Over 2500 years ago the Ayurvedic sage Charaka laid down ten fundamental principles for healthy eating. At that time there were no over-the-counter digestive aids to counteract the negative effects of an imbalanced meal. As a result, proper nutrition was revered as the main source of disease prevention and longevity.
We have outlined Charaka’s ten precepts here, modifying and elaborating upon them to suit modern times.
Allowing for some empty space provides room for the food to be churned in preparation for digestion. Students often ask us how you know that you have one-quarter of empty space in your stomach. The exact ratio is not important; what matters most is that you stop consuming before you feel overly full. This requires tuning into our bodies and eating for nutrition, rather than indulging every craving that arises.
According to Ayurveda, cooked or semi-cooked foods are already partially digested and therefore require less energy to fully digest. For this reason, warm, prepared foods such as stews, soups, or sauces are generally preferred to raw foods. This nutritional principle is shared throughout much of the Asian world, where eating a salad or cold sandwich is often met with curiosity and disbelief. Simmering foods in spices and combining compatible food types generally increases overall digestibility and nutritional value.
One of the greatest challenges of eating Ayurvedically today is the omnipresent supply of canned, frozen, freeze-dried, genetically modified, processed, preserved, and hormone- and pesticide-laden foods. All of these procedures drain food products of their natural levels of prana, the subtle life force that provides us with energy, vitality, and general well-being. Stale, leftover foods also contain lower levels of prana. As much as possible, use fresh, organic produce in cooking and regularly restock your cupboards with whole grains, spices, and legumes. Choose whole grains over refined products, such as white flours and sugars.
Ayurveda believes that every morsel of food that we consume is a sacred offering from Mother Nature. For this reason, eating is considered a sanctified ritual that requires our full awareness. If we do not pay attention while eating, our bodies will not pay attention while digesting. Every bite should be chewed thoroughly to activate the digestive enzymes in our saliva in preparation for digestion. Create a peaceful environment for eating in your home, a place where you will be undisturbed by television, radio, or excessive chatter. When possible, try eating in silence and begin your meal with a prayer.
Many of us have access to an assortment of restaurants with delicious fare from all over the world. While this is certainly appealing in many ways, Ayurveda recommends eating the majority of our meals at home. Restaurants cater to a mass audience and are usually forced to rely on canned, frozen, and preserved ingredients that contain high quantities of salt and fat. Perhaps most importantly, restaurant foods are made for commercial reasons and therefore lack the intention of home-cooked meals prepared in a loving and nurturing environment.
Food is best eaten on an empty stomach, after your last meal has been digested. Ayurveda advises a period of four to six hours between meals and as little snacking as possible. Fruits are an ideal snack for all three doshas, and vatas can indulge in light snacking to sustain their variable energy. Wait at least two hours after a meal before either sleeping or exercising.
As a general rule, foods should work together; they should not contradict one another in their actions. Avoid combining foods with widely divergent properties—for example, do not combine cold foods with hot foods or light foods with heavy foods. The combination of raw foods and cooked foods is avoided in Ayurveda.
According to Ayurveda, animal flesh is considered difficult to digest; it is heavy, and so is tamasic in nature. Animals are imbued with their own consciousness and karmic energy. We ingest that energy when we eat meat. When we eat meat, we are consuming the fear that is felt by animals pent up in cages and waiting for slaughter. We are also consuming the high levels of hormones and antibiotics pumped into their systems. Ayurveda follows the Vedic tradition of ahimsa, the avoidance of harming any living creature. Except for rare cases of debilitation, Ayurveda prescribes a vegetarian diet for all healthy individuals.
Water should be sipped in small quantities during your meal, but never directly before or after your meal, as this will lower the digestive fire of agni. Another tip for keeping your agni burning high is to avoid ice, which puts out the digestive fire. As Dr. Vasant Lad says in his Ayurvedic training courses, “ice is not nice!” Water should be consumed regularly throughout the day, not gulped down in large quantities. Vatas require the most amount of daily water intake (seven to ten glasses), pittas are in the middle (five to six glasses), and kaphas require the least amount (four to five glasses).
A final principle of Ayurvedic nutrition is to avoid eating after sunset. This can be quite difficult to accomplish in the winter season, especially in the north, where it gets dark by 4 pm, but we should generally avoid eating heavy meals late at night. Consuming large meals before going to sleep creates a sluggish digestive system and increases mucous in the body.
According to Ayurveda, you should eat foods that are nourishing for your particular constitution and that suit your mental and emotional temperament. Every food item that we put into our mouths is endowed with certain qualities, which can be used to either balance or disrupt our doshic makeup.
Following the simple but sage rule of thumb that opposites heal each other, Ayurveda uses nutrition to counterbalance doshic imbalances. For example, if you are a red-headed, feisty pitta, you should avoid foods that increase your fiery temperament—foods such as chili peppers, garlic, raw onions, and deep-fried foods. Cooling, calming foods, such as sweet fruits, fresh greens, basmati rice, and dairy products, would be more suitable.
