It has been understood for thousands of years that what we put in our bodies ultimately defines our health. In the present, this can not be more clear given the sheer amount of both healthy, and unhealthy, food that is available today. Moreover, with obesity rates in the United States growing as steadily as the population’s waistlines, it seems critical that we take a look back towards the cultural sensibilities surrounding the diets that have sustained us prior to the advent of an industrialized food system. In Ayurveda, the diet was said to be the beginning and end of all discussions surrounding one’s health. Moreover, food was never considered in a vacuum, and its effects were always considered holistically: bringing in considerations of food's effect on the body, the mind, as well as the ability to be spiritually connected. In order to make sense of how foods influenced so many factors of overall human health, a robust and meticulous system of researching individual foods and herbs was created. Beyond examining the foods themselves, also studied by the ancient Ayurvedic physicians was how the food was taken, with whom, at what time of year, and with the person’s unique energetic makeup, known as their primary dosha, were all considered in a complex matrix of interconnected cause and effect. This hyper-specific and nuanced way of harnessing food as medicine is what makes the Ayurvedic approach so unique, elegant, and effective. What’s more is, by studying Ayurvedic nutrition, we can glimpse novel strategies to improve our own everyday health and wellbeing.
PART 1: UNDERSTANDING AYURVEDIC FUNDAMENTALS
While the aforementioned complex nature of Ayurvedic nutritional strategies may seem daunting at first, it is ironically also quite simple. The first thing that one needs to understand in demystifying Ayurveda is the understanding of a few key terms. These being the Dosha, which includes three sub-types: Kapha, Pitta, and Vata, as well as the concepts of Agni, Ojas, and Ama. Simply put, the three doshas represent a categorization of all aspects of bodily function, including the mental faculties. Kapha represents the aspects of the body that are energy building, lubricating, and providing shape and structure to the body. The Pitta aspect of the body governs all aspects of heat and transformation that the body undergoes on a daily basis. Where Kapha makes stored energy, Pitta transforms it from one aspect to another, such as through hormonal signaling or digestive enzymatic activity. Lastly, Vata regulates any and all movement in the body as well as when moving into the greater world at large and interacting with our environment. Our cognition can be thought of as a form of movement as well, and this too is governed by Vata.
While all living beings must contain all three doshas in order to be considered alive, there are natural variabilities in the way that these three doshas stay in harmonious relationship with each other and maintain balance. Put another way, it is fairly common that each human has “more of” or a more active fluctuation in, a particular dosha compared to another dosha, and this manifests in both the person’s appearance, but also in the playing out of their health: their metabolic strengths, and metabolic weaknesses. This is one way Ayurveda finds pattern recognition in pathology, and after millennia of refinement, can address these patterned imbalances through diet, as well as anticipate how a disease will get worse if untreated, or resolve when properly balanced. For instance, a vata-dominant individual may have weak digestion that is often moving too quickly and is highly sensitive to many types of foods. That is to say, the Vata within them is reactionary, and moves too fast and furiously to respond to foods. Moreover, the person may have a mind that moves too quickly, resulting in fear or anxiety over the myriad of ways disaster may befall them. In this case, the Vata is clearly imbalanced, and the Ayurvedic practitioner will move to balance the vata by providing it with structure, caloric nourishment, and warmed or gently cooked foods to aid the weak digestion. Nuts as seeds, being oily and calorie-dense, are a natural example of a balancing food in this scenario. Moreover, it is worth considering that a seed is planted, and lies still in the ground for a fixed amount of time, before springing to life. This aspect of stillness can be said to be a balance to the movement-focused Vata dosha.
PART 2: UNDERSTANDING AYURVEDIC DIGESTION
Once an understanding of the dosha within an individual is fully characterized in terms of balance, we can now turn towards digestion itself. According to Ayurveda, proper digestion is the causative factor for all health and all disease. Proper digestion however did have two meanings: the digestion of food, and the digestion of one’s thoughts and emotions. This ability to transform is governed primarily by the Pitta dosha and its dominion over the concept of Agni. Agni means fire, and in this instance, it means the fires of digestion. In reality, the Ayurvedic texts characterize 13 different types or aspects of Agni as they relate to 13 different ways we can observe transformation. When in balance, Agni will transform our foods, which have been selected based on season, doshic harmonies, and spices will be used to further enhance the effects of the food on maintaining doshic balance. In this instance, it is the foods themselves, and the Agni of digestion that, in health, transform the entirety of what is eaten into life-giving essence, known as Ojas. Ojas is sometimes referred to as “life-giving sap” and Ojas is only made perfectly, without error, when all aspects of food choices are considered and balanced with the doshic tendencies of the individual.
