Navigating the world of food for health can be overwhelming and confusing. There is so much information “out there” where do you start to know what is right for you?
As a society, we have become obsessed with cooking programs on TV but we are more disconnected than ever with our bodily processes! We have forgotten how to create good digestion, balance and health in our own lives but tend to look outside of ourselves for the answers.
Ayurveda can help you to reconnect with your innate body wisdom, trust what your body is asking for and know how to use food as medicine once again.
Food as medicine is a big topic, but Ayurveda can make it simple… once you know how!
Like most modern healthy food trends ancient Ayurvedic recommends your food is fresh, seasonal and plant based. It is low in sugar, (but does not exclude good healthy sugars).
And most importantly it is chosen for your individual needs.
Today I’ll focus on three key principles.
The 5 elements and how they relate to the 6 tastes
Like Increases Like and Opposites creates Balance, and Awareness
The Five Elements and Six Tastes
Ayurveda reminds us that we are a part of nature. We are made of the same building blocks as nature. Earth, water, fire, air and space. These elements are in everything in our world including us and our food!
Each of these elements has their own qualities.
Space is empty, light, subtle and all pervading
Air is light, dry, mobile and cold.
Fire is hot, sharp, penetrating and luminous.
Water is moist, fluid, heavy, soft, viscous, and cold; and
Earth is heavy, hard, dense and slow.
These qualities, indeed these five elements are ubiquitous they are everywhere and in everything!
Can you see how sometimes you are warm or cold; mobile or slow; dry or moist; feeling sharp or dense; light or heavy. These qualities, called Gunas, pervade all life!
We each have our own unique blend of these elements that make up our psycho/biological/emotional blueprint. This means that what creates health and balance in me is probably not the same as what makes you feel good.
So, how does this relate to using food as medicine?
Ayurveda has a sophisticated system of understanding foods and how they affect the body and mind.With this knowledge you can use different foods for balancing and healing.
Ayurveda classifies food according to its taste (rasa), post digestive effect (vipaka), subtle temperature (virya), subtle quality (Guna), and seasonal compatibility and special quality (Prabhav).
Today we are going to explore the taste, Rasa and the subtle temperature effect or Virya of food.
Ayurveda recognises 6 tastes:
Sweet, sour, salty, pungent (spicy), bitter and astringent. Each taste is made up of predominantly two of the five elements.
The taste, Rasa, of a food affects every layer of our being; physically, emotionally, mentally and our subtle bodies too.
As each taste has a predominance of two elements they will, as we eat them, increase that elements qualities in your body.
Understanding how a food can increase or decrease these elements in your psycho/biological complex brings us to the Second Principle we are focusing on today.
Like Increase Like and Opposites Creates Balance
When you naturally, as your blueprint, have an abundance of one or more elements/qualities and you eat foods that share these qualities they will naturally increase in your system.
As the sweet taste has an abundance of the heavier elements earth and water with its slow, cool and heavy qualities it is building and will increase body mass. It also creates in the right amount feeling grounded and content. Beneficial sweet foods are dates, most grains, most dairy foods, root vegetables like sweet potato and sweet fruits.
Too many sweet foods, especially the poor quality processed sweets (you know the ones!), creates excess weight, lethargy, heaviness and dullness. If you are experiencing these symptoms you can choose foods that have the opposite qualities to create balance. This could be foods that are lighter in nature like most vegetables and bitter greens, dry crackers; and lighter to digest like warm soup.
The sour taste carries fire and earth and the qualities of warmth into the body it. Sour foods include all fermented foods and drink like alcohol, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, soy sauce and yogurt. It also includes sour fruits like granny smith apples, oranges and some berries.
Too much sour taste can create excess heat, loose stool, burning sensation and heaviness.
Spicy (pungent) foods are hot spices like chili and cayenne and even black pepper. They increase the fire element….no surprises there and will create the symptoms just mentioned above!
The salty taste increases secretions in the body. It can in the right amount stimulate digestion and flow in the body. Too much and it will create water retention and excess heat.
