The Ayurvedic perspective on food is that everything you eat has the potential to harm or heal you. In Ayurvedic medicine, food or nutrition accounts for about fifty percent of all treatments and the effectiveness of this approach demonstrates the incredible power of food in influencing our health and wellbeing.
The Ayurvedic diet is based firstly on the understanding that food is much more than an indulgence driven by cravings or desire. The Ayurvedic approach to nutrition encompasses which foods are chosen, how they are prepared, where they are eaten, who they are shared with and even our intentions as we eat. As we grow increasingly mindful of these aspects of nutrition and nourishing ourselves we can begin to experience greater balance in our lives, just from changing our eating habits.
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The second understanding essential to finding a balanced diet through Ayurveda is awareness of your unique doshic constitution. Each doshic type (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) requires a different approach to nutrition, the food choices acting as a counterbalance to the predominant qualities of your individual nature. However, there are also some general principles for healthy eating according to Ayurveda that can be useful to us all, regardless of our doshic type.
1. Do not eat too much or too little. To measure the Ayurvidically correct amount of food for you, place your hands together and turn your palms up to form a bowl. This is an open hand version of Anjali mudra (the mudra of offering). According to Ayurveda, one should avoid eating more than two anjalis in one sitting. Eating more than this prevents there from being enough space in the stomach for healthy digestion.
2. Warm, well-cooked foods are best. This precept is based on the belief that cooking food increases the ease of digestion and therefore, the availability of nutritional elements such as vitamins and minerals from the food.
3. Fresh, tasty, whole grains and organic foods are best. Tresh, unprocessed foods are believed to contain greater amounts of natural prana, or energy. This subtle life force provides us with energy, vitality and general well-being.
4. Never rush eating. As well as chewing properly to aid digestion, eating mindfully creates a sense of ritual around our food and meal times providing us with another opportunity to connect with the Divine, to be grateful for the food we have available and fully aware of how our food recharges within us the pranic energy essential to life.
5. Eat in more than you eat out. Ayurveda believes that we benefit greatly from food that is prepared in a loving and nurturing environment. If you are going to eat out, try to chose a cafe or restaurant that offers, organic, whole foods, vegetarian options and foods that are low in salt, sugar and preservatives.
6. Avoid snacking. Ayurveda advises leaving four to six hours between meals with little to no snacking between so that meals are eaten on an empty stomach. It is also suggested that you wait at least two hours after a meal before sleeping or exercising.
7. Eat compatible foods. Wherever possible, eat foods that compliment each other and don’t combine opposites in a single meal, for example, very cold and very hot foods.
8. Switch to a primarily vegetarian diet. Meat is used primarily for medicinal purposes in Ayurveda and is not considered to be a part of a regular diet for a healthy individual. This is because meat is relatively difficult to digest, it is heavy and tamasic in nature. When consuming meat, try to remember the practice of ahimsa and choose meat that has been obtained from animals that were cared for and killed in an ethical and humane way. Eating meat can be done ethically and mindfully, and choices about eating meat can be made on purpose with awareness of the reasons for your choice. Similarly, for vegetarians, if a situation arises that forces you to consider eating meat, make it a choice rather than a prohibition. We observe these practices to help us on the path to liberation. Overly restrictive food choices based on rigid thinking can be counterproductive to this goal.
9. Drink plenty of water. Water should be consumed regularly throughout the day and not gulped down in large quantities. The amount of water you need each day depends on your environment, your activity levels and your doshic constitution.
10. Avoid eating after sunset. while this can be difficult, particularly in the winter months, consuming large meals before bedtime creates a sluggish digestive system and increases mucous in the body. Whenever possible try to eat your main meal during the day and have a lighter meal in the evening.
These ten principles, based on Charaka’s ten precepts, were offered thousands of years ago as the foundation of disease prevention and longevity. While they have been modified here to suit our current lifestyle and availability of food, they still provide a sensible outline to a balanced and healthy relationship with food and a way of understanding how we can gain greater influence and take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing.