The Ayurvedic Diet & The Forgotten Language of Food
Advancements in the study of nutrition over the past few decades have spawned a new age of healthy eating. However, consensus on what constitutes a healthy diet still seems nowhere in sight. Today, anyone with an internet connection can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed or confused about how to eat right. In the traditional Indian healing science of Ayurveda diet is paramount overall health and wellness. Thankfully, access to information on the Ayurveda diet is at our fingertips and easier to understand than you think.
One of the reasons for the confusion and endless debate about what eating right looks like is simply the way that modern science views nutrition, or rather, how food affects our health. Current ideas and opinions about proper diet and nutrition are limited to the view that food consists solely of its various and measurable nutritional components (vitamins, minerals, macros, micros, etc.). Science today still fails to perceive or give credit to the other vital properties of food–properties that have long-since been observed as fundamental to health in ayurveda.
Ayurvedic medicine, specifically the Ayurvedic diet, has long-since been observed as fundamental to health.
Thousands of years before modern scientists began peering into microscopes, ancient scientists already had a view to the Ayurvedic diet and an understanding of how diet affects every part of our health. Merging ancient wisdom with our modern nutritional findings sheds a whole new light on human health and nutrition, reflected in the Ayurveda diet. Ayurveda for weight loss is among one of its more popular contemporary uses, as well as preventing a host of other health conditions.
Ancient Food Wisdom and the Ayurvedic Diet
Our ancestors acknowledged the importance of proper eating. Even thousands of years ago, food was the primary consideration in the treatment of disease. Well-known author and Ayurvedic diet specialist, Dr. Robert Svoboda says, “An Ayurvedic physician must be a good cook as well as a doctor,” suggesting that adjustments in food and eating behaviors towards an Ayurveda diet remain a critical part of treating and curing any ailment. Indeed, Ayurvedic cooking involves a deep understanding of the essential parts of the Ayurveda diet.
So, what’s this different view in Ayurveda and what exactly is an Ayurvedic diet?
The Ayurveda diet is the starting point in traditional Indian medicine for correcting imbalances and achieving a healthy constitution and general wellness. The Ayurveda diet theory asserts that food affects us individually, according to our constitution, and not only through the nutritional components of the food. The great sages of Ayurveda knew the significance of diet and nutrition in Ayurvedic weight loss, disease prevention, and general wellness.
But let’s start at the beginning with the Ayurvedic diet and the Six Tastes.
The Six Tastes
According to Ayurveda and as a component of the Ayurvedic diet, every food (herb or plant) has a certain predominant taste. Each one of those tastes, in turn, has a particular elemental nature, based on one of the five elements (i.e., air, water, fire, earth, and ether). Inherent in that elemental nature are specific qualities–attributes such as heavy, light, dry, oily, heating, cooling, etc.). Head to our article on What is Ayurveda for a complete understanding of this main feature of the Ayurveda diet.
Ok, take a moment to absorb the first part of understanding the Ayurveda diet. How many tastes are there? There are six tastes in all. Now let’s break those six tastes down.
Ayurveda diet nutrition primarily characterizes foods and herbs by their features, such as weight (heavy or light), moisture level (damp or dry), or agni (heating/cooling effect), etc. Knowing a food’s taste is a way to know its effect upon each dosha, and hence, its effect upon each individual’s body, mind, and emotions. Thus, the Ayurveda diet helps us understand not only that each food can affect us differently, but how and why our reactions to certain foods vary from one person to the next. The Ayurveda diet is quite a departure from the ‘one size fits all’ model of modern nutritional science.
What Are the Six Tastes?
Taste is the primary feature of an Ayurvedic diet. Knowing the taste of a food or herb helps us understand how it increases or decreases those same elements and attributes in the body of the person who consumes it, through the simple law of like increases like.
For example, the predominant elemental characteristics of the bitter taste are air and ether. Knowing that, we can deduce that bitter tastes will increase vata the most (because vata is also primarily influenced by air and ether). A very bitter herb like goldenseal or neem taken alone, for example, can aggravate vata.
Likewise, other tastes, depending upon their elemental nature, will either calm or aggravate each of the three doshas. Taste is a key factor in maintaining an Ayurvedic diet.
Rasa, Virya, Vipaka
According to an Ayurvedic diet, everything that we eat also has three distinct ways of affecting us.
Beginning in the mouth, the taste picked up by the tongue is the first, an effect known as rasa.
The effect of the second taste is experienced during digestion and is called virya (or energy).
Last is the post-digestive effect, which occurs after digestion is finished. This is known as vipaka (or vipak).
These three phases of food consumption in Ayurvedic diet science means that the taste of a particular food can be different at the different stages of ingestion, digestion, and assimilation (and you thought this was going to be simple). Don’t worry, subscribing to an Ayurvedic diet is not difficult once you understand the effects of rasa, virya, and vipaka.
Here are a few examples to understand this feature of the Ayurveda diet better:
- Foods with hot virya (digestive energy) will stimulate the digestive process, while those with a cold virya will slow it.