The spicy, salty and the sour tastes all have a predominance of the fire element which gives a heating post digestive effect. They all warm the body.
Eat these foods too often, or even just regularly if you already have an abundance of fire, can promote feeling irritable, or create inflammation or burning sensations in the body, skin rashes and loose stool.
These symptoms are your body’s way of saying that it is accumulated too much of the fire element!
To create balance when there is too much heat firstly, abstain from the heating substances, and replace them with cooling foods that have more of the water and earth and air elements depending on your body’s symptom and needs.
This can include foods that are predominantly sweet and bitter such as coriander, cucumber, coconuts, dates, rice and aloe vera and fresh greens like lettuces and dandelion. These foods will cool and nourish your body. If there is too much water holding in your body opt for less watery foods and choose more dry foods and warm spices to strengthen digestion.
The astringent taste has an abundance of the air and earth elements. It is found mostly in legumes and brassicas like brussel sprouts, cauliflower. For many these can be hard to digest and create wind! The tannins in tea are also astringent. This quality is drying and in excess will increase the air element.
The bitter taste is cleansing and is generally little used in our Western diet. Bitter includes many cleansing herbs like Dandelion, burdock and golden seal. In our diet we see the bitter taste mostly in salad greens like radicchio, chicory and rocket.
Eating excess of bitter and astringent foods can provoke excess wind/air in your body and mind creating bloating, dry skin, dry constipation, worry, anxiety or simply feeling scattered.
To balance excess of the air element and the cold, dry and lightening qualities it brings, eat foods that have the opposite qualities that are grounding, warm, moist, nourishing and a little oily.
Create warmth either by eating more cooked food, which is easier to digest and using warming spices. Ginger is a good way to bring in warmth and decrease the air element. It is better than chili for increasing warmth as chilli’s strong heat creates dryness; like the sun baking the earth dry.
Sour foods like sauerkraut stimulate digestion when there is too much air element. The water element can be added either by drinking more warm water between meals or eating foods that are moist like soup and stews.
Enjoying earthy sweet grounding foods such as dates, sweet potato and good fats like ghee, avocado and olive oil or hemp oil will alleviate the air elements dryness. Warmth will alleviate the cool quality, either by cooking your food or increasing spices.
In general sweet, bitter and astringent foods have a cooling effect in the body. These tastes can be used to good effect if you are experiencing the symptoms of excess heat mentioned above.
There are, however, always a few exceptions to the rule. These foods have a Prabhav or special quality. They are the food rebels who don’t follow the rules!Honey tastes sweet but has a heating effect in the body.
Ginger is spicy but has a harmonising effect on digestion. (if you have a lot of heat I would recommend only using dried ginger not fresh as it is less heating).
Lemons taste sour but are sweet, cooling and alkalinizing to the body.
And bananas taste sweet but they have a sour post digestive effect which gives them a heating effect.
Understanding how the taste of your food is connected to the five elements gives you the power to choose food for your health and balance!
It all comes down to our third focus for today…
Ayurveda is all about developing Awareness.Your body is always communicating with you.Tune in….listen, feel and look.Get to know which qualities (gunas) are your common experience. Do you often feel dry with dry skin or throat? Do you have a tendency to develop bloating and gas or wind/air in your gut?Maybe you tend to have more fire in your nature have oily or sensitive skin and a tendency to skin rashes, loose bowel movements and often have light sensitive eyes.Or maybe you have little appetite and often feel heavy after eating. Maybe you have an abundance of the earth and water elements and feel heavy and sluggish when you wake. It may take you a little while to warm up into the day.There is any number of experiences for each individual but you have probably noticed certain tendencies in your own life.Developing this awareness of what your tendencies are, especially in your digestive system, will give you the power to make the right food choices for you.Eating Ayurvedically doesn’t mean eating Indian food, as delicious as it its! Once you can join the dots between a foods taste and its effect on your whole being, then you can use food as medicine!
It is different for everyone!