In ayurveda, diet and digestion are accorded equal importance in maintaining good health. Just as choosing improper foods for your constitution can lead to imbalances, following improper routines and habits can wreak havoc on your digestion, turning even carefully chosen and prepared foods into ama or toxins in your system rather than ojas, the biochemical essence that supports all aspects of life, health, bliss and longevity.
Here are some universally applicable principles of eating that ayurvedic healers recommend to keep your digestion working efficiently:
1. Eat three meals a day. Fasting and skipping meals are not recommended in ayurveda because they throw the digestion rhythm off. A light breakfast, a substantial lunch and a light dinner allow you to keep in tune with the ebb and flow of the digestive fire, which builds up during the morning, peaks around noon and then ebbs again in the evening.
As soon as you get up, drink a cup of hot water to which a tablespoon of lemon juice has been added. This will help elimination, get the digestive juices flowing, and cleanse out the digestive tract. Caffeinated beverages are not recommended in ayurveda.
A light breakfast is essential to kick-start the digestion and provide energy necessary to get through the activity of the day. If you wait until lunch to eat a proper meal, chances are you?ll be tempted to wade into that packet of potato chips or get a doughnut some time during the morning. Have a stewed apple or pear, and then follow 30 minutes later with some warm cereal or a whole-wheat flatbread spread with a little honey or almond butter. Warm cooked foods are preferred as breakfast items over cold cereal, cold milk and cold juice, all of which are harder on the waking digestive fire.
For a mid-morning snack, choose fresh fruit?an apple for Kapha, a sweet pear for Pitta and a mango or some strawberries for Vata. Fruit is best eaten in the morning, and on its own.
The ideal ayurvedic lunch includes two or three kinds of vegetables, one of which should be a leafy green; a lentil or bean dish or a paneer dish; a whole grain; a chutney or relish; a small helping of a warm salad or soup; and lassi, a beverage made by blending together fresh yogurt and water. All of the dishes should be cooked with dosha-appropriate spices, and using a dosha-appropriate healthy fat?ghee for Vata and Pitta and olive oil for Kapha are good choices. This may seem like a huge meal, but portions can be kept small to moderate?the variety is crucial for wholesome, balanced nutrition.
If you need a mid-afternoon snack, eat a small helping of soaked nuts (almonds should be blanched) if you are trying to balance Vata, or some sunflower or pumpkin seeds if you are trying to balance Pitta or Kapha. Popcorn in moderation without salt or butter is also fine for Kapha, and soaked blanched almonds for Pitta.
For dinner eat a small, light meal?a one-dish vegetable/grain casserole or a vegetable/lentil soup with a whole-wheat flatbread, for example.
Drink lots of pure water through the day, but limit your water or beverage intake at meals. Do not drink iced, carbonated or caffeinated beverages and avoid alcohol and milk with meals.
At bedtime, drink a cup of warm milk spiced with nutmeg for Vata, cardamom for Pitta and ginger for Kapha.
Fresh foods are easier to digest, so cook only what you think you will eat at a meal. To enhance the appetite, have a slice of fresh ginger root spiked with some rock salt and fresh lemon juice about an hour before a meal. Chew fennel seeds after a meal to enhance digestion and freshen the breath naturally. Taking rasayanas such as Amalaki and Triphala after a meal also boosts digestion and assimilation and helps the system flush out ama regularly.
2. Eat at around the same times each day Like your sleep/wake cycle, your digestion will also benefit from a regular routine. Pre-program meal times into your day so that you have the time to take care of sustaining yourself. Water and food are next only to air for survival. When sustenance is that vital for good health, why would you have mealtimes play second-fiddle to work or social engagements?
When your digestion is ?trained? to kick in at those set times through regular practice, it functions efficiently to build more ojas from the foods you eat. Ojas is the most refined product of the digestive process?the biochemical essence that sustains life and health. Nutrients from the foods you eat are absorbed and assimilated to the maximum extent by your body, and wastes are flushed out effectively, leaving little room for ama–digestive toxins?to build up in the body and act as a breeding-ground for imbalances and disorders.
3. Avoid incompatible food combinations Ayurvedic texts outline some food combinations that overtax the digestion and lead to increased ama build-up. Milk and cream, for example, should not be combined with salty or sour tastes. Melons should not be eaten with heavy foods like cheese, deep-fried foods or the heavier grains. Fruit, in general, should be eaten on its own because it is very quickly digested. Meat or fish should not be taken together with milk. Honey should never be heated or cooked.
In general, if you follow the meal guidelines and food suggestions given above, you will avoid most incompatible food combinations. One general rule to follow is to not eat foods with different digestion times at one sitting.
4. Prepare your meals with care and love Everything is connected. For the food to eat to become ojas, you have to prepare it with attention, a positive attitude, caring and love. Many traditions hold the acts of cooking and eating sacred. In the Vedic tradition, the chef bathes and offers thanks to agni?fire?before beginning the task of preparing the first meal of the day for the family. Do not prepare meals (or eat) when you are upset or stressed, because your liver and digestion are adversely affected by negative emotions and will not digest that meal efficiently.
Eat in the area or room designated for eating in your home or place of work, not in front of the television or at your workstation. Diffuse a pleasant aroma blend in your dining area about an hour before you will begin eating?lemon, coriander, sweet orange and mint are good choices to whet the appetite and get the digestive juices flowing. Dress up your dining table with fresh flowers or a pretty tablecloth. Make sure everything you need for your meal is at hand before you sit to eat so you do not have to get up or be distracted from your meal once you start eating.
5. Practice mindful eating Ours is, sadly, an on-the-run, 24/7, get-everything-done-yesterday world. Extending multi-tasking to eating is one often-seen habit that probably causes many health problems that could be avoided if one only took the time to accord the meal the attention it deserves. The time that is perceived as ?lost? by doing nothing but eating can more than likely be made up in increased energy and productivity the relished, well-digested meal returns to you. Eating in silence, with all your senses focused on the aromas, flavors, colors and textures on your plate is best, with muted, pleasantly relaxing conversation or soft music in the background a second-best option. Arguments, highly stimulating discussions and disciplining children are activities not suited to mealtimes.
Other mindful eating habits to follow:
? Do not work or speak on the telephone when you eat. Do not read or watch television. ? Offer thanks or sit in silence a minute before you begin eating. ? Do not gulp down your food; savor each mouthful and chew well before you swallow. A few sips of warm water during the meal will help digestion, but do not drink too much of any beverage. ? At any meal, do not eat until you are very full. The ideal ayurvedic portion is what you could hold in your two cupped hands joined together. Leaving some room in the stomach when you are done enhances digestion. ? After you are done eating, sit quietly for a few minutes; do not immediately rush off to do the next chore of the day.
Note: This material is educational in nature and is not intended to replace standard medical care or advice. If you have a medical concern, please consult your physician.
Shreelata Suresh is a yoga instructor who lives in the Bay Area. She writes for various publications on yoga, ayurveda and Indian culture. For more articles on ayurveda and premier ayurvedic products, please visit http://www.ayurbalance.com.