This easy, straightforward approach to nutrition forces us to become aware of the qualities and content of the foods that we are consuming. You will be surprised at how customizing your diet according to your doshic type can provide comfort and lead to a stronger and overall better digestive system.
In order to gain an understanding of how to eat for your constitution, let’s look at the general nutritional approach for each dosha. If you are a dual or triple type, you would follow dietary recommendations in order to calm the dosha that you feel is causing the most imbalance in your body.
Persons of a vata nature should follow a diet that is moist, calming, warming, and highly nourishing. These qualities counterbalance the cool, dry, airlike mobility that causes vata individuals to feel ungrounded, nervous, and cold. Well-cooked whole grains with root vegetable stews and lightly spiced curries and sauces help to ground and stabilize vata. Basmati rice, brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, and wheat pastas are excellent, as are well-cooked split mung beans and soy beans. Moderate amounts of spices that warm the body and aid digestion should be used, including cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, and black pepper.
For vatas, food should be moistening, with plenty of oil or ghee to aid digestion and lubricate the skin and the internal organs. Most dairy and soy products are grounding for vata, as are sweet and sour fruits. Of all the doshas, vatas require the most healthy fats to build up the body, which can be acquired in the form of oils, nuts, avocados, and dairy products, and in organic meats for non-vegetarians. Cold, raw, and greasy foods aggravate the sensitive vata digestion, as does any form of fast food or junk food.
Meals should be small and frequent, but regular and taken in a calming environment without external stimulation. Meals should not be eaten when a vata person is excessively worried, nervous, or afraid, as this will only cause further imbalance. The recommended tastes for vata include sweet, sour, and mildly salty, with a moderate use of pungent spices.
The recommended guidelines of nutrition in Ayurveda are scientifically designed according to the system of the six tastes, or the rasas, of sweet, salty, sour, astringent, pungent, and bitter. Rasa is a Sanskrit word with many meanings. In addition to taste, rasa refers to plasma, the first of the seven bodily tissues that feeds all the other tissues. Rasa also means “emotion,” reflecting the Ayurvedic belief that our mental state is directly connected to the food that we consume. We are what we eat—on a physical, mental, and spiritual level.
Let us now review each of the six tastes in more detail to gain a clearer understanding of the reasoning behind the dietary choices recommended by Ayurveda.
The majority of the food that we consume has a sweet rasa; some researchers put the figure as high as 70 to 75 percent. This does not refer to the sugary sweet taste we often think of in the West. The sweet rasa is the natural, wholesome sweetness of fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed grains. The sweet rasa operates as a staple taste of nourishment, creation, and growth. It enhances the bodily forces of immunity, strength, and vitality, or ojas. Sweetness is critical during childhood, while the body is undergoing rapid growth and development. The sweet taste, in moderation, encourages proper functioning of the senses, improves the complexion, relieves burning sensations, promotes healthy tissue growth, and enhances an overall sweetness of the mind.
The sweet rasa is composed of earth and water, which makes it similar to the kapha dosha in many ways. Like kapha, the sweet taste is very heavy and wet. It is neutral in temperature and can be cooling or heating, depending on the specific food product. For example, honey and maple syrup are both sweet in taste, but maple syrup is more cooling while honey is heating. Due to its similarity with kapha, the sweet taste tends to increase kapha and reduce vata and pitta.
Examples of foods carrying the sweet rasa include most dairy products, particularly milk, soft cheeses, ghee, butter, and ice cream. Most fruits and vegetables are sweet, as are the majority of grains, including rice, wheat, bran, and oats. Legumes and beans are sweet, as are most animal products, including red meat, poultry, and eggs.
This taste is related to the natural saltiness that occurs in sea salt, mineral salt, rock salt, soy sauce, seafood, and seaweed. According to Ayurveda, mineral rock salt is highly recommended, as it contains many minerals in addition to sodium.
The salty rasa, made up of water and fire, shares many qualities with pitta. Like pitta, the salty taste is heating and moist in nature. The salty rasa softens the bodily tissues and promotes waste elimination, but in excess it can lead to water retention and bloating. Salt is anti-flatulent, provides muscle strength, and stimulates salivation, which aids in digestion and absorption. The salty taste has a soothing effect on vata, but it can increase pitta and kapha.
The sour rasa is composed of earth and fire, making it a stabilizing and heating taste. Sour tastes tend to be oily and liquid in nature; they stimulate metabolism. The acidic quality of sour stimulates the secretion of digestive enzymes and eliminates congestion. However, in excess sour dries the membranes and can lead to hyperacidity, heartburn, acid indigestion, or diarrhea in pitta types. While sour can increase pitta and kapha, it is very balancing for vata, but it should be taken in small doses due to its powerful effect.
The sour rasa is found in sour fruits such as grapefruit, oranges, mangos, lemons, limes, and green grapes. Tomatoes, vinegar, yogurt, sour cream, cheese, and fermented foods such as miso are further examples of the sour rasa. This taste is known for improving appetite and aiding with digestion and waste elimination.
