Ayurvedic Nutrition and Diet: an Ancient, Traditional Perspective

Healthy Digestion - Healthy Body!

According to Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, the digestive system is the physical root of most diseases in the body. In other words, as disease develops, its early signs are often seen as digestive problems. Gas, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, and bloating are all considered to be warning signs of future problems that are more serious. If the digestive system is properly cared for, many diseases can be averted and diseases that are present have a better chance of healing. Ayurveda places a lot of emphasis of the care of the digestive system. In doing so, Ayurveda addresses not only what food is best for an individual, but also how food is best eaten and how it is best combined.

If proper food is taken in the proper manner, most digestive problems go away. For those that do not, Ayurveda utilizes herbs to normalize the function of the digestive system. How do you know if you have digestive problems that may cause future challenges? Most of the signs are obvious. If you have gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or cramping, then you have mild but important signs of imbalance. If you have been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, or GIRD (gastrointestinal reflux disorder), your challenges are more serious but can still be helped. The knowledge of Ayurveda is important to the correction of all digestive imbalances. Proper digestion begins not with what you eat but how you eat it. Here are five simple but important guidelines to assure that your digestion is optimal.

1. Begin meals with a moment of relaxation or grace: When the body is relaxed and focused on the food, digestive enzyme secretion is maximized.
2. Eat in a calm environment: When the mind is involved in drama and emotion, digestion is disturbed. Turn off the TV, don't discuss intense issues at the dinner table, and avoid eating while driving in the car.
3. Chew your food well: Digestion begins with chewing. Proper chewing allows enzymes in the saliva to begin the digestive process. Food should be chewed until it is an even consistency.
4. Eat until you are satisfied, not until you are full: Overeating is one of the major causes of digestive upset and subsequent disease in Western countries. The surest way to extend life for most people is to eat less. It is important to learn the difference between genuine hunger and the desire for pleasure through taste.
5. Rest before going on to the next activity: For optimal digestion, it is important to rest after eating. Failure to rest means that the body's physiology will switch away from digestion and toward the activity of the muscles of the body. This leaves poorly digested food in the digestive system. It is best to wait at least twenty minutes before going on to the next activity.
Simply eating food properly will alleviate a lot of chronic digestive problems, thereby preventing more serious disease. When this is combined with a healthy diet, the effect is even more dramatic and almost all digestive problems disappear. Ayurveda teaches that the best diet is the one that is proper for a person's constitution; their unique balance of body energies. People with a more vata nature, or those who suffer from constipation and gas, tend to need more cooked foods taken with some oil and spices, including salt. It may come as a surprise to find that raw salads can cause more gas. Those with a more pitta nature, or those who suffer from burning indigestion and loose stools, need to eat more raw foods and take food that is less spicy and less oily. Deep fried foods are the worst food for people with pitta imbalances. Those with a kapha nature, or those who tend to feel heavy and sluggish and sometimes get nauseous after eating, require food that is dry, light and spicy. People with a kapha nature thrive as vegetarians. What food should you eat? Ayurveda teaches that everyone is a unique individual. Nothing is right for everyone but everything is right for someone. Ayurveda is a path of finding out what is right for you. For the best personalized dietary plan, consult a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist. In addition to supporting dietary and lifestyle changes, your Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist may design individualized herbal formulas to give your digestive system and the rest of your body its best chance of getting well.

Principles of Ayurvedic Nutrition

Ayurveda is based on the belief that nothing is right for everyone and everything is right for someone. This belief comes from an understanding that each of us is unique. Simply put, each of us is biochemically different with different hormonal, enzyme, and neurotransmitter levels. Each person reacts to the world in different ways. If we are all different, why would we even consider the idea that there must be one program of nutrition that is best for everyone? Where did the idea come from?

The United States Department of Agriculture publishes daily recommended allowances of vitamins and minerals. For decades people have taken these guidelines as the “bible” and carefully read food labels to understand how much of each nutrient they are getting. The American Heart Association also publishes recommendations for the amount of fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy people should consume. People routinely use these guidelines to see how they measure up. These guidelines are based upon statistical models of the “average American” and research based in “current science.”

