Ayuvedic tips on eating habits

What to Eat? How to Eat?

Ayurveda explains the role of food in maintenance of vigorous health. There is an interesting and important episode described in the text of Ayurvedic Medicine. While discussing with Rishi Punarvasu – the author of “Charak Samhita”, some Vaidyas (ancient Ayurvedic doctors) raised the query “Ko ruka?” (Meaning: who does not fall ill?). Somebody said – one who eats Chyavanprash (a paste created from healthy ingredients) every morning, other said “Who takes lavan bhaskar and triphala regularly?” while others opine eating chandravati every day as the source of health. Finally the fundamental principle of natural maintenance of good health was expressed by Vagbhatt as – Hitbhuka, Mitbhuka, Ritbhuika.

Hitbhuk: which means eat that which is nourishing for your health and do not eat merely for taste.

Mitbhuk: which means eat moderately (only that much which is essential for sustenance of the vitality and stamina of the body).

Ritbhuk: means eat that which is earned and prepared by righteous means and also what is suitable in a particular season.

Broadly speaking, the above principles are not new to us. We all have read or heard about these in one form or the other. But how many people (including ourselves) really pay attention to these? In view of the life-style adopted by most of us today and considering the growing pollution in the gross and the subtle environment, we ought to be more careful about healthy food.

So first let’s understand categories of food.

1. Suka Grain (Cereals): Wheat, rice, barley, maize, millet, corn, etc. are principle ingredients of Indian cooking. The cereals are natural sources of nourishment for human body. Carbohydrates are their major constituents. They also contain about 6% to 12% proteins. The presence of minerals and vitamins is, however, nominal in the cereals; only vitamin B is found in greater quantity in their outer sheath. The shelf life of these cereals ranges between one to two years after harvesting. Sprouted cereals have more nutrition value and are richer in proteins and vitamins.

2. Sami Grains (Pulses and Legumes): This category of grains consists of grams and pulses, which are rich in proteins. Gram, green gram, kidney-bean seeds, red and yellow gram and lentil, black-gram, soybean seeds, dry-peas, etc. fall in this category. These are main source of proteins for vegetarians. The protein contents and mode of metabolism of these are healthier and more compatible with the metabolic functioning of the human body as compared to those in the non-vegetarian foods (meat, chicken, eggs etc.) Use of fresh sprouts of whole pulses and legumes in balanced quantities in breakfast and main meals is an excellent means of maintaining natural health.

3. Kandamula (Tubers and Roots): Potato, sweet tuber (sweet potato), carrot, beetroot, turnip, radish, etc. are members of this class of naturally healthy foods. They are rich in carbohydrates and are important sources of balanced calories in our bodies and activation of metabolism. These, if eaten in appropriate quantities, are good means of strength and energy in the body system. These could even be used as substitutes for varieties of cereal dishes. The rishimunis (Sages) of the ancient times used to take only Kandamula as their main food. The term ‘phatahara’ for the food prescribed during fasts refers to these only.

4. Phal (Fruits): As we all know, vitamins, minerals, natural glucose and carbohydrates are present in substantial proportions in fresh fruits. Amalki, apple, bilva (wood-apple), banana, black-plum (rose-apple), dates, figs, grapes, guava, mango, orange, pomegranate, papaya, sweet-lime, etc. are easily available fruits in almost all parts of India. According to Ayurveda, these fruits also have medicinal properties. Fruits like apricot, cherry, pineapple, strawberry, etc. could also be used when available. Ayurveda emphasizes that fruits should be eaten in their specific season, and should be naturally ripe. Overripe or rotten fruits are harmful. Raw fruits would be difficult to digest and will not have the desired natural qualities. Care should be taken to avoid eating fruits preserved in cold storage and those ripened through the use of chemicals like carbide. These have severe negative effects; frequent use of such unnaturally ripened fruits might cause dreaded diseases like cancer.

5. Sakas (Vegetables): Fresh vegetables are important ingredients of a healthy food. They provide us with essential vitamins, minerals, and compounds. Use of different types of green beans, bitter gourd, brinjal (eggplant), cabbage, cauliflower, cucumber, green-gourd, okra (bhindi), tomato, etc. is very good for health. Different types of vegetables supplement each other in fulfilling the body’s requirement of vitamins, minerals etc. Likewise the use of fruits, specific vegetables should also be consumed only in the specific season of their natural growth. Use of vegetables of one season in another season is prohibited in Ayurveda.

6. Harit (Greens Leafy Vegetables): Coriander-leaf, fenugreek-leafs, green peas, mint-leafs, radish-leaf, spinach, etc. should be part of a healthy diet. Iron, calcium and other mineral and vitamin C and E etc. present in these green leafy vegetables or salads, are essential for our body’s proper nourishment.

