Summary: Recommendations from Ayurveda for an ideal diet. Helping us maintain balance in our doshas, good health and resistance to disease.
Ayurveda places great emphasis on diet. But the foods recommended vary with an individual’s mind-body type.
So, before recommending any specific foods, Ayurveda categorises an individual according to the Vata-Pitta-Kapha system. Only then can Ayurveda give specific recommendations regarding the ideal diet. For example, some oily foods and dairy products would generally suit a pure Vata type (provided they can digest them adequately), but long term consumption would not be good at all for a pure Kapha type. Ayurveda actually views food as ‘medicine’! Eating the ‘right’ foods for our doshas can maintain their balance. It can even rebalance them – if they were already out of balance to start with.
Following Ayurvedic dietary advice is therefore important in maintaining balance in our system. This promotes overall good health, a sense of well-being, and immunity too. We don’t need to become obsessive about diet, but generally keep in mind the principles.
We should really regard following an Ayurvedic diet as a long-term investment in health.
An Ayurvedic Diet
Ideal Diet Depends on our Mind-body Type
A great deal has already been written on the ideal diet for different mind-body types. Once we know our predominant doshas e.g. Vata-Pitta, we can then reference a list showing what foods to favour and what to mostly avoid. Of course, this is very generalised advice. We really also need to take into account the strength of our digestive fire, the particular season (e.g. avoid a lot of chillies in the height of summer!), any allergies we might have and how out-of-balance our doshas already are. But we can get some useful self-help advice from these charts. One of the most comprehensive lists available is on the Ayurvedic Institute’s website. This information can also be downloaded in pdf format from their site. There is a simpler list, plus some sound advice targeted to specific doshas on the Goop website.
Ayurveda suggests we should generally favour fresh, home prepared dishes over pre-prepared, packaged, tinned, or frozen foods. Freshly cooked food is higher in life force (prana). Most pre-prepared, packaged, tinned or frozen foods are lower in life force, as are left-overs. Meals prepared with fruits and vegetables that are in season and available locally are also favoured. An Ayurvedis diet is inherently an anti-inflammatory diet.
An Ayurvedic expert from India, when asked for the best dietary advice for Westerners, said: ‘if a foodstuff is advertised on TV don’t eat it!’
Ideal dietary recommendations are not fixed. They change with the changing seasons. This reflects changing environmental conditions such as seasonal temperatures, wind and rainfall. Ayurveda therefore recognises the inherent connection between us and our environment.
Increasing Ojas with Diet
Ayurveda recommends foods that increase a subtle substance called ’Ojas’ in our bodies. A high level of Ojas corresponds with a high level of immunity. So, dietary recommendations will include foods that naturally increase Ojas. These recommendations, together with seasonal advice, sit alongside the ideal diet for our specific mind-body type (Prakriti). Foods that increase Ojas will be ‘Sattvic’ in quality (a detailed explanation of the classification of foods into ‘Sattvic’, Rajasic’ and ‘Tamasic’ is given in the Deola Ayurvedic Blog).
The Six Tastes
Ayurveda identifies six tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, pungent and astringent). The first four tastes are familiar to all of us. However ‘pungent’ is the slightly burning taste we get from certain spices such as black pepper, and ‘astringent’ is a slightly drying taste e.g. from beans and lentils. It is good to experience all six tastes at least once a day in our meals (ideally in every meal). Different tastes help balance different doshas – so knowledge of tastes is useful in balancing our doshas. Getting the six tastes each day also stops craving for certain foods (e.g. sweet foods). Further information on the six tastes is available on the ‘Joyfulbelly’ website.
Ayurvedic Dietary Tips
It is not just what we eat that is important – but how we eat it matters too, so Ayurveda offers practical tips for mealtimes. Even simple things like avoiding ice cold drinks before, during or just after a meal can really help digestion, and ultimately our immunity.
It is also good to have a strong digestive fire or Agni so we can properly digest any food without the toxic by-products caused by incomplete digestion. Ayurveda offers simple practical advice on how we can strengthen our digestive fire. A strong digestive fire also ‘burns off’ disease.
Contrary to advice given in many ‘health conscious’ blogs, Ayurveda certainly does not recommend eating raw or partially cooked vegetables. It is almost impossible for people with a normal level of digestive fire or Agni to be able to digest them. Raw vegetables induce Vata – ‘wind’. If you want to prove this experimentally, try eating some raw cauliflower! Well cooked vegetables can be easily digested and their nutrients absorbed. This is a really important consideration in Ayurveda where good digestion leads to good immunity.
What Foods to Avoid
It is probably best to avoid refined sugars if possible (sugar can appear as many different names in food products, e.g. sucrose, dextrose, fructose and even ‘agave nectar’.) Research showed substantial quantities of sugar intake can lower immunity for several hours after consumption. However, the actual effect of sugar on our immune system may be more complex than originally thought (Scientific American carried an informative article on this). Ayurveda tells us to avoid high sugar, carbonated drinks – these are even worse when ice cold. The carbonated bubbles disturb vata, and the cold puts out the digestive fire.
Although Ayurveda recommends most vegetables (the exact recommendations depend on our mind-body type) it does not recommend potatoes or other members of the nightshade family (e.g. tomatoes). This does not mean we should give them up completely – just be aware of their Rajasic and Ama (toxins) inducing properties.
As a final thought on diet, a great Indian Ayurvedic doctor was asked what was the most nourishing food to eat. To the surprise of his audience he said ‘The food your mother made you when you were a child. Why ? Because it was made with love’!
Other Key Ayurvedic Strategies to Build a Strong Immune System
or, return to Boosting Immunity with Ayurveda – an Overview article