- Foods with a lighter vipak (post-digestive effect) will promote weight loss while heavier vipak foods will lead to weight gain.
- A food’s rasa (initial effect in the mouth) often relates to its effect on our emotions and consciousness (mental effect). For example, according to Ayurveda diet wisdom, spicy foods raise your emotional temperature, and sweet deserts make you feel happy while you’re eating them (because you know they do)
Particular food cans have different rasas, viryas, or vipakas. For instance, green tea has an astringent virya, but a pungent vipak. For example, according to the Ayurvedic diet, and an interesting tidbit of sweet taste info is that although a food may be classified as sweet for its reaction in the stomach (virya), it will not necessarily have a sweet flavor on the tongue (rasa). This applies to all six tastes in the Ayurveda diet science.
Stay with me – I’m about to break down the six tastes and their part in an Ayurvedic diet.
Understanding the Six Tastes of An Ayurvedic Diet
1. Sweet – Composed mainly of Earth and Water, is cooling, heavy and oily.
Sweet has a cooling virya and its vipak is also sweet. This means that its immediate effect and purpose in the Ayurvedic diet is to cool down (mildly inhibit) digestion and also create heaviness and moisture in the body. Therefore, in the Ayurvedic diet, an excess of sweet foods will add moisture and increase our bulk (weight) in the long run.
Sweet has a calming rasa and helps to sedate the nervous mind. That’s why we feel good when we eat ice cream. And if you’re wondering – yes, ice cream does have a place in the Ayurvedic diet. However, as its cooling effect pacifies pitta, ice cream also increases ama (toxins) and should therefore be consumed in moderation and during the pitta time of day (12-2 pm), according to Ayurvedic diet theory.
Sweet Taste comes in different forms: Simple sugars (pure sugars) – fruit sugars, milk/dairy (lactose), honey, etc. Complex sugars (carbohydrates and starches) – grains like rice, wheat, corn, etc. Lipids, oils, and fats – from seeds, nuts, vegetables and animals.
2. Sour – Composed mainly of earth and fire, is heating, heavy and oily.
Sour has a heating virya and therefore promotes digestion. According to the Ayurveda diet, sour fruits should be eaten before meals. Its vipak (post-digestive effect) is also sour, which means that it will continue to warm the body after digestion. The rasa (initial effect) of sour may be a sort of refreshing zing or have a sudden clearing effect on the mind (awakening of the consciousness).
Examples of sour foods in the Ayurvedic diet are citrus fruits, most berries, and sour plums, such as cherries, grapes, apples, etc. Acidic vegetables (rare)–mainly tomatoes. The stems of spinach, chard or rhubarb. Alcoholic ferments, such as wine and liquors. Other ferments – dairy ferments, such as yogurt and cheese, pickled vegetables and vinegar.
3. Salty – Composed mainly of water and fire, is heavy, heating and oily.
Salt has a heating virya and a sweet vipak. This means that while salt is initially warming and mildly stimulating to the digestion, its longer-term effect is more moistening or grounding. This is apparent in salt’s effect on water retention in the body.
The mental effect (rasa) of salt may be delicate–a little can be gratifying and grounding but an excess can lead to obsessiveness and excess desire. Salty snacks, such as potato chips, have an addictive nature and are not part of an Ayurvedic diet.
Examples of salty taste are simple salts – mineral salts (sea, rock, etc.), complex salts – salty products such as soy sauce, miso, and salted meats, and salts that come from the sea, such as seafood, shellfish, and seaweed.
4. Pungent – Composed mainly of fire and air, is heating, light and dry.
Pungent is the hottest of the tastes and has the greatest heating virya. Its vipak is also pungent, so it is very stimulating to the digestive fire and remains hot and dry throughout its effects on the body. As a result, the Ayurveda diet recommends pungent tastes for balancing (drying out) kapha, and to promote digestion.
In Ayurveda diet science, the rasa of pungent foods can be seen as clearing, such as mustard’s or chili’s effect of opening up the sinuses. This can also be observed as a firing up of the mind.
Examples of pungent are essential oils/aromatic spices, – ginger, cayenne, cardamom, fennel, etc., pungent vegetables, – onions, garlic, bell peppers, ginger, chilis, carrots, and pungent-bitter alkaloids – tea and coffee.
5. Bitter – Composed mainly of air and ether, is cooling, light and dry.
Bitter is the coldest and lightest of all the tastes (as in ‘bitter cold’) in the Ayurveda diet. It has a cold virya and a pungent vipak. This means that in the short term, a bitter food is cooling but over time it will have a lightening and drying effect. An
Ayurvedic diet includes foods that are bitter to help normalize an aggravated pitta. In small quantities, they can help lend clarity to consciousness. Remember, as with the sweet taste, foods that have a bitter rasa, are not necessarily bitter tasting foods.
Examples of bitter foods are simple bitters – goldenseal, neem, gentian, coptis. Bitter vegetables – dandelion. Bitter aromatics – wormwood, mugwort, rue, vetivert.