7. Suska Phal Va Tilahan (Dry Fruits and Oil Seeds): Almond, cashew nut, chestnut, coconut, groundnut, peanut, pistachio, etc. are very rich in proteins. The oils inside these provide natural lubricants and facts necessary for the body’s mechanical and other functions. The edible, oily-seeds of sesame, mustard etc. also serve this purpose.

8. Iksu (Glucose rich substances): Molasses, sugarcane, sugar treacle, and other glucose rich substances fall in this category. These are often used to sweeten the drinks and eatables. These contain hundred percent carbohydrates, which are the major source of producing energy in the body.

9. Ambu (Watery or juicy substances): This category includes all edible substances that are rich in water-content. Fruits like watermelon, which contain about 90% water, are prominent in this category. Major part of our body-system is filled with water. We should fulfill the consistent requirement of its supply by drinking substantial amount of water. Fresh lemon squash, etc. and juice of watery fruits, if taken in balanced quantities, also supply us with other nourishing substances along with water.

10. Goras (Milk products): Milk, curd, buttermilk, cheese, etc. fall in this group. Pure milk (esp. that of cow) and buttermilk are described as ‘divine’ food or best source of nourishment for sadhakas. Many people observe kalpa (long-term fasting) only with the intake of milk or buttermilk. Milk (especially, cow-milk) is said to be a whole food in itself. Curd is also nourishing food with several medicinal qualities, if taken fresh and in appropriate quantities in different seasons as per one’s prakrati (level of tridosa). Fresh cheese and its products (if not fried) are wholesome sources of calories. Buttermilk (takra) is referred in Ayurveda as an important medicinal food. Condensed milk and milk powder might be easy to preserve and use, and may help in making delicious dishes, but these are harmful to health, particularly in the cozy life-style we have adopted and because of the chemical synthesis processes used in their preparation. Use of condensed milk and milk powder or dairy whiteners should therefore be avoided as far as possible. In view of the reports of adulteration of milk by mixing urea and other chemicals, contaminated water, etc., these days, we should be careful in verifying and ascertaining that milk and its products are free from toxins.

11. Sneha (Oils and Fats): Butter, ghee (butter clarified by boiling and straining), edible oils and fatty substances, if taken in balanced amounts, are also part of a healthy diet. These are highly rich in calories. (On an average, about nine calories are gained from 1gm of any of these substances). These help in fulfilling the requirements of lubrication of body parts (especially, joints) and energy production in the body-system. They also generally contain vitamins A, D, E and K. However, excess use of these substances is harmful to both physical and mental health. Extra care should therefore be taken to keep the level of proportion of this category to the essential minimum in our daily meals.

12. Krattana Va Yaugika (Cooked Food and Edible Compounds): Ayurveda considers ‘cooked food’ as a separate class of food. All the categories described above are independent of each other and, as we know, most of the constituents of these could be consumed raw or sprouted. Cooking changes the natural properties of food ingredients. However, eating this class of food is important because proper cooking (esp. of cereals and pulses) makes the food easily digestible and many of the new edible compounds produced under this process would also be of vital use in the metabolic system and other body-functions. Cooked food could consist of members of more than one of the above classes and help giving new combined positive effects. The concept of cooking as referred in Ayurveda is quite different from what it is for most of us today.

Cooking today is mostly aimed to make the food more delicious; different experiments are tried out by the catering experts in this regard and new ‘dishes’ and new recipes are derived. Deep fried food, varieties of spices and arbitrary combination of foods of non-compatible natural qualities are harmful to our health according to Ayurveda. But we don’t think of it as long as the food is palatable. The use of pre-cooked food-ingredients and the so-called “fast foods” should be avoided, as it has very adverse effects on our body-system. Apart from lacking in nourishing value this type of ‘modern’ food is very likely to impair the normal functioning of our digestive system and cause harmful mutations due to the chemicals in the preservatives, the artificial flavors and the chemically processed cooking involved in its preparation.

Having looked at the different categories of edible foods described in Ayurveda, let us now see what the Ayurvedic Principles tell us about – what, how much and when to eat? Why to eat and how to eat?

What to eat?

The principle of “Hitbhuk and Ritbhuk” conveys us that we should always eat properly earned, pure, seasonal and nourishing food. A balanced combination (depending upon the physical and mental labor required in one’s daily routine) from the above-described categories of healthy foods would be best suited. For example, you may use wheat, barley, maize, and some pulses, curd, butter, groundnuts, oilseeds, etc. in appropriate quantities with larger amounts of green, leafy and other vegetables; some sprouts should always be part of your food. Don’t over-cook or deeply fry; use of spices, salts, sugars and oily substances should be restricted to the essential minimum. One should always eat fresh food; resist consuming toxic substances, stimulating and alcoholic drinks, and non-vegetarian foods. If you want to enjoy vigorous mental and physical health as per the guidelines of Ayurveda abstain from tobacco, betel-nuts, betel-leaves, etc.; stop taking wine, liquor and other alcoholic drinks; resist from drinking tea or coffee as well; never eat eggs, fish, chickens, any kind of animal-flesh etc.

