Food is one of the sources of prana, our vital energy. When we eat wholesome food, it is digested and metabolized to form the bodily tissues and gives us strength, immunity, and luster. But if the food is not properly digested, it disturbs all the doshas, and ultimately causes disease.
The Three Doshas and Their Role in Health and Disease
Dosha is a key concept of ayurveda, underpinning a holistic understanding of health and disease.
Good health is the result of a balance of three doshas in the body: vata, pitta, and kapha. They are physiological entities that maintain the proper functioning of the body. Vata actuates all movement and helps with communication and control; pitta carries out digestion and all the metabolic processes; kapha provides structure, stability, and lubrication. When their balance is disturbed, these same doshas cause disease. The ayurvedic approach to health therefore is to maintain homeostasis of these three dynamic entities.
By choosing healthy foods we can keep doshas in balance. But even the healthiest of foods will not be beneficial if not digested properly. How we eat, and how much, determines whether that food is properly digested to yield its benefits.
Guidelines for proper eating are discussed most lucidly in Charaka Samhita, a 3,000-year-old treatise of ayurveda.
1. Eat warm food because it tastes better; it enhances agni, the digestive fire, and thereby digestion proceeds faster. The warmth of the food helps to regulate vata and kapha, thus facilitating movement of the food down the digestive tract through peristalsis and lubrication.
2. Eat unctuous food (that contains a sufficient amount of fats and oils). This tastes better while also fueling the digestive fire, so the food gets digested quickly. The unctuousness of the food helps in the downward movement of vata. Fats help to build body mass and strength, promote sensory perception, and improve skin complexion.
3. Eat the right amount.
What is the right amount? If you visualize that your stomach has three parts, one part should be filled with solid food, one with liquid, and the third left empty so that the contents can be churned easily. This meal then moves down the gastro-intestinal tract, and gets digested easily and comfortably.
4. Eat only after the previous meal is digested.
This is a guideline that is most often flouted in today’s world of abundance. Temptations lurk everywhere; in refrigerators, pantries, cafes, and parties, beckoning us to indulge. We fool ourselves into thinking that a small snack will not cause any harm because it is a healthy food, or that since it is only a few calories it won’t bust our daily budget. What we don’t check is—Am I feeling hungry at this time? So while the previous meal is still half-digested in the stomach, and we are not really hungry, we eat some more. Now the half-digested previous meal gets mixed with the undigested snack in the stomach. Unable to process these two separately, the stomach empties before digestion is complete. Incompletely digested food quickly increases all the doshas. If our digestive fire is strong, it will help us recover from this abuse. But if this kind of snacking is habitual it is likely to result in an imbalance of doshas that leads to disease. The Charaka Samhita asks us to eat only after the previous meal is digested. Then the food is properly metabolized to form bodily tissues and promotes a long, healthy life.
5. Eat foods that are not incompatible. Foods that increase the doshas are called viruddha, or incompatible. They cause many ailments like skin diseases, boils, abscesses, emaciation of the body, loss of tejas (luster), fever, piles, fistula, and urinary disorders. Some examples of incompatible combinations are: milk with fish, milk with sour foods, milk with salt, yogurt with chicken, heated yogurt, radish with urad dal, radish or other raw vegetable followed by milk, honey in hot season or with hot water, honey and ghee and oil in equal proportions, and honey or alcohol with heating foods.
6. Eat in a pleasing environment with pleasing accessories. Calm surroundings and a clean table setting bring a tranquility of mind that helps us enjoy the food. If our mind is distracted by anger, grief, disgust, or other disturbing emotions, we lose our appetite and if we eat then, that meal does not get digested properly.
7. Don’t eat too fast.
8. Don’t eat too slowly. If you eat slowly, then you don’t feel satiated and there is a tendency to overeat. Also, if you spend more than half an hour on a meal, partly digested food mixes with undigested food in the stomach, upsetting your digestion.
9. Avoid talking or laughing, and focus on the food. Talking or laughing pose some of the same hazards as eating too fast. Food may enter the windpipe. Or we end up eating without paying attention to the qualities or the defects in the food.
10. Knowing yourself, eat what is beneficial for you. From personal experience you may already know which foods suit you and which don’t. Some people have lactose intolerance; some have gluten sensitivity, while others are extremely allergic to nuts. Often, we adapt well to foods we have eaten since childhood.
Keeping all this in mind, choose foods that you know are beneficial for you. So, the next time you feel tempted to indulge in candy, crackers, or even a few harmless nuts, ask yourself, “Am I really hungry right now?” Perhaps you are not, and the snack fulfills some other need. Perhaps you are thirsty, and a light beverage like herbal tea or water will satisfy the urge. Or you may just need a quiet moment to observe how you are feeling. Eventually, when you do feel strong pangs of hunger, you will know that it is true hunger. That is a good time to eat, and not just a snack but a full meal.
This discipline alone will regulate your appetite, strengthen your agni and will help prevent most digestive disorders.
Reference: Charaka Samhita, English translation by R.K. Sharma and Bhagwan Dash. Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office. Vimanasthana 1:24
Ashok Jethanandani, B.A.M.S. and Silvia Müller, B.A.M.S. are graduates of Gujarat Ayurved University, Jamnagar. Jethanandani now practices ayurveda in San Jose. The illustration is an original work by Silvia Müller. The concepts presented here are based on the classical texts of ayurveda. www.classical-ayurveda.com.