Why do we gobble down a chocolate bar when our stomach is pleading for us not to? What makes us reach for a third helping when we're already full? According to Ayurveda, when we're balanced, we desire foods that are good for us. But if our mind, body, or spirit is out of sync, our connection to our body's inner intelligence goes awry. The modern afflictions that affect our eating habits, like excessive consumption and fast-paced living, can be seen through the lens of the ancient science of Ayurveda.
Ayurvedic texts emphasize ahara, proper diet, as vital for promoting health and happiness. Ayurveda creates health by enlivening the body's inner intelligence to create harmony. Unlike modern nutritional theories, which tend to recommend "one size fits all" guidelines that change with each new wave of research, Ayurvedic physicians maintain there is no one single diet or food that is healthy for all individuals.
Ayurveda identifies six major tastes we need in our diet every day—sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Each of these tastes has specific health-giving effects. By including all six, we will be most completely nourished and satisfied. When we consistently eat only a few of the tastes, it not only causes health problems but also triggers cravings for unhealthy foods. For instance, fast food contains mostly sweet, sour, and salty tastes. If we eat a steady diet of fast food, we can develop a craving for sweets. Adding more pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes can help tame out-of-control desires for candy and doughnuts.
The six tastes also affect the doshas. Different foods cause specific doshas either to increase or decrease. The doshas increase and decrease on the principle of "like attracts like." If you have a predominance of vata, you will have the tendency to accumulate more vata. Foods that decrease a dosha are said to pacify that dosha, and foods that increase it aggravate it. Sweet, sour, and salty foods pacify vata. Sweet, pungent, and bitter foods decrease pitta. Pungent, bitter, and astringent foods pacify kapha.
Vata types need foods that calm their tendency toward anxiety and overactivity. Heavy, cooked foods served warm are the most soothing. Dairy products, sweeteners, and foods cooked or served with fats and oils pacify vata. Steam veggies and drizzle with a little ghee (clarified butter) or olive oil, or stir-fry them in oil or ghee. Rice and wheat are excellent grains for vata types. Juicy fruits and vegetables, heavy fruits (such as avocados and bananas), risotto, sweet and sour veggies, and warm berry cobbler with whipped cream all help pacify vata. Avoid hot, spicy foods. Vatas can healthfully cook with more salt than pittas and kaphas.
Fiery pitta needs to be cooled down. Serve foods at cool temperatures, but not ice cold which inhibits digestion. Pittas thrive on reduced amounts of fats, oils, and salt. Sweet, completely ripe fruits and all vegetables except garlic, tomatoes, radishes, and chilies are pitta-pacifying. Moderate portions of dairy products are fine, but minimize sour-cultured ones. Coriander and mint have cooling effects. Coconuts, pomegranates, grilled vegetable salad, and rice pudding all reduce pitta.
Sluggish, cool kapha needs to be stimulated and warmed up. Light, dry, warm foods reduce kapha. Use minimal amounts of fats and oils. Sweeten foods with honey, but never cook or bake with it. Grains such as barley, buckwheat, and rye are the best for kapha types, as are light, dry fruits, such as apples and cranberries. Low or nonfat milk is good, but minimize cultured dairy products. Kapha types can eat all spices and herbs but need to be cautious with salt. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds and all beans, with the exception of the oilier soybean, are excellent.
Just as important as what we eat is how our body assimilates food. Food is the substance through which we bring nature's intelligence into our bodies. Ayurvedic texts liken the process of digestion to cooking over a flame. Digestive "fires," collectively called agni, "cook" food so that nutrients can be optimally utilized. When agni is strong, our body fully assimilates nutrients and eliminates what it doesn't need.
Ultimately a fully functioning digestive system uses the food we eat to produce a biochemical called ojas, a fluid substance that nourishes the mind and body, maintains the balance of all bodily systems, and fills one's entire being with radiant bliss. If the digestive fire is weak, the incompletely digested portion of the meal forms a sticky, toxic substance called ama. The opposite of ojas, ama blocks the flow of the body's inner intelligence. It settles in areas of the body that are out of balance, taking on many forms, such as calcium deposits in the joints, plaque in the arteries, and cysts and tumors. A coated tongue, bad breath, dullness of the senses, depression, and unclear thinking can indicate the presence of ama.
To prevent ama from forming, drink plenty of warm or room temperature water. Do not eat late at night. Eat freshly prepared meals, and cook with seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables (avoid genetically modified foods). Strengthen agni by "kindling" it with heating foods and spices, such as ginger and black pepper. Eat a thin slice of fresh ginger sprinkled lightly with lemon juice and salt a half hour before taking a full meal.
Lastly, it's important to eat foods that you like! Ayurveda explains that agni goes to work the second the food hits your tongue. Whether a food "makes your stomach turn" or "makes your mouth water" literally affects how completely your body absorbs its nutrients. Dishes that make your taste buds sing a joyful song kindle agni and enliven your body's inner intelligence.
The ancient Ayurvedic text Sushrita Samhita states, "He whose doshas are in balance, whose appetite is good...whose body, mind, and senses remain full of bliss, is called a healthy person." By following these simple, time-tested Ayurvedic dietary principles in your daily life, you can enhance your health, increase your happiness, and uplift your spirit.
Miriam Kasin Hospodar, author of Heaven's Banquet: Vegetarian Cooking for Lifelong Health the Ayurveda Way, has been a chef for Ayurvedic spas and health centers for more than 30 years.