“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates
Food is ritual. It is a practice we partake in every day, and one that sustains our longevity. Often what we eat and how we eat go unnoticed or unappreciated in our daily routine. The Sanskrit word “sadhana” means spiritual practice. Our food sadhana or how we consume that which nourishes us is sacred. Everything we take in through our sense of taste is life force feeding us—be it a plant grown from the Earth or an animal raised on the land. Our relationship with food is often overlooked yet it is vital to our existence. Across cultures, food is symbolic of connection—connection with each other and with our environment. Eating is a way of cultivating harmony with all that surrounds us and importantly, within ourselves. Ayurveda emphasizes the ritual of eating, in that how we eat affects our digestion, more so than what we eat. Inviting mindfulness into every bite directly affects our health. Food is a form of love, so when we eat with intention we cultivate contentment. Below are healthy eating guidelines to encourage proper digestion and cultivate balance. Start with a few.
Prepare your food with love and intention.
Yes, the emotions we experience are infused in what we make. If you are anxious or angry while preparing a meal, the food will adopt this energy. Take a few moments to breathe intention and remind yourself that this food is offering up its existence to nourish your own. Create it with love and attention.
Eat in a tranquil space.
The Ancient Chinese called it “Feng Shui” and the Rishis called it “Vastu.” There is a science to design. How you create your sacred space and the ambiance you cultivate for meals directly affects your psyche on a subtle level. Clear the clutter, set the mood. Candlelight dinners bring in the element of fire, a digestive force. Eat in an environment that encourages harmonious digestion.
Eat without distractions.
No TV or scrolling on social media. No eating in the car or on the go. Take the time to be present with your food. Enjoy Sattvic or nourishing conversation rather than talk that provokes emotional reactivity. Perhaps try enjoying a meal in silence. Energy flows where awareness goes. If we detract too much focus from our food, it is digested less efficiently.
Offer gratitude for the meal.
Whether you say grace, chant a mantra, or simply offer a silent thank you, take a moment to connect with your food and honor its gift. It carries prana and life energy that is, in turn, nourishing your life energy.
Chew your food to an even consistency.
In our fast-paced world, we catch ourselves inhaling rather than eating. Chewing directly affects your digestion and begins the breakdown of food. In addition, if your food doesn’t have time to mix with saliva and sit with your taste buds, your brain will not register that you are receiving the nutrients necessary and overeating may occur.
Eat until you are 75% full.
Allow time for your body to assimilate the food and communicate to your brain that you are nourished and full. Hippocrates said, “Everything in excess is opposed by nature,” and as Ayurveda follows the laws of nature, we are reminded that nature does not hurry. Be patient and ask yourself, “Am I truly still hungry?” Often times, overeating is a response to filling a void for nourishment we lack in other parts of our lives.
Drink only a small amount of liquid with your meals.
Ayurveda recommends no more than half a cup to drink—preferably warm or room temperature. This is because cold water dampens your digestive fire or agni and slows digestion.
Avoid cold foods & drinks.
Save your smoothies for summer and leave the ice alone. Ayurveda explains that cold food and drink put out your digestive fire. It’s akin to throwing snow on a campfire.
Enjoy food that is warm, moist or oily.
Cook your food until you smell the aroma. This begins breakdown of food and aids in digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Aim for a half tablespoon of oil per meal. You can modify quantity depending on your dosha. Oil maintains the strength of your cells and helps hold water in the body.
Wait at least 3 hours before each meal.
The best analogy to explain this concept is that of a rice cooker. If you begin a batch of rice and throw in another cup 30 minutes in, you’ll wind up with rice that is half cooked and half hardened. The concept is the same for Ayurveda. Eat with less than 3 hours between a meal and your body will be less efficient in digesting food. You’ll wind up weakening your digestion. If you need to snack, opt for fruit.
Eat your largest meal at noon.
The Pitta time of day is from 10am–2pm (and while we sleep, 10pm to 2am). Eating at noon, the peak Pitta time, is when your digestive fire is the strongest and food will be more efficiently metabolized.
Rest after eating.
Take 15-20 minutes. This follows the principle of energy flows where awareness goes. Rest allows your body to focus on digestion, extracting nutrients, and sending what is needed to other parts of the body.
Consume organic and fresh foods.
Try to avoid processed foods. Eat foods that are fresh and no more than 18 hours old after cooking them. Ayurveda explains that our food contains prana and as our food begins to deteriorate, the prana leaves it, making the food less nourishing. A helpful tip: subscribe to a local CSA or farmers alliance that can deliver your fresh local vegetables weekly.
Avoid consuming foods with contradicting potencies.
Proper food combining can be tricky. Similar foods with opposite energies can disrupt digestion. For example, if you combine raw foods and cooked foods, the raw foods will start to ferment in the body. Take some time to familiarize yourself with food combining principles.
Choose foods according to your constitution and season.
As we’ve come to learn in Ayurveda, each person is a unique mix of the doshas – vata, pitta and kapha. Depending on your dominant dosha and your current imbalance, you will find the most balance and nourishment in your meals if the foods you ingest contain the opposing qualities of your imbalance. For example, if you are suffering from vata vitiation (qualities as cold, mobile, sharp) and you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or spun out, you will benefit from foods that are warming, sweet, and grounding. Think soups and root vegetables. Furthermore, you can factor the seasons into your diet. Fall to early winter is dominated by vata. Early winter into spring is kapha. Summer is pitta. Choose foods that balance these energies.
Include all six of the Ayurvedic tastes on your plate.
To avoid creating cravings, it is important for your meals to include all six of the tastes—sour, pungent, salty, sweet, bitter, and astringent. Since food is medicine, it is recommended that 75% of your plate includes tastes that pacify the current dosha that is out of balance.
Eat your food in order of optimal digestion.
If you really want to work in resonance with the digestive process, begin with sweet foods. These activate the kapha part of digestion, allowing for saliva secretions and enzymes to help break down food. Take in salty and pungent spices next, which increase agni. Finish with bitter and astringent foods such as salad or tea at the end of the meal.
The above list offers several ways in which you can enhance your digestion through Ayurvedic practices. Creating lifestyle changes takes time and patience. Start with a few of these guidelines. As they become integrated into your everyday routine, you can add more.
Ayurvedic Cooking for Healing by Dr. Vasant Lad
Principles of Ayurvedic Medicine by Dr. Marc Halpern
The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies: Based on the Timeless Wisdom of India’s 5,000-Year-Old Medical System by Dr. Vasant Lad