The problem with statistical models is that the average American is a myth found only in statistical research papers. In real life, individual needs can vary significantly. Meanwhile, current science is simply the best conclusion that can be made given available data. The problem with “current science” is that it is quickly outdated and never complete as new information is constantly being gathered. What is accepted as the truth today is often found to be wrong tomorrow. A good case in point is the intake of cholesterol. While America has become obsessed with lowering cholesterol intake, studies published over the last couple of years in the prestigious British Medical Journal reveal that low cholesterol numbers, while protecting against cardiovascular disease, seem to increase the risk of certain cancers. In addition, supplements and herbs once thought to be “quackery” are now observed to have complex biochemical interactions beneficial in a wide variety of conditions.

What should a person do? There are many ideas on the bookshelves about how to eat and stay healthy. There are diets named after the people who wrote the books, diets named after the foods eaten, diets named after blood types and diets that promise to keep you in the “zone”. New books and ideas are published every month. Ayurveda is a 5000 year old science that aims to help a person understand what is right for them as a unique individual. By evaluating how a person’s digestive system, nervous system and other systems of the body function and by evaluating a person’s body structure, a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist designs a diet specific to clients needs.

Ayurvedic Medicine teaches that people who have a “vata” nature--those people who are thin, dry, and often feel cold--need more grains, oils, salt and a little spice in their diet. Those who do not receive enough are prone to anxiety, constipation, and sleeplessness among many other conditions. They need nourishing foods and often have difficulty maintaining a vegetarian diet. People of vata nature should avoid too many salads and fruits as well as beans and take in more grains, dairy and nuts.

People of “pitta” nature--those who tend to be warm and have a more intense and highly focused nature--are understood to need more raw vegetables and food which are only mildly spiced. Hot, spicy food is believed to lead to a greater incidence of skin rashes, liver weakness, and anger. Large salads are wonderful.

People of “kapha” nature--those who tend to be overweight or stocky and often move and speak very slowly--benefit from lighter foods such as vegetables and salads and thrive on hot, spicy foods. If sweet, heavy, oily foods are taken in too great of a quantity it can lead to greater mucous accumulation as well as further weight gain and diabetes mellitus. People with a kapha nature should avoid all sweets, dairy, nuts, and most grains such as wheat and rice. However, grains such as quinoa and millet can be taken.

Nothing is right for everyone, everything is right for someone. Ayurveda avoids the “everybody must” dogma in favor individually tailored food programs to meet the needs of individuals. With a proper diet and lifestyle, Ayurveda’s goal is to help each person reach their maximum potential, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Simple Ayurvedic Food Tips for Each Dosha





Best Foods

Cooked grains, butter, dairy, nuts, cooked vegetables

Raw Salads, cooked grains, milk, seeds

Salads, cooked vegetables, spicy foods, quinoa, millet, corn flour and buckwheat

Worst Foods

Raw salads, fruits, beans

Hot, Spicy foods, sour foods, deep
fried foods, fermented foods such as yogurt and vinegar.

Dairy, meat, cheese, nuts, wheat and rice


Fats and Oils - Has Science Gone Astray?

Fats, the long time enemy of those who want to prevent heart disease, are getting a second look in light of new evidence that reveals that fats may play an important role in the prevention of some cancers. Recent research published in the British Medical Journal has revealed that while low levels of fats protect us against heart disease, they may also increase our susceptibility to certain kinds of cancers. Another study revealed that milk fats contain substances protective toward our bodies which prevent some cancers from forming. In light of this new research, it is important that each person reassess their attitudes toward fats and oils.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD: heart disease and strokes) is the number one killer in the United States. Each year it kills more than twice the number of people as all cancers combined. Modern methods of nutrition have focused on the prevention of this group of diseases though diet and exercise. A diet low in saturated fats and cholesterol has been the cornerstone of prevention. Repeated studies have concluded that lower blood cholesterol levels and triglycerides (circulating fats) reduce the incidence of these conditions. In addition, it has been shown that exercise also lowers their incidence in part through raising HDL and lowering LDL. (HDL and LDL are often called good and bad fats; in fact they are proteins that carry fat within the body).

