When it comes to embracing the innumerable benefits of Ayurveda, the five millennia-old traditional science from the Indian sub-continent, watching what you eat is probably the best place to start. Traditional Ayurvedic texts define good health as a state of equilibrium with your svasthya (one’s self or natural state), which is interlinked with the environment you live in.
In the last few years, you've most likely heard the term 'superfoods'. These are foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that should be added to your ahara (daily diet). This article explores Ayurveda's take on superfoods, how they pack that extra nutrient punch, different types of superfoods, as well as the beneficial effects on hair, skin, and overall health.
To begin with, what is a superfood?
While there is no exact scientific definition of what is a superfood, plant-based foods are considered to be powerhouses of antioxidants, essential vitamins, and minerals, as well as phytochemicals. Originally coined by The United Fruit Company during World War I to promote bananas in the daily diet, this term was initially a marketing gimmick. But the popularity of the term 'superfoods' only grew over time.
What does modern science say about superfoods?
Scientific journals specify that superfoods increase the vitality of the human body by improving overall health and strengthening the immune system. With a dozen or more unique properties, they increase the serotoninlevels in the body.
When consumed in moderation along with a balanced diet and physical exercise, superfoods promote the smooth functioning of the organs. Some common superfoods are goji berries, kefir, maize, acerola cherry, yogurt, raw honey, acai berries, beets, chia seeds, and coconut oil.
Ayurveda's take on superfoods
Ayurveda considers food as one of the four pillars of nutrition along with physical exercise, sleep, and breath. This is why the holistic science of Ayurveda recommends a spiritual relationship with food. After all, you are what you eat!
While Ayurveda does not categorize any food as 'superfoods', it does recommend considering the following:
Consume food with ojas (the essence of vitality): Superfoods nourish ojas, which is a subtle substance in the body that affects your immunity and enthusiasm for life.
Consume food that aids the agni (digestive fire): Superfoods aid the agni to ensure the optimal assimilation, breakdown, and utilization of food, all this while throwing out the toxins from the body.
Consume food that supports sattva (tranquil state of mind): Superfoods also represent tranquillity and harmony while promoting peace of mind and enhanced consciousness.
Benefits of superfoods
Several fruits, vegetables, and herbs offer benefits to aid the skin, hair, and overall health. Elucidated below are some of the benefits of superfoods:
Strengthen the immune system: Science has proved that the consumption of superfoods such as amla, tulsi, dates, or ginger can help ward off bacteria and viruses from the body. The high vitamin and mineral content of superfoods aid the immune system. This is owing to the presence of antioxidants and phytonutrient compounds that protect and enhance overall health and well-being.
Help stabilize blood sugar levels: Superfoods normally have a low glycemic index. This prevents sudden spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels that can damage blood vessels and nerve cells. Fiber (found in many superfoods) can also help prevent diabetes. Significant medical research has proven that high magnesium levels and macromolecules present in pumpkin seeds (a superfood) help manage blood sugar levels in the body.
Help boost your mind and overall energy: As rasayana or rejuvenating herbs, superfoods regenerate and renew the tissues in the body. This also aids in muscle repair and recovery when consumed appropriately. For example, blueberries as a superfood are loaded with energy-boosting carbs, vitamins A and C, folate, potassium, and magnesium, which keep the mind and body free from stress.
Reduce signs of aging: Sun exposure and the addition of several external factors such as pollution and stress often leads to the skin showing premature signs of aging in the form of wrinkles, fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and dry skin. Including superfoods in your diet can help neutralize harmful free radicals owing to the presence of antioxidants. Several nuts including walnuts and almonds, contain anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids that protect the skin against sun damage and strengthen skin cell membranes.
Promote the growth of healthy hair: Several factors such as age, genetics, environmental impact, diet, and medication impact the health of hair. Vitamins present in superfoods help improve the hair follicle cycle. Superfoods that are keshya (hair rejuvenating) herbs are fantastic sources of biotin and protein that promote the production of keratin. For example, spinach contains folate, iron, and vitamins A and C, which can aid hair growth and repair.