This is not dissimilar from The Food Matrix, an evolving concept in biology that seeks to explain how a food is prepared, will impact its nutritional value in the body. For instance, the apple, with its fiber and antioxidant-rich skin will cause less of a blood sugar spike than apple juice, even when adjusted calorically to be even. This concept is currently growing in nutritionist circles, and also explains the importance of other phytochemicals found in foods rather than strictly looking at macromolecular levels of fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Moreover, the food matrix concept also posits that this complex milieu of dietary chemicals also contributes to the success of things like dietary antioxidants. Dietary antioxidants have been studied in their supplement form with mixed results; however, whole food research, such as studies on the Mediterranean Diet, observe the benefits of dietary antioxidants on cardiovascular health, but without a well understood mechanism. The concept of the food matrix essentially provides an understanding of the how to the observation of the benefits from a whole foods diet. In Ayurveda, the concept of the food matrix was understood and never questioned, as whole foods were consistently applied.
When foods are not fully transformed into Ojas by virtue of a weakened Agni, or when incorrect foods are chosen, toxins result from an irritated dosha as opposed to the foods holistically nourishing the body. These toxins are known as Ama, and Ama accumulates in the body. Where the Ama accumulates, and what type of unique havoc it wreaks, will also be Dosha dependent. For instance, the Kapha individual will gain weight rapidly and become lethargic while the Pitta individual will have acid reflux and heart palpitations. The Ama will flow, like all liquids, in the path of least resistance, and lodge itself until it can be detoxified with proper dietary and herbal strategies. In this way, improper digestion can be thought of as the functional unit by which human health declines.
PART 3: THE 6 FLAVORS
When trying to understand how to best select foods for one’s doshic makeup, it is important to understand Ayurveda’s definitions of the flavors. While flavors are indeed gustatory sensations, Ayurvedic doctors have studied and characterized the effects each flavor has on the three dosha. Given what has been discussed, it should come as no surprise that Pitta, which governs Agni and the fires of the body, can be irritated by spicy foods since it is already hot enough on its own. Thus, a diet of highly spicy foods will not be well tolerated, ama will accumulate, and in this case, cause acid of the stomach to counterflow into the esophagus. According to Ayurveda, continued intake of spicy foods would expect the blood pressure and vessels to be negatively impacted leading to hypertension and, in the extreme, stroke or heart attack.
The six flavors are Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Pungent, and Astringent. The sweet taste nourishes the Kapha and calms the Vata and Pitta. In balance, a person who is low weight and has dry skin will benefit from the sweet, helping them gain healthy weight and improve their sense of dryness. Out of balance, such as in a Kapha individual, the sweetness will cause too much weight gain and oily unhealthy skin. Sour calms the Vata aspect of ourselves and promotes the Pitta and Kapha aspects of the body. Salty will improve Pitta and Kapha while decreasing Vata. While you might question how salty could improve Kapha, which would be to say it improves moisture within the body, the Ayurvedic doctors observed that water follows salt, and improves its retention, thus having a net hydrating effect, when in balance. The bitter flavor improves the functions of Vata while pacifying Pitta and Kapha within us. Pungent nourishes the Vata and Pitta aspect of ourselves while decreasing the Kapha within. Lastly, the Astringent flavor aids the Vata and decreases Pitta and Kapha.
By understanding the dosha and their responses to these flavors, one can immediately begin administering Ayurvedic nutritional approaches. Moreover, when in health, it is important to have all these flavors present at any given meal, since this will play a role in maintaining the balance of overall digestion and thus the person’s future in health.
STEP 4: PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
As we have seen, there is much to consider when using Ayurvedic nutrition to heal and maintain balance. That said, it can be summated into three easy steps: first, understand the doshic balance of the individual, are they more Kapha, Pitta, or Vata, or is it a perfect mixture of the three? Secondly, use the dosha to make overall dietary recommendations. Vata types will benefit from sweet, sour, and salty foods that are heavy, moist, and warming while avoiding bitter, pungent, and astringent foods. Pitta types should favor sweet, bitter, and astringent foods that are cooling and drier, as well as avoiding alcohol and caffeine as these are hot in nature. Meanwhile, Kapha types who are naturally predisposed to weight gain should focus on light, dry, and warming foods that are more bitter, pungent, and astringent and should avoid excess sweet, sour, and salty foods. The third step is to use these flavors effectively with your spices and seasonings when an imbalance manifests. This includes the emotions, such as when we are angry, Pitta is irritated, favor sweetness to nourish and restore, and astringent flavors to calm and restrain. If one is fearful, Vata now is imbalanced, the sweet and salty flavors provide stability and calm to Vata. Lastly, depression and unhealthy complacency suggest the slow-moving Kapha is imbalanced, causing the spirit itself to feel stuck. They can be uplifted using warming pungent foods that open the sinuses and bitter foods which help kickstart the fires of digestion.
As nutritional science continues to explore the mechanisms of how food impacts our health, including our mental health, through things like the food matrix or microbiome, each deeper scientific discovery only seems to validate the traditional wisdom of Ayurveda. Moreover, this method of holistic approaches to nutrition and dietary advice is as fun to work with as they are fascinating. By reframing all food as an interactive medicine that will have unique impacts on each unique person, we create room for a better understanding of the dietary choices that we make including their benefits, as well as their consequences. Additionally, Ayurveda gives us the framework to understand the psycho-nutritional impacts of foods and how to select the correct meals and seasons to balance not just our bodies, but our minds and spirits as well.