Ayurvedic nutritional wisdom offers us the foundation upon which we begin to learn about our individual bodies on a personal level. In the ancient medicine of Ayurveda, the one-size-fits-all approach that dominates the allopathic medicine system of the West does not exist. Instead, Ayurveda teaches us how to cultivate a balance with individualized, self-healing lifestyle practices. One of these practices is a diet that includes both hot and cold attributes, known respectively in Ayurveda as ushna and shita.
We Are What We Eat
Through the principle of hot and cold foods, Ayurveda paves the way for our understanding of how to in harmony with the world and balance the elements found in our natural environment with those comprising our biological body. Then, we can develop a diet that supports our healthiest self.
What Are Hot And Cold Foods?
In Ayurveda, there are 10 pairs of basic attributes, which contain a certain energy. Each attribute has a subtle effect on the doshas, either assisting or impeding a balance of the doshas (vata, pitta, or kapha). A proper balance of our energy creates health. An imbalance creates a manifest physical, mental or emotional condition, eventually leading to disease if left unchecked. For a greater understanding of the attributes and their corresponding elements, click here.
When I first heard of this concept of hot and cold foods, I had an image of a bowl of steaming pumpkin soup or a dish of frozen gelato. But the Ayurvedic concept of hot and cold has no correspondence to temperature. Whether a food is hot or cold is determined by the presence of specific properties or elemental qualities. Hot and cold denote the heating or cooling effect, what Ayurveda refers to as virya, of a food after we have consumed it. Ice cream, for example, though cold, has a heating effect on the body. An icy cold beer, while refreshing, incites heat in the digestive body. Pumpkin, even when served up hot, is cooling.
Stay with me–this concept is a bit tricky to grasp at first, but it will become crystal clear. Once we can wrap our heads around these fundamental Ayurvedic concepts, we’ll have greater clarity to create a diet that is best for our individual health and well-being.
The Impact of Hot Foods
Vata (–); Pitta (+); Kapha (–)
- Increase the appetite and stimulate digestion.
- Promote cleansing and expansion.
- Give a light feeling to the physical and psychic body (associated with the light attribute).
- May cause heat-induced conditions like inflammation, anger, gastritis, ulcers, and rashes if eaten in excess.
- Sour, salty, and pungent tastes have a heating virya.
- Common ushna foods are onions, artichokes, peppers, mustard, cumin, ghee, pickles, dates, ginger, kohlrabi, and cinnamon.
The Impact of Cold Foods
Vata (+); Pitta (–); Kapha (+)
- Soothe and help to clear toxins.
- Have a refreshing effect on the body in hot weather but are harder to digest.
- Restrict digestion and make the immune system less active.
- Lead to a feeling of heaviness in the physical body (associated with the heavy attribute).
- May create numbness, unconsciousness, contraction, fear, and insensitivity when eaten in excess.
- Sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes have a cooling virya.
- Common shita foods are aloe vera, asparagus, cucumbers, melons, coconut, cauliflower, pumpkin, and fennel.
How Do We Know What To Eat?
For example, pitta is composed of fire and water and has the hot attribute. Eating foods that have a hot virya, such as garlic and chili peppers, will inherently increase the pitta quality. If pitta is your dominant dosha, a diet that regularly includes heating foods will create an excess of pitta, leading to conditions like rash, inflammation, and fiery emotions, such as irritability. Sorry pittas, hot spicy Indian curries are not your best friends.
Kapha and vata, on the other hand, both have the cold attribute. An overabundance of the cold quality will lead to vata and kapha type conditions, such as constipation and hypertension, and lethargy and sluggish bowels, respectively.
But wait–this doesn’t mean you should eat an abundance of cold foods to stabilize an excess of pitta either. If you continually consume a diet with attributes opposite to those inherent in your body, those attributes will become dominant and alter your natural constitution.
We want to work with nature, not against it.
Instead, pay attention to what you eat and note how seasonal changes affect your constitution. For example, As an evenly split vata-pitta type, I find myself craving hot, fiery delights like garlic and chilis in the colder months (Indonesia’s sambal sauce is a favorite), an indication that my body is attempting to restabilize its inherent fire element.
Don’t worry–you don’t have to rule out hot or cold. We need a balance of both in our diet to maintain a healthy constitution. Knowing the attributes of different foods guide our eating habits so we can support our vital energy and experience a long healthy life.
With summer approaching, we naturally want to indulge in cooling foods and drinks. Check out these 7 cooling drinks for a delicious, Ayurvedic way to chill out during the hot season.
Toward Creating a Warm Relationship With Nature
So, how do hot and cold foods impact your body? First, discover your Ayurvedic constitution and its elemental constituents. Then, research the virya of different foods, starting with your favorites. Love avocado? Its cooling nature is a delicious pitta pacifier. This information will guide you toward a diet that is not only conducive to your body’s physical health but also increases your knowledge of the more subtle aspects of your relationship with nature.
Colleen’s interest in Ayurveda grew organically from a curiosity in how to naturally improve her health and energy. During a trip to India in 2017, she became better acquainted with Ayurveda and yoga philosophy and has been studying the ancient wisdom ever since. Her love for nature, travel, and vegetables (ginger and broccoli) inspired her to become more consciously aware of how to improve our lives and eating habits. She’s the author of a self-published collection of personal stories about her experience living in Indonesia. Colleen is a certified teacher of Thai massage and hatha yoga.