With so many fad diets coming and going throughout our lifetimes, it's no wonder there is so much confusion about how we should eat. While diets can be polar opposites, like a vegan raw diet versus a paleo diet that's full of animal protein, Ayurveda makes things simple for us. In the preface to the Charaka Samhita, the translator outlines a lot of important topics, including "ten principles underlying the wholesome diet and its intake."
I'm going to list all ten of the principles as well as why they are important. These are general guidelines for foods that will be easily digestible and therefore, will aid in the absorption of nutrients, help avoid digestive distress, and aid in proper elimination. If these ten principles sound unmanageable, I like to suggest that people use the 80/20 rule. They may try to see their food through the lens of Ayurveda, always being tuned in with their bodies to see how they feel when abiding by these principles but not making any of their favorite foods forbidden. Striving for 100 percent compliance may lead us to frustration and failure, so it's important to allow for some wiggle room.
The food should be hot: This may be hard to hear for salad lovers, but I would suggest trying some warm salads. I also suggest that if someone is really craving a cold, raw salad to eat at lunch, when their agni, or digestive fire, is the strongest – they should not indulge in the same. The reason for this principle is that cold food can provoke both Vata and Kapha, because cold is one of their attributes, so adding more cold will only aggravate those doshas. This also implies that the food should be cooked. For anyone who suffers from chronic constipation, this rule is especially important. The dry and rough qualities of raw foods further dry the colon and lead to more constipation. For younger people and those with very strong digestion, raw foods may be more agreeable to your constitution, but those with high Vata or Kapha should pay close attention here.
The food should be unctuous: This rule exists because we want to make sure our bodies are well-lubricated. People can add ghee, which is sacred in Ayurveda because it nourishes all of our tissues; completely plant-based people can choose olive, sesame, or avocado oil. Oils lubricate not only our muscles, joints, and skin, but also help to keep our (Gastrointestinal tract) GI tract smooth. People with dry GI tracts often suffer from chronic constipation and other digestive distress. That said, people with high Kapha or who are trying to lose weight should still have unctuous food but also be mindful of the quantity of oil they consume.
The food should be taken in proper quantity: People should not under or overeat. Undereating causes a person to have diminished energy and can also deplete their bodily tissues and immunity. Overeating can cause sluggishness and obesity, which often leads to other complications. If a person still feels hungry after a meal, then the quantity was too little, and if a person feels sleepy immediately after eating, the quantity may have been too much.
The food should be taken only after the previous meal is digested: I would guess that most of us are guilty of "food stacking" or eating before the last meal has been digested. I know that I have found myself mindlessly snacking when I didn't have true hunger, either from stress-eating or eating while coping with other emotions rather than thinking about how the snack will affect my digestion. This does not mean that you have to eliminate before eating a meal, but several hours should pass between meals in order not to stifle your agni. Some indications of food stacking may be reflux, a feeling of heaviness in the body, feeling so full that you can't take full diaphragmatic breaths, or getting sleepy from excess eating.
The food ingredients should not be contradictory in their potency: This refers to the many rules around food combination. There are many traditional cuisines and well-loved foods that break the Ayurvedic food combining rules (like pizza), so it's best to listen to your body and see if you experience indigestion when combining foods like nightshades and cheese or meat and cheese and reduce them as much as possible.
The food should be taken in a pleasant place with the required accessories: This means we should be able to stay in place once seated and fully enjoy our meals. Ayurveda places a lot of emphasis on digestion, and it is easier to digest our food when we are fully present and in a peaceful environment. One aspect of this is having a set table or eating area with all of our necessary utensils and condiments, and another aspect is being mindful and calm while eating, which allows us to be more in tune with our bodies and listen to the cues that indicate that we have had the proper amount of food.
The food should not be taken in an excessive hurry: In our modern society where we often value productivity over rest or work/life balance, this is a common scenario. Many people find themselves eating while standing up or rushing around the house, eating in the car, or eating too quickly because they have a meeting, fitness class, or other activity that they deem more important. I encourage anyone who eats in a hurry to start keeping track of not only their mental state during and after a rushed meal as well as keeping track of their digestion after eating quickly. Eating in a hurry not only deprives us of one of our greatest sensory pleasures but can also introduce gas into the body. This is why our parents and grandparents always told us to chew each bite 32 times.
The process of intake should not be exceedingly slow: Eating too slowly can affect digestive enzymes and cause the digestive fire to also act slowly. Eating too slowly can also encourage overeating because there are long pauses between bites, throwing off fullness cues. Eating too slowly is almost the equivalent of food stacking because the body doesn't get a break between eating and digesting. Finally, eating too slowly can allow our food to become cold, which is undesirable as per Ayurveda.
While eating, one should neither talk nor laugh: During this time one should concentrate on eating only. This was written thousands of years ago, and the sages would be shocked at how many of us scroll through social media and multitask in various ways while eating. If I'm being honest, this is also a struggle for me. I have a hard time being still and mindful while eating. I was also raised in a culture where food is community, so I am used to having conversations during meals; however, when people are still and quiet during meals, they are more in tune with their bodies, use all of their five senses while eating, and are more likely to stop eating when they have eaten the proper quantity. When we aren't eating mindfully, we are more likely to overeat or not appreciate our meals' taste, texture and nurturing qualities.
Only such food should be taken which is wholesome to the physical constitution and psychic temperament of an individual: This step is so comprehensive that each individual must be in tune with their doshas--both their prakruti and vikruti--to bring themselves in balance. As a refresher, your prakruti is your nature, the constitution you were born with, and your vikrutiis the current state of your doshas or imbalances. It is also important to eat according to the seasons and to understand your psychic temperament, manas prakruti, and eat foods that will not aggravate or deplete you in mind, body, and soul. For a specific Ayurvedic eating plan that is customized specifically for your body, you should be working with an Ayurvedic Practitioner who is able to not only explain these aspects to you but who is also able to tell you at length the qualities of the foods you should favor and avoid in order to stay in balance.
Heather is a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner and plans to become a Doctor of Ayurveda. She's interested in all kinds of therapeutic/healing modalities and is one of The Ayurveda Experience's in-house Ayurvedic Practitioners. She lives in Albuquerque with her two cats and loves to cook!
Sharma RK, Dash B. Agnivesha's Charaka Samhita: Text with English Translation & Critical Exposition. Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office; 2020.