Reduce low-density-lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol: LDL or bad cholesterol can impact the blood vessels while narrowing the passage of blood with a condition known as atherosclerosis. This can increase the chances of a stroke or a heart attack. Some superfoods in the form of fruits are apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus fruits. These are rich in the soluble fiber pectin, which helps reduce LDL levels.
Ayurveda says when such foods are incorporated into a dosha-specific well-balanced diet, they can also promote cardiovascular health, aid weight loss, and reduce digestive problems in your body.
Ayurvedic superfoods to the rescue
Several Ayurvedic foods and herbs carry exceptional properties. But adding superfoods to your ahara (daily diet) alone does not suffice. You must consume them in their unprocessed, natural form. Superfoods can quickly lose their nutrient-rich properties if they are overcooked or stale, or if processed items such as sugars are added for flavour.
Some food items you can include in your diet are:
Ashwagandha (Indian ginseng) Ashwagandha literally translates to the 'smell of the horse' due to its peculiar smell. This medicinal herb is classified as an adaptogen, which means it can help you manage stress. Additionally, its antioxidant properties help the body fight free radicals and oxidative stress thus reducing premature signs of aging. The roots, flowers, and leaves of this herb are known for their antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, and thyroid-modulating properties.
Amla (Indian gooseberry) As a rasayana (rejuvenating) herb, amla or amlaki is known for its anti-aging properties owing to its adaptogenic and antioxidant effects. The fruit is rich in vitamin C, iron, and calcium. Amla helps your body resist physical, chemical, and biological stressors. This time-tested herb mentioned in various Sanskrit texts also promotes hair growth and reduces signs of aging. Not to mention the immunity-boosting properties of amla, thanks to the presence of vitamin C.
Ghee Ghee or clarified butter is an Indian superfood that retains vitamins and nutrients thanks to its low-heat preparation. With all the lactose components as well as milk solids removed, it is revered for its healing properties. Ghee promotes longevity and protects the body. The omega-3 fatty acids in ghee also lower cholesterol.
Kushmanda (Ash Gourd) Kushmanda, also known as the winter melon, carries 96% water. It contains vitamins C and B-complex, including niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin. This Pitta-pacifying vegetable is known for its sweet, cooling, and detoxifying properties. With lower calories and high fiber, it can help aid digestion. Scientific reserach has also proven that this fruit has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that can help manage chronic conditions.
Fenugreek Ayurvedic scholar Bhavprakash Nighantu wrote thatmethika or methi seeds helpreduce Vata and Kapha doshas. Extremely rich in iron, methi seeds and leaves can also help combat iron deficiency. Its regular and appropriate consumption can benefit hair, skin, and overall health. Fenugreek is digestive, oxidative, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic. If you have hair fall, methi seeds can help stimulate hair growth.
Ginger One of the healthiest spices in your kitchen, ginger is an Ayurvedic superfood that works wonders for your health. Ginger is anti-inflammatory, and its medicinal properties stimulate the agni (digestive fire) and reduce gas and bloating. This humble root is loaded with antioxidants that help manage colds, battle nausea, and help the body fight off chronic conditions while promoting healthy aging.
The food you consume can have a significant impact on how you feel. It is important to remember that Ayurvedic principles focus on not just what you eat, but also how you eat it. Some basic tips to follow are:
Consume food as per your prakriti (nature of the body in terms of dosha).
Eat only when you are hungry.
Follow a dincharya (daily routine) to ensure food is assimilated properly.
Eat as per the movement of the sun. Let lunch be your largest meal at peak noon.
Consume slightly less than your capacity, keeping room for food to move and get digested.
Superfoods can help you stay calm, balanced, and focused. It is important to remember that no single food (even a superfood) will give you everything you need. The key is to enjoy a dosha-specific meal plan with a dincharya (daily routine) and ritucharya (seasonal change). Focus on filling your plate with unprocessed and Ayurveda-recommended fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and nuts.