible.
- Use smaller bowls and plates to make smaller servings possible or deliberately leave 30% of your plate empty.
- Don’t go for seconds.
- Use the ‘burp rule’: stop eating when you notice your first burp after eating has begun (requires that you sit still, chew well, eat slow, and don’t swallow too much air as you eat).
- Gauge portion sizes using the ‘fist rule’ (see above).
- Pause frequently during main meals. Place a hand over your stomach area and feel into your tummy. Learn to notice different levels of fullness and satiation. Explore eating more or less than usual and notice how your stomach feels.
- Self-awareness and motivation are required for all of these practices. If you are forgetful, use an alarm or smart phone to remind you to practice every 3 minutes whilst eating.
- Experiement with fasting. Ayurveda reccomends a day long fast for healthy adults on a weekly to monthly basis depending on body type (V and VP types monthly; P types fortnightly; PK and K and VPK types weekly). On fast days, drink warm to hot liquids, either water or minimally nourishing fruit juices, vegetable soups or cereal gruels. The moddern science of intermittant fasting has come into fashion and closely resembles the traditional Ayurvedic approach. Longer fasts are useful during season changes or for treatment of diseases.
6. TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE
According to Ayurveda, your digestive capacity varies according to time. The easiest way to think of it is like this: your digestive capacity is like a fire. We call it Agni in Ayurveda. Agni follows the sun: it is weak upon rising, builds to a peak at about midday, then tails off into the afternoon. Typically, Agni is weak to moderate at breakfast time, strong at midday, then weak to moderate at dinner time. Variations exist according to body type, climate and cultural conditioning.
As a general rule, Ayurveda recommends that in order to benefit from the natural cycle of Agni (digestive capacity) we should organise our eating schedule so as to eat our most nourishing (heavier to digest) foods sometime approximately between mid morning and midday.
The old English saying “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper” has sense to it according to Ayurvedic logic.
I know many people, especially those who have a heavier body type, who do best by eating one heavier meal around 11 am followed by a second lighter meal around 4 pm. If needed, they take a nourishing drink later in the day, an hour or so before bedtime.
I have a lighter faster body type. Depending on my energy output, I do best with a light to moderate breakfast around 9 am, a moderate to heavy lunch at 1 pm followed by a moderate to light dinner around 6-7 pm. If I am giving out more energy I need to eat a snack between lunch and dinner.
Many modern cultures have changed their traditional habits in favour of a fast on the snack for lunch then a late main meal for dinner. While this makes sense from the point of view of work flow, it doesn’t fit in very well with the needs of the body and its innate circadian rhythms (cycle of Agni).
Clinical experience has taught me that even in the southern European climate where dinner is served late, changes according to the Ayurvedic model bring reliable and excellent results, especially for weight management and general digestive health.
Mantra: “Main meal at midday. Dine light, you’ll feel right”
- Eat as small a breakfast as possible to keep you going until noon. Some people need nothing or a little fruit.
- Eat your main meal at noon or as close to noon as possible. This is the best time of day to eat heavier foods (dairy, eggs, fish, meat).
- Eat dinner as early as possible (6-7 pm) and keep it light. A cooked vegetarian meal is best. Avoid cheese and yoghurts as they clog the channels of circulation when eaten later in the day.
7. DRINK WISELY
Drink freely according to thirst outside of meals. Avoid drinking more than one small tea cups worth of liquid around meal times (15 minutes either side of eating).
Large amounts of liquids taken with meals will dilute, weaken or disturb digestion.
Worst of all is ice cold beverages which considerably slow down and overburden the digestive process.
If you are in a hot climate, it is best to cool off before eating rather than taking cold refreshing drinks right before or after meals. In fact, according to Ayurveda, in very hot climates, Agni (digestive fire) in the tummy is weakened (it moves to the skin to cope with peripheral heat management and digestion of light and heat). As a consequence, digestion is weakened (notice you are less hungry during hot summer days). Drinking cold drinks at meal times at this time will further weaken digestion. This is why in hot climates where hunger is weakened due to heat, we must support digestion by drinking small amounts of slightly spicy warm infusions at meals times. Examples would be mint or ginger tea. A little sugar can be added for taste.
Mantra: “Eat when you eat. Drink when you drink. Don’t mix the two.”
- Try drinking a small cup of hot water or ginger root tea at meals times. Take a sip every now and then between mouthfuls. This is especially good for people with slow or erratic digestion or anyone suffering from chronic indigestion.
- Never drink a large ice cold beverage at the same time as a main meal. If you are parched and hot, drink something cool, get out of the heat, and leave at least 15 minutes before eating a main meal.