The new research showing that lower fat levels may increase the incidence of some cancers should not come as a great surprise. Fat has always been known to play an important role in the body, particularly in the production of all cell membranes, many hormones, the sheaths that surround nerves, and the oils that keep our skin healthy. Those who receive too little fat in their diet are more likely to suffer from a multitude of conditions including hormonal imbalances, brittle hair and nails, dry skin, and Raynaud's disease (cold, painful sensations in the fingers, toes, ears and nose due to vasospasm of the small vessels).

It would be wrong to conclude that fat is either absolutely good for us or absolutely bad for us. Perhaps this is why there has been so much confusion and disagreement among the experts. Effective arguments can be made for either point of view. Dean Ornate, MD, well received as an expert in nutrition, advocates very low fat diets as being optimal for preventing and reversing, heart disease. Another recognized expert, Robert Atkins, MD, blames heart disease on high carbohydrate diets and advocates low carbohydrate, high protein diets. He does not recommend restricting fat. Could both experts be right? Perhaps future research will try to answer an as yet, unasked question. Could higher levels of fat be good for some people and harmful for others? If so, who would fall into each category?

Ayurvedai, the traditional healing system from India, is based upon the understanding that each person is an individual with unique nutritional needs. Ayurveda teaches that those people of vata nature--who are lighter, thin boned, have narrow faces and thin, scanty hair, dry skin, and a nervous or anxious nature--benefit from extra fats and oils in their diet. In fact, according to Ayurveda, the oils reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, those of a more pitta nature--who have a moderate build, focused, intense, deep set eyes and early graying of the hair--and those of kapha nature--stocky, dense bones, short necks, round faces, generally calm and relaxed--become unhealthy when exposed to too much fat. Those of a kapha nature are understood to be the most susceptible to traditional risk factors of cardiovascular disease. Increased body weight is a known risk factor of CVD and kapha individuals having a slower metabolism are often overweight.

With all of this conflicting information, what is a person to do? I am reminded of the wise words of the great Rishi (mystic) Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. In summary he says, "...take only those foods which are pure and produce a clear mind. Take them all in moderation." Moderation is the best choice for the general community.

If you are very thin, do not fear fats, they are your friend. As Ayurveda teaches, they may reduce your risk of CVD and also of other conditions such as anxiety. It is best to take healthy fats from naturally occurring sources such as vegetable oils, nuts, milk and eggs. Oils such as olive, sesame and ghee are the best as they are somewhat heavy oils. They have a moderate percentage of saturated fats and are high in mono-unsaturated fats. If you are heavy, reduce your intake of fats. Not only will they increase your risk of CVD but also of diabetes. If you do take oils, use polyunsaturated oils such as safflower, they are lighter. Everyone should avoid excessive un-natural fats such as those from deep fried foods and oils which are old and rancid. For specific individualized dietary plans, see a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist. And, remember, to further reduce your risk of cardiovascular, avoid smoking, exercise regularly, relax often, and have your blood pressure checked regularly.

Beware of modern science. There is a tendency to leap into the current theories being promoted as though they express the whole truth. Modern science is outdated every ten years, replaced by newer, still incomplete information. It was, after all, "modern science" that once told us that babies would thrive more on bottled milk than on breast milk, that the chemical DES was safe for pregnant woman, that marijuana has no useful medical value, and that you can safely lose weight by taking the drug fen-phen. Modern science still tells us that pesticides in reasonable doses are safe.

Use common sense and intuition. All great traditional healing sciences (Native American, Ayurvedic, Chinese) focus on principles of truth, based in spirit, tested though time and which stand eternal. Moderation is the safest approach unless a person is guided by an expert in the field.