The astringent rasa is composed of the air and earth elements; it is cooling, drying, and heavy in nature. This taste is anti-inflammatory, decongestive, and fat reducing. It is useful for binding the stool in cases of diarrhea and blood clotting. In excess, the astringent rasa can cause dryness in various parts of the body that manifest as constipation, infertility, emaciation, and dryness in the mouth or throat. The astringent rasa is beneficial for drying out kapha and cooling down pitta, but can aggravate vata due to its light and dry qualities.
Examples of foods containing the astringent rasa include raw vegetables, sprouts, bell peppers, broccoli, plantains, green beans, celery, and leafy greens such as lettuce, bok choy, and spinach. Astringent can also be found in fruits such as apples, pomegranates, unripe bananas, and berries. Many dried legumes are astringent, such as chick peas, lentils, and split peas. Herbal, black, and green teas are astringent, as are some spices, including turmeric, nutmeg, poppy seeds, and sage.
The pungent rasa contains the fire and air elements, and is therefore hot, light, and dry in nature. These are qualities very much needed by kapha types, who are cool, heavy, and wet. In moderation, the pungent rasa kindles the digestive fire of agni and promotes proper absorption. Pungent also increases circulation and clears stagnation in the body as it appears in the form of congestion, blood clots, or excess fat. In abundance, the pungent rasa can lead to diarrhea, heartburn, ulcers, insomnia, inflammation, and irritability.
Pungent is especially beneficial for kaphas and can be taken by vatas in moderation. The heating, light qualities of pungent aggravates pitta types.
The pungent taste is found in much of our favorite cooking ingredients, such as chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and onions. Many spices are pungent in nature such as black pepper, mustard, bay leaf, oregano, and cayenne. Some vegetables with the pungent taste include radish, mustard greens, beets (raw), carrots, parsley, spinach, Swiss chard, turnips, and cabbage.
Like the vata dosha, bitter is made up of the air and ether elements, making it cold, dry, and light in nature. The bitter rasa has anti-inflammatory qualities, and it purifies toxins and reduces fat in the body, but excessive consumption of this rasa can cause extreme dryness, emaciation, and fatigue. The bitter rasa has a neutralizing effect on the senses, reducing excessive cravings and urges—bitter is used by spiritual celibates in India to reduce sexual energies.
Following the Ayurvedic rule of thumb that like increases like, the bitter taste increases vata in the body and should therefore be avoided by most vata individuals. Its cool properties pacify pitta and its dryness reduces kapha.
Bitter is the least common taste available in the Western diet, perhaps due to its neutralizing and unstimulating effects. Some examples of bitter vegetables now available in the West include bitter melon, bitter gourd, rapine, radicchio, bitter cucumber, and dandelion root. Bitter is also found in coffee and aloe vera and in some uncommon herbs, such as yellow dock, sandalwood, neem, turmeric, and fenugreek.
In order to effectively integrate Ayurveda into our daily diet, we must have the proper working space with all of the necessary tools and ingredients. Below you will find seven practical steps that will help you transform your kitchen into a sacred Ayurvedic space.
Spices have a shelf life of about six to twelve months, after which time they begin to lessen in taste and medicinal value. For this reason it is advisable to purchase spices in small quantities. If you have the time you can roast the seeds and grind them yourself.
Here are the spices you will find most useful:
Here are some items that you might want to have in your pantry or accessible at a local market:
Ayurveda believes that frozen and canned foods are considered to be less nutritional and lacking in prana. As much as possible, remove all frozen, canned, preserved, and processed foods from your kitchen. In general, frozen foods are preferred to canned items, but they are still a distant second to freshly prepared foods. Prepared, frozen, or canned meals are low in prana and tend to contain high levels of sodium and artificial ingredients.
Due to the increased use of pesticides and hormones in our foods, it is advisable to use organic products when possible, especially when using soy and dairy products, and meats. Use naturally processed oils, rather than hydrogenated or commercial brands, and produce that is seasonal and organic.
Replace the grains in your diet with whole grain items such as whole wheat bread, cereal, or pasta, brown rice, or whole grain oatmeal. Other healthy options include cracked wheat bulgur or buckwheat, whole wheat couscous, and whole grain corn, rye, or barley. This wholesome approach to eating also grounds and calms the mind, benefiting all three doshas.
In India, the majority of Ayurvedic cooking is done with a few simple pots and pans. Some tools that are helpful for more advanced recipes are the following:
Food absorbs the vibrations created during the preparation of the meal, which then enter our bodies during the digestion process. The quality of the food is greatly enhanced by loving attention—from how the vegetables are cut to how the spices are ground and carefully added. What results is a prasad, a holy offering to the divine.
The intention and energy within a kitchen is an important invisible ingredient to the food we consume. You can establish a calm, pleasant atmosphere by bringing your full attention to what you are doing and proceeding with patience, care, and love. You may want to play harmonious music or recite a chant as you cook. In many traditions, a small sacred space is created in the kitchen where a small portion of the meal is offered to the divine spirit.