8. KNOW YOUR TYPE KNOW YOUR FOODS
Appropriate foods should be selected according to multiple factors including: your constitutional body-mind type, your current state of body-mind (deviations from your constitution are frequent), season and climate, age, lifestyle (and to some extent, sex).
Ayurveda has quite a detailed system of constitutional nutrition that covers this area, but other systems exist that offer a similar approach. For instance, the Blood Type Diet is one such approach. I prefer the Ayurvedic model for many reasons, most of all because it is very adaptable and intuitive once you have mastered the basics. Beware of one-type-fits-all diets. Note, while Ayurveda uses “diets” for punctual or acute situations, this is not what I am talking about here. This is a lifelong approach that is based on your body type and morphs as you age. It is not a diet nor a fad nor a regime. It is a way of life, one that suits your innate physical uniqueness.
Most Ayurvedic books for the general public treat this subject in adequate detail for health maintenance purposes. Three basic body types are defined, each with differing nutritional needs. Foods lists and menu plans are useful, to begin with. In most cases, a self-evaluation questionnaire can determine which type you are and how to proceed from there.
Here is a brief overview of the three primary types and how they should eat:
- Vata (Spacey Wind) types are dry, light and cold so should orient their food choices towards unctuous, grounding and heating foods. They do best with cooked, liquids foods. Raw foods are less well tolerated. Accentuate naturally bland-to-sweet, sour and salty foods while somewhat demphasising naturally bitter, astringent and spicy items.
- Pitta (Firey Fluid) types are slightly oily, light and hot so should look for foods that are neutrally unctuous, grounding and less heating. Cooked foods are best. Raw foods are well tolerated and helpful for their cooling nature. Accentuate naturally bland-to-sweet, bitter and astringent foods while somewhat demphasising naturally sour, salty and spicy items.
- Kapha (Watery Earth) types are oily, heavy and cold. They should seek foods that are somewhat dryer, light and heating in nature. Cooked foods are best. Raw foods are tolerated in moderation and helpful for their cleansing nature. Accentuate naturally bitter, astringent and spicy foods while somewhat demphasising naturally bland-to-sweet, sour and salty items.
There are also three mixed or double types (they need to follow mixed approaches):
- VP types are light and somewhat dry so need unctuous grounding foods. Accentuate naturally bland-to-sweet foods while demphasising spicy foods.
- PK types are oily and heavy so need to lean towards lighter and less oily foods. Accentuate naturally bitter and astringent foods while demphasising sour and salty foods.
- VK types are cold and otherwise balanced and so need to seek moderation in most respects besides choosing heating foods. Moderation in all tastes with accent on slightly increasing the heating tastes (sour, salty, spicy).
Finally, a balanced or triple type exists but is somewhat rare. These body types do best with a variety of tastes and foods. Moderation is the key here. Adjustments can be according to needs of the moment (season, age etc).
Some generalities are also given in the Ayurvedic literature. For example, certain foods are listed as being problematic when consumed regularly:
- Condensed (boiled down, thickened) milk
- Yoghurt and other fermented dairy produce
- Fermented gruel
- Uncooked reddish
- Meat of animals that are emaciated
- Dried meats
- Meat of pigs, boar, sheep, cow, buffalo and fish*
- Germinated grains
- Dried vegetables
- Half cooked molasses
(* meats of animals that dwell in desert like lands are considered more healthy for regular consumption)
Foods also affect the mind including awareness directly. In general, we can all benefit from increasing foods that promote clarity of mind and emotional harmony. According to Ayurveda and Yoga, foods belonging to the “Sattvic” group promote these qualities of mind. Books on Ayurveda usually mention them.
Sattvic foods are fresh, mostly plant based (though include naturally produced milk and ghee if the animals in question are treated kindly), mild to sweet in flavour and action (strong tasting foods and stimulants are not Sattvic). Most vegetables, cereals, nuts and seeds, fruits, raw honey, mild sugars, certain pulses, pure water, herbal teas and medicinal plants are considered to be Sattvic in nature.
Non-Sattvic foods belong to either the Rajas (stimulating, agitating) or Tamas (inertia producing) groups. Most animal-produce, as well as most modern processed foods, fall into one or both of these categories, as does alcohol and most recreational drugs including tobacco and cannabis.
By favouring Sattvic foods, we indirectly support our state of mind. No direct mental training or personal development is needed. The results are stable but require some time to become noticed. Normally, a considerable and rewarding change of mental state can be achieved within as little as 4 weeks. After 3 months, the effect has built up momentum.
Anyone wishing to support a healthy mental state or achieve emotional balance, whether it be for general health purposes or because you depend on increase clarity of mind for professional or personal reasons, Sattvic foods are a necessary component of daily nutrition. Find out more online or in books.
