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January 12, 2021

8 Ways to Stop Overthinking your Food: a Traditional Ayurvedic Perspective on Diet.

In Ayurveda, there are eight factors of dietetics followed as simple guidelines to help us understand how to prepare and combine foods to create nourishing meals.

My grandmother, who had an inherent knowledge of Ayurveda without formal education, was skilled in her ability to understand the natural qualities of the human body and how they related to the environment. She didn’t dissect the food she ate, she simply understood her relationship to it.

Saurashtra, the desert area in which my family originates, is blazing hot in the summertime, but can be cold and dry in the wintertime. My grandmother instinctively knew that cold foods perpetuate more cold, so she emphasized eating warm, fat-rich foods during this time of year. Part of her knowledge was based on food sustainability—cooling summer vegetables weren’t available in the wintertime—but she also opened her mind to nature and allowed it to teach her how to prepare and consume food with mindfulness.

Food does more than provide sustenance to fuel the body. Cooking and eating can be sacred acts if we bring awareness into each and every meal.

Tackled one-by-one, the eight dietetics are seemingly simple and intuitive, but their power comes from observing them as a collective. Pay attention to one of the dietetic guidelines but ignore the other seven, and the food won’t be as nourishing as it could be if you incorporated all eight.

  1. Prakruti: the Nature of the Food

The nature of the food asks you to look at the characteristics of the ingredients themselves. Are they heating or cooling, light or heavy, sweet or sour? By looking at these qualities, you can select the types of food that are best for your body at any given moment, as well as the ones that fit the climate and seasons in your area.

A great example of this concept can be seen in nightshade vegetables. My grandmother knew they were heating, but nightshades only grew in the summertime. She also knew that digestion is typically at its lowest during this time of year. Instead of avoiding heating foods when it was hot outside, she knew to prepare and serve these vegetables to stoke the digestive fire. Today, I know from my Ayurvedic training that nightshades can build uric acid in the body, and should be avoided if there is a propensity toward chronic inflammation.

  1. Karan: the Method of Preparation 

The way we prepare our food affects how our bodies will digest it. Preparation first refers to whether a food is consumed cooked or raw, but it also includes how the food is seasoned and what it’s cooked with. Spices are more beneficial when they’re cooked in ghee, as many of their nutrients are fat-soluble and absorbed better into the body when taken with a fat. Another example is yogurt, which might be considered heavy to some constitutions. Blending it with water turns it into buttermilk, a lighter and more easily digestible food.

My grandmother always knew the right way to prepare an ingredient depending on the seasons. Since mung beans would only sprout in a warm, moist, and dark place, she sprouted them in the summertime in India. If you asked her why she didn’t eat sprouts in the wintertime, she would say they weren’t right for our bodies. Instinct told her that if it was too cold to make sprouts, they weren’t an appropriate food at that time.

  1. Samyoga: Combinations 

Some foods, when paired together, have a synergistic effect. Consuming mung beans and rice together creates a complete protein, providing the body with all the amino acids its needs. Other food pairings have a detrimental effect, creating a reaction that can disturb digestion or allow toxins to form in the body.

My grandmother paid careful attention to the combinations of food when preparing meals. She never mixed sour tastes, like vinegar or citrus juice, with milk, and she didn’t allow us to eat fruit with our meal. Both combinations created a fermentation reaction in the stomach, and over-fermented food can lead to digestive distress.

  1. Rashi: Quantity 

Factors like age, environment, and activity level can affect how much food we need to eat. Ayurveda says that proper digestion happens when the stomach is no fuller than three-quarters of its capacity. The empty space aids digestion.

Growing up, when we went to visit my grandmother, she would put her two hands around our upper arms to determine how many rotlis (flat bread) we were allowed to eat. It wasn’t about how skinny or fat we were, nor was it about restricting calories. She could determine our stomach capacities—quite accurately, I might add—by observing the natural structures of our bodies.

  1. Desh: Place or Habitat 

Food sustainability is all about eating in harmony with the place you live in, so it should be no surprise that this is one of the eight dietetics of Ayurveda. The concept of place encompasses the environment as well as the climate. It also refers to the habitat where the food came from, which may be different from the place you live. Finally, it considers the factors that affected the food’s growth, such as the use of chemical fertilizers or the quality of the soil.

In my grandmother’s time, the vegetables available at the market were grown not far from her home. They were always in season because they didn’t have a way of preserving out of season vegetables. Today, foods grown in other areas are more widely available, but she would not have bought them. She knew how important it was to our health to eat sustainable foods, so she wouldn’t be interested in an avocado grown in another part of the world.

  1. Kal: Time

Time can refer to the time of day, the time of the year (the season), the time of your life (your age), or the time between preparing and eating a meal. In the summertime, our digestion works differently than the wintertime, and we have different nutritional needs as children than we do as adults.

My grandmother understood this concept of time well. She knew that children needed milk in the morning for breakfast—in Ayurveda, milk nourishes all the seven tissues and major organs of the body (dhatus). Lunch was the largest meal of the day because the fire in the belly (digestion) is at its highest when the fire in the sky is highest. She also wouldn’t allow the household to eat leftovers, as food becomes heavier and harder to digest the longer it sits. Today, with the advances in refrigeration and preservation of food, we can keep food alive for longer and don’t have to adhere as strictly to this last component of time.

  1. Upayoga Samstha: Dietary Guidelines

This guideline is a bit more complicated than the rest because it describes all the general principles that influence how one should eat. In short, it advises the best way to consume food. Ayurveda says we should only eat when we’re hungry and when the previous meal has been digested. Food should also be consumed in a pleasant environment—one that’s clean, relaxed, and overall pleasing to the senses. We should also be mindful when eating and concentrate on the process itself instead of being surrounded by distractions.

My grandmother always emphasized the importance of sitting down and eating together. As I studied Ayurveda, I learned about the mechanics of digestion and how we process food differently when we’re sitting versus standing. The way we sat on the floor in a crossed-legged, relaxed position prepared our bodies for better digestion. Leaning over the plate forced us to move back and forth, mindfully activating the abdominal muscles with every bite. She also made sure there were no distractions while we were eating.

If she were here today, she would definitely not allow us to have our smartphones at the table.

  1. Upayogakta: the Eater’s Constitution 

The final rule of dietetics relates to the nature of the person eating in terms of the dosha: vata, pitta, and kapha. These qualities determine what and how much of each of the six tastes the eater can consume to maintain a healthy and balanced body.

My grandmother was very strict about the foods she allowed herself to eat, and she would get mad at us if we willingly ate a food that wasn’t good for our individual constitution. She did not make blanket rules for everyone, but observed our lifestyle, bowel habits, and general health as guides as to how we should eat.

Even as I practice Ayurvedic medicine today, offering food and plants as medicine while addressing pathology, the eight factors of dietetics remain the backbone of everyone’s preventative and sustainable dietary plan.

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