Ayurveda has long used diet as a principal means of creating health within the body and mind. Hundreds of years before Hippocrates instructed, “Let food be thy medicine,” Ayurveda defined principles for making that advice practical. Food selection, meal timing, and state of awareness during meals either increases ojas (vitality) or ama (toxicity). The following 10 rules will serve as a guide for tapping into the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda and using it to create health, vitality, and energy through food.
1. Select Foods for Your Dosha Type
Ayurveda maintains that each person has a unique mind-body constitution, known as a dosha. One’s current doshic imbalance, known as vikruiti, is a combination of two elements that are heightened within the physiology. By eating foods that decrease the heightened elements, harmony can be restored with the body. In general, the following Ayurvedic principles can be applied to selecting and preparing foods for the three doshas:
- The Vata dosha (air and space elements) is by nature cool, dry, light, and rough. Eating foods that counteract those characteristics creates balance. Persons with excess Vata energy will restore balance through foods that are warm (in terms of both temperature and spice), hydrating (such as soups and stews), full of healthy fats (like olive oil, ghee, organic cream, and avocados), and grounding (think dense, healthy comfort foods).
- The Pitta dosha (fire and water elements) tends toward hot, oily, light, and sharp qualities. Therefore, eating foods that are cool (especially in terms of internal cooling such as is seen with peppermint, cucumber, cilantro, and parsley), astringent (beans, legumes, pomegranate, and green tea), substantial, and mild will minimize the aggravation of the Pitta.
- The Kapha dosha (earth and water elements) expresses as heavy, cool, oily, and smooth qualities. Eating foods that are light, warm, dry (like beans and popcorn) and rough (think “roughage” such as vegetables) will have Kapha back in balance in no time.
2. Eliminate Snacks
According to Ayurvedic principles, there are three stages of digestion that must be completed after a meal. In the first hour after a meal, the Kapha energies are dominant. The body may feel full, heavy, and sedate. Two to four hours after a meal the elements of Pitta govern digestion. During this time, hydrochloric acid increases, internal heat rises, and the meal is transformed into sustenance for the body. Four to five hours after a meal the Vata energies rise. It is during this time that lightness and space return and appetite increases.
Interruption of the digestive cycle with more food leads to incomplete digestion. Over time, incomplete digestion results in the accumulation of ama or toxins, which may present as a plethora of mild to moderate symptoms. For this reason, Ayurveda recommends three meals each day, with no snacks in between to maintain digestion and keep your stomach stress-free.
3. Eat Until Satisfied, Not Full
Imagine that your stomach is a gas gauge with numbers from one to ten. On that gauge, the number one is completely empty and ten is overly full. You want to eat when you get to a two and stop when you get to a seven. Eating before you get to a two puts you at risk of interrupting the digestive cycle. Eating past a seven diverts an enormous amount of energy from important physiological tasks.
Aside from the obvious consequence of weight gain, overeating increases free radical production in the body, which in turn speeds the aging process. By setting down the fork when you are satisfied, but not stuffed, you avoid overeating and the body receives the nourishment that it needs without the added burden of digesting, and oftentimes storing, unnecessary calories.
4. Consume Whole, Fresh Foods
Prana—not food itself, but your life force—nourishes the body at the most fundamental level and is responsible for the creation of health, vitality, and energy. The various elements of food, such as the vitamin, mineral, and phytonutrient contents are merely reflections of the energetic, or pranic, imprint.
According to the Ayurveda diet, the best way to increase ojas, the supplier of life force in the body, is to increase prana. Foods with abundant prana come straight from the Earth. Their prana has been derived through the mingling of sunshine, water, and earth energies. The moment food is picked, its prana begins slowly diminishing. Therefore, eating foods that are as fresh as possible will increase prana more readily than eating the same foods further from their harvest time. Local community support agriculture and farmer’s markets are invaluable resources for finding fresh foods with high life force.
5. Include All Six Tastes at Every Meal
Ayurveda recognizes six tastes, each of which communicates a unique combination of energy and information to the physiology. By incorporating each of the six tastes into every meal, the body receives a bio-diverse energetic palate. This energetic palate supplies the body’s cells with instructions specific to one of the taste categories. In general, the six tastes inform the body with the following cellular information:
- Sweet: Grounding, strengthening, nourishing
- Sour: Cleansing, purifying
- Salty: Balancing, regulating
- Bitter: Detoxifying, mineralizing
- Astringent: Anti-inflammatory, cooling
- Pungent: Warming, stimulating
Try to include a small amount of each taste into every meal. It may be only a pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon, or a slice of pepper but as long as the taste is present, the energetic puzzle will be complete.
6. Reduce Ice Cold Foods and Beverages
The inner fire, known as agni, is the digestive power of the physical and energetic body. Agni is similar to a blazing campfire. Ideally functioning, it is hot, bright, and able to digest food, thoughts, emotions, and experiences. To stoke one’s inner fire, it is necessary to avoid dimming agni’s intensity with ice-cold foods and beverages. The agni of all doshas can become depleted if a steady stream of cold food or drinks is consumed. Vata and Kapha doshas, in particular, should lean toward warm foods and teas, while Pitta doshas may enjoy cool (but not frozen) beverages and foods. In this way, the digestive power will remain strong.
7. Eliminate Distractions While Eating
How many times have you read a book, watched TV, checked emails, or returned phone calls while eating? If you’re like most people, the answer is, “Quite a few.” The Ayurveda diet suggests that mealtime is an opportunity to connect with the inherent energy and information of the food you consume. See the colors, taste the flavors, and bring awareness to the sunshine, soil, and earth that have collaborated to create the bundles of energy of food.
If eating with deep awareness is new to you, begin by taking just one meal a day in silence and focusing on each of your senses for a few minutes at a time.
8. Stop Eating Three Hours Before Bedtime
During sleep, the body repairs, heals, and restores while the mind digests thoughts, emotions, and experiences from the day. If the body’s energy is diverted into physical digestion, the physical healing and mental digestive processes are halted. For this reason, Ayurveda medicine recommends that the last meal of the day be relatively light and completed three hours before bed to avoid this imbalance. In this way, the body’s prana is free to do its rest and repair work at the deepest levels during sleep.
9. Favor Herbal Teas Between Meals
Tea is not just a palate-pleasing beverage, it is also a powerful healer that can aid in restoring health, vitality, and joy. To avoid diluting agni, beverages, including teas, should be minimally consumed with meals (no more than 1/2 cup). However, between meals, teas can be enjoyed liberally and act as herbal remedies. Drinking tea between meals pumps the body full of “liquid medicine,” curbs snack cravings, facilities detoxification, and stokes the digestive fire.
Vata doshas will find grounding and calmness in warm, spicy teas such as cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Pittas, who can take their tea either hot or cool, will find cooling herbs such as peppermint, coriander, and rose to be balancing. Kaphas will increase energy, digestion, and optimism with licorice, black pepper, and cardamom.
10. Eat Your Largest Meal of the Day at Lunchtime
Agni is strongest when the sun is highest. By consuming the largest meal of the day at noon, the body is able to use its powerful inner fire to breakdown and assimilate nutrients with less energetic output than at other times of the day. The noon meal is the best time of the day to integrate heavier or difficult-to-digest foods. This is also the most ideal time for a splurge food (think an icy drink or sugary treat). By eating the largest meal at midday, the body remains well supplied with energy throughout the afternoon hours, thus helping to alleviate the “afternoon energy slump.”
Each of these ancient Ayurvedic rules will help you remain healthy not only by virtue of the food you are eating but how you eat it. And don’t forget to take your time to enjoy your meals and be grateful for the foods you eat along the way.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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