Many centuries ago, the sages of India laid down elaborate, intricate instructions on how to eat so you can live a hundred healthy years. They called their system of healing Ayurveda. (Ayu=life, Veda=study of). In the ayurvedic scheme of things, you don't follow diet charts, calculate calories, or keep track of nutrients by the milligram. Instead, you come home to a basic, often forgotten truth, and that is: your nutrition needs are as unique as your thumbprint.
In keeping with this core belief, ayurvedic healers urge you to eat foods that suit your individual body type. Do you feel the heat more than others? Then load up on cooling cucumber and avoid hot foods like chilies. Are you prone to excessive dryness of skin? Give your body moisture-rich foods, so your system is lubricated from the inside. In essence, eat to achieve balance, but do it without getting caught up in lists and quantities. Do it, instead, by listening: listen to your body, listen to the seasons, listen to nature.
The ayurvedic term for appetite and digestive power is agni: in Sanskrit, the word agni means fire. Just like the sun's energy peaks at mid-day, human agni also burns brightest at noon. That is why, ayurvedic physicians recommend making lunch your main meal. By the same logic, they ask you to eat a light but nutritious breakfast and dinner, when your agni is naturally dimmer. Honor the rhythms of your agni. Don't eat a large dinner to compensate for a day of rushed or missed meals, in doing so, you'll upset nature's rhythms. A heavy dinner is an assault on the digestive system, which would ideally like to wind down for the night. Result? Heaviness, bloating, gas and sleepless nights.
Begin with bit-sized changes in your routine. If you must eat a big dinner, eat it early in the evening, ideally by 7 PM, so your body gets time to digest the meal before you go to bed. Wake up just 15 minutes earlier than you usually do, so you can fix yourself a nourishing breakfast. For a power lunch, invest in a slow-cooker: when you reach office, put in some pre-cut vegetables, lentils, rice, and spices into the cooker, turn it on, and you'll have a hearty, healthy lunch ready by noon. Ayurvedic healers say each of us has a different digestive capacity and that by eating beyond that capacity creates toxic build-up in your system, slowing down the flow of nutrients and wastes through your body. This lowers immunity and in ayurvedic terms, it vitiates your prana-vata or life-force, making you vulnerable to disease. The ayurvedic rule of thumb: eat up to three- quarters of your capacity at any given meal. You know you've reached the three-quarter point when you're feeling satisfied but not full or loaded. Ayurvedic healers say Aaharah Pranah which means Food is life. And if food is life, it has to be filled with vitality: fresh, organic, seasonal, wholesome fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs, and spices are believed to carry with them nature's own intelligence, which seeps into each cell of your being. They are more than nutrition. They are nourishment.
Processed, canned, frozen and preserved foods, on the other hand, are seen as devoid of prana or vitality. Meat is considered a tamasic food: one that carries with it the toxic chemicals and negative emotions (chiefly terror and helplessness) that sweep through an animal before it is slaughtered. Besides, it is seen as heavy, hard-to-digest. But if you cannot give up meat, you should eat it at lunchtime, when your agni is strong enough to digest it well.
Tune in to Your taste-buds: Don't think carbohydrates, vitamins, antioxidants, and number of servings. Wake up, instead, to the sensuous world of aroma and flavor. Ayurveda believes there are six basic tastes that make up a healthy dinner plate: sweet (), salty (lavana), sour (amla), bitter (katu), pungent (tikta), and astringent (kashaya). Examples include:
Madhura: Rice, milk, wheat, butter, barley, pasta, potatoes, sweet potatoes, most legumes such as beans, lentils, and peas, sweet fruits such as dates, figs, pears and mangoes; sugar in any form, except honey, which is also considered astringent in taste. Lavana: any foods that contain salt, especially salt-heavy foods such as chips and pickles. Amla: citrus fruits such as oranges, limes, and lemons. Also cheese, yogurt, tomatoes, sour cream, whey, vinegar, soy sauce, sour cabbage and wine. Amla: citrus fruit such as oranges, limes, and lemons. Also cheese, yogurt, tomatoes, sour cream, whey, vinegar, soy sauce, sour cabbage and wine. Katu: turmeric, eggplant, zucchini, fenugreek, and leafy greens. Tikta: spices such as black pepper, mustard, cumin, garlic, ginger, cayenne and other chili peppers, radishes. Kashaya: beans, lentils, walnuts, hazelnuts, honey, sprouts, lettuce, rhubarb, most raw vegetables, pomegranates, apples, berries, persimmons, cashews and unripe fruits.
Shubhra Krishan is a journalist and a student of Ayurveda. Her book, Essential Ayurveda (New World Library; 2003) shows readers how to use Ayurvedic principles to create a balanced diet and lifestyle for their optimum health.