6. Astringent (tannins) – Composed mainly of air and earth, is cooling, light and dry.
To define astringent foods in the Ayurveda diet, think of foods that are high in minerals like potassium and magnesium. These are known as astringents. An astringent has a cooling virya, but less so than bitter, meaning it functions to inhibit digestion.
However, it has a pungent vipak and is therefore cooling, lightening, and drying with a more warming effect in the long term.
According to the Ayurvedic diet, those who need to balance kapha and pitta should consume astringent foods daily.
Examples of astringent foods are beans, lentils, chickpeas, cabbage, broccoli, potatoes, green beans, lettuce, carrots, corn, black and green teas. Barks, resins, saps, most of which possess rejuvenating properties, such as myrrh and frankincense, etc.
As part of a complete Ayurvedic diet, try to consume some astrigent foods every day. See below for an astringent definition and its effect on the body.
How Do the Tastes Of The Ayurvedic Diet Affect Our Body?
The Ayurveda diet has an enormous effect on our health. Each taste has essential properties required for proper human functioning. For example:
Sweet – Nourishes the body and mind, relieves hunger and thirst, and benefits all tissues.
Sour – Refreshes, encourages elimination of wastes, and improves appetite and digestion.
Salty – Eliminates waste, cleanses the body, and increases appetite and digestive capacity.
Pungent – Flushes secretions from the body, reduces kapha, and improves appetite.
Bitter – Purifies and dries secretions, balances all the tastes, increases appetite, and heals the skin.
Astringent – Heals, purifies, and constricts all body parts, reduces secretions, and has an anti-aphrodisiac effect.
The Taste Effects on the Doshas
The Ayurveda diet is not the same for everyone. Knowing your constitution is critical to discovering what foods to include in your Ayurvedic diet for optimal health and disease prevention.
Vata types respond best to sweet, salty, and sour tastes. They are aggravated most by pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes.
Pitta types respond best to sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes. They are aggravated most by sour, salty, and pungent tastes.
Kapha types respond best to a pungent, bitter, or astringent taste. They are aggravated most by a sweet, salty, or sour taste.
In general, pungent, sour, and salty tastes are most helpful in enhancing digestion and assimilation. Sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes inhibit digestive function.
Agni – The Digestive Fire
Any discussion of diet would be incomplete without a bit about digestion. Every ancient healing tradition has recognized that digestion is a focal point of good health. Digestion is the process by which the body breaks down food and assimilates its valuable components into our being.
In ayurveda, we acknowledge that good health is important for healthy digestion, and vice versa. Enter the concept of agni, or ‘digestive fire’, the primary ‘force’ behind the digestive process. To maintain healthy ion, it’s important to keep that fire ‘stoked’, so to speak.
Our digestive fire, its strength and intensity, is not only affected by the type of foods that we eat, but also by the combinations of food eaten and the amount of food taken at one time. Too much food can act like sand on a fire (extinguishing it), while too little food can cause the fire to ‘burn itself out’, like a campfire without enough wood.
With our modern lifestyles, food on the go, quick (and often nutritionally incomplete) meals, at one moment and then long periods without food the next, it is no surprise that this agni is a force that has become erratic and out of balance in most people. If we look at digestion as a ‘wood stove’ – one that needs careful and constant attention (regularly throwing on enough wood to keep it going, without over-fueling and smothering it) – then we can create more appropriate eating habits to keep this fire burning strong and steady.
What to Do After Digesting this Information
Maybe you don’t want to think very much about all these concepts and nutritional science, and wonder–is there a simple, practical way to apply all this information?
The simple answer is YES.
The first and most important step in benefiting from the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda is to determine your Ayurvedic constitution. This will make the wisdom behind the Ayurvedic diet clearer and easier to understand.
CLICK HERE to take the 5-minute Dosha Quiz
Once you’ve done that, follow the Ayurvedic diet simple food chart, which is linked to the bottom of this page, to determine which foods you should enjoy and which you should avoid.
The Practical Ayurvedic Diet
As they say, an ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory–or something along those lines. The best way to understand and start benefiting from the effects of Ayurvedic diet theory and Ayurvedic nutrition is to get right down to it. START READING.
From there, you can begin experimenting with Ayurvedic food while paying close attention to how everything you eat makes you feel. Indeed, close observation is one of the key ways to determine your ideal Ayurvedic diet. When you do that, the principles of Ayurveda will eventually begin to move from the realm of cool concepts to a deeper, more intuitive understanding. The links to our Ayurvedic Dosha Food Guide Charts will give you the general categories of foods that aggravate (bad) and balance (good) each dosha, along with a few examples for each. Or, if you’re after more general information on Jiva Botanicals head to www.jivabotanicals.com.
Read our VATA Diet Food Guide
Read our PITTA Diet Food Guide
Read our KAPHA Diet Food Guide
Diet is the essence of self-care
– David Frawley
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