How much to eat?

The answer lies in the principle of “Mitasi Syat”. Meaning, eat moderately. Howsoever nourishing or healthy the food may be; it would cause harm if eaten in excess. So, be cautious about the quantity of your diet. Don’t fill your tummy more than half its space, leave one-fourth for water and the remaining one-fourth for air. Those doing physical labor need more of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. But those engaged in sedentry and mental work or meditation-devotion etc. should take lighter foods such as boiled vegetables, thin chapatis, daliya (boiled crushed wheat), milk, sweet fruits, etc.

When to eat?
As per the vedic routine, one should eat only twice a day after performing agnihotra (homam) in the morning and in the evening (before sunset). In today’s circumstances, the best timings for the morning meal are any time between 8 a.m. to 12 noon and those for the dinner sometime before 7 p.m. This way the food is easily digested and keeps the body strong and energetic. In any case, be regular in the timings of taking your meals; avoid eating late in the night. One of the major causes of metabolic disorders and varieties of diseases caused thereby is that people keep watching TV and eat very late in the night. Remember that it takes about 8 to 11 hours for proper natural digestion of food. Eat only when you feel hungry. (Suppose you are not hungry at the regular timings, don’t eat; you may take only something light, say milk with water as a substitute). Eating is a kind of agnihotra. The ahutis (offerings) are made in agnihotra only when its fire is lit well; putting the ahutis in half-burnt or smoldering wood would only produce smoke instead of healthy effects of agnihotra.

Why to eat?

Eat to maintain and strengthen the health and vigor of your body.
Healthy mind resides in a healthy body. And therefore Vedas say that “We shall regard our body as the temple of our soul and maintain its sanctity and health by observing self-restraint and punctuality in our routine”. The purpose of food is to sustain healthy and harmonious functioning of the body system, the physical medium of our life, to enable us to perform our duties towards God and His creation. Food is not meant to satiate the greed of our tongue or stomach.

How to eat?

Take your food gracefully in a calm state of mind, paying full attention to eating; every morsel should be chewed properly. Food should be revered like the prasada (offerings made to the Deity). Enough water should be taken before and after the meals. Water is like nectar for our vital functions. Drink at least a glass full of water before taking food. Don’t drink more than half a bowl of water while eating. Drink sufficient water after about an hour of taking the meals. This helps in proper digestion.

The type of food and mode of eating should also take into account the seasonal effects. The rainy season is very critical with respect to healthcare through controlled food. In this period (known as visarga kala in Ayurveda) the sun begins to move towards the winter solstice (daksinayana). The vata accumulated in the body due to the heat of summer begins to show its ill effects, it diminishes the appetite and causes gastric troubles, etc. Normal digestion also takes longer time in this season because of this vata, which, if one does not take proper care in the selection of food and eating habits, catalyzes the dosha of pitta as well. The rise in humidity makes this season risky towards the rise of kapha dosa. People prone to cold and cough should therefore be extra careful about their food during the monsoons.

In view of these Ayurvedic observations, one should eat light and easily digestible meals and firmly resist from lavish, heavy stuff. Else the vicious effects of undigested food and associated accumulation and rise of doshas will invite one disease after the other, some of which might manifest gradually in the successive seasons. As a preventive measure, drinking water should be boiled in this season and vegetables and salads, etc. should also be washed in clean, boiled water. A combination of sweet-sour-salty juicy substance should be used in food to reduce the vata effect. Ginger should be used in food preparation to make it easily digestible. Vegetables like green gourd, bhindi (okra) paraval (snake-gourd), are suitable, as these do not increase gastric problems; use of sprouts or pulses of green-gram and roasted or cooked maize is also beneficial.

Ayurvedic scriptures advise against the use of milk in the month of shravan (the second month of rainy season in India) and buttermilk in bhadon (the third month of rainy season in India); curd should be generally avoided during the entire season of monsoon. Viral fever, malaria, typhoid, jaundice, conjunctivitis, gastroenteritis and skin infections are quite common diseases (in India) during this season.

Necessary precautions should be taken in this regard. Preventive herbal medicines may also be used as a support in high-risk areas.

If preventive care is taken as regards taking healthy foods in the rainy season, the winter would prove to be beneficial towards enhancing the vigor and health of the body. Ayurveda also lays stress on spiritual effects of food.

By Dr.Hiren Parekh