Certain foods when combined may be harder to digest than when taken alone. In addition, certain foods may digest more efficiently and with fewer chances of causing digestive upset when taken in a specific order during the meal.
The science of food combining dates back to ancient times yet persists to this day with several theories abound. The contemporary Hay’s Diet is one such approach. Modern food combining schools are generally very restrictive, as such, they may be quite useful for short term use where digestive imbalances are moderate to severe, but less applicable for life long approaches to nutrition.
Ayurveda gave some rules on food combining along with a list of worst case combinations to avoid:
- Melons and other foods (including other fruits)
- Fresh fruits with other foods
- Honey and ghee (if mixed in equal parts weight)
- Fish with milk, honey, sprouted grains, sugars
- Milk with any sour substances (including sour fruits)
- Green leafy vegetables followed by milk
- Many many other rules are specific to certain recipes and combinations of exotic meats, cereals and certain vegetables.
Further information is given in the classical Ayurvedic text explaining under which conditions these poor combinations will be tolerated and not cause disease. These conditions are as follows: you are habituated to physical exercise, used to consuming fatty foods, have strong digestive power, are an adult and considered to have good physical strength. Also, if you have consumed these incompatible foods for many years in small amounts, you will have probably built up a degree of tolerance.
Personally, with all these guidelines, I take them with a pinch of salt and a generous pinch of body awareness. I listen to my body while eating and in the hours that follow. I observe the wastes that leave my body. With this useful feedback, I can best gauge how to proceed amidst the various dos and don’ts.
10. MISCELLANEOUS ADDITIONAL GUIDELINES
On the whole, the Ayurvedic approach to nutrition aims to give the body a food who states is close to that of the formative tissue elements in the body. A statement is given in the classic texts which suggest that the majority of the foods we eat should be prepared so as to be:
- Easily digestible
- Predominantly liquid in state
- Containing all of the six tastes (primarily neutral-to-sweet but also: sour, salty, spicy, bitter, astringent)
Here are some additional conditions (some of which have already been covered are also listed. Foods should be:
- Taken at the appropriate time (i.e. when hungry)
- Ones that we are accustomed to
- Suited to health (as per previous points raised here)
- Eaten with attention to the act of eating
- Eaten neither very slowly or too quickly
- Taken after bathing or having washed face hands and feet
- Only eaten if there is good physical hunger
- Taken with due consideration to one’s constitution, likes and dislikes, current state, lifestyle etc.
- Eaten in solitude or in the company of people we like and who like us
- Prepared and served by people who are themselves clean, faithful and in other ways virtuous.
I like to resume the above guidelines into five subcategories (in order of importance):
- HOW I eat
- WHEN I eat
- WHAT I eat
- WHERE I eat
- WHO I eat with
- Eat with full awareness of the immediate direct sensory experience of eating
- Eat with an attitude of pleasure, abundance, enjoyment, comfort, bliss & gratitude
- Eat sitting down in a comfortable seated position
- Eat slowly, chewing food adequately (at least 30 mastications per mouthful)
- Eat so as to fill your stomach with about 1/2 solids, 1/4 liquid and 1/4 free space
- After eating, take a gentle stroll for 5 minutes then lay down on your left-hand side for a short digestive siesta (rest, don’t sleep). For many reasons, this improves digestion
- Eat only when you feel physically hungry (as a general rule)
- Eat at regular times of day (assuming you have a regular lifestyle)
- Eat when you are emotionally stable, calm, relaxed, undistracted
- Eat 2-4 main meals a day depending on your body type
- Eat main your most nourishing meal at lunchtime (or a late breakfast)
- Eat as early and as light as possible for dinner
- Eat foods that you like
- Eat whole-foods as opposed to refined, processed, industrial foods
- Eat foods that are clean and fresh
- Eat foods that are considered light to digest but wholesome
- Eat foods that are primarily unctuous, hot, semi-liquid
- Eat foods that provide all six basic taste categories (balanced according to body type etc)
- Eat foods that suit your body type (in terms of food categories, raw/cooked, etc)
- Eat foods that are considered compatible (at the same meal)
- Eat foods that you feel digest easily
- Eat foods that support your mental state (Sattvic foods are generally best)
- Eat foods that you are accustomed to eating
- Eat foods during a meal in the correct order (sweat and heavy followed by sour, salty, spicy, bitter and astringent)
- Eat foods that are adapted to the climate, season, as well as you age and lifestyle
- Eat foods in an environment that is conducive to focussing on the act of eating (calm, pleasing etc)
- Eat foods in an environment that feels safe and comfortable
- Eat foods in solitude or in the company of people who you like and who like you