Ayurveda not only tells us what type of foods to consume for our ‘type’, but also gives more general guidelines for healthy digestion. As we all know now, digestion is the cornerstone of good health. We can’t just chuck food and drink into our bodies without a thought, and assume we’ll be ok. Even the best organic foods can turn into ‘ama‘ or toxins in our bodies if we eat too fast, or at the wrong time or in the improper combinations. The aim is to minimise ama and optimise ‘ojas‘ (or the healthy product of good digestion).
Unless perfectly healthy, we don’t usually digest everything we eat. What we don’t digest properly turns to ama (and, therefore, disease!). To kick-start our digestive fire (‘agni‘), lemon juice can be taken with warm water. We can also increases the chances of good digestion by eating digestive spices before, during or after our meal. These are spices such as fresh ginger (not too much for Pittas though), cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds. Eating Mukhwas (sesame seeds, cumin seeds and fennel seeds) after a meal is beneficial. This can be bought at Moshims, Newtown.
The smell of onions and garlic actually starts the digestive process off (note your salivating mouth!). Adding lemon juice, salt and black pepper to food also increases its digestibility. That is why we add salt and pepper to food in Western culture (I always wondered why!).
How should I cook and eat?
Food and drink should be prepared (and eaten) with the right frame of mind: as an act of love and presence, especially if prepared for a family. This is hard to always do, especially with modern life, but food prepared with thought and love always tastes better.
Next, we need to be conscious as we eat, to be mindful eaters. To be aware of each mouthful of food that is in our mouth. That way we are more conscious of the effect it is having on our body, and when we feel full. To be watching tv, on the internet, or talking to someone else takes away this consciousness. It is recommended in Ayurveda to chew the first mouthful of food times. This is because it gets the digestive process started off properly.
Also be mindful of food combinations. When I learnt not to combine fruit with other foods, I started to notice that I’d get a sore stomach after eating too much fruit with my muesli in the morning. Apple crumble gives me a stomach ache too. Fruit is quickly digested, but grains are not. This creates digestive problems such as pain and bloating. Another example is that milk shouldn’t be mixed with anything salty or sour (e.g. yogurt).
But what about fruit eating? That is supposed to be healthy for us? When should we do it? Ayurveda says that raw fruit is best eaten in between meals, as an appetiser, if you will.
Should I eat cooked food or raw?
Cooked food is always preferred, in Ayurveda, over raw food. Cooked food is easier to digest, in fact that is what cooking is – pre-digesting food for us as our stomach acids are not as strong as those of, say dogs. Ayurveda talks about ‘adding the intelligence of fire’ to food by cooking it. Our gastric fire (‘agni’) helps us break down our food to nourish our cells.
Of course, pitta types already have strong digestion, so can take some cooler raw foods. Vata and kapha types, though, need the heat of cooked food to help counter their essential ‘coldness’. Pouring cold milk and yoghurt on cereal in the morning is not a good practice to get into, especially for kaphas and vatas. The milk should be warmed, the yoghurt omitted, or ideally, porridge should be made. Muesli is hard for the body to digest. The same goes for bread, it is quite for the body to digest cold bread, but the act of toasting it essentially ‘pre-digests’ it for us. stewed fruit is to be preferred over raw, cooked vegies over raw etc etc.
When should I eat?
When we eat is important. According to Ayurveda, our digestive powers are highest at midday, when the sun is at its peak. It is just starting up at breakfast time, so we should eat a smaller breakfast. It is winding down at dinner time so this should also be a smaller meal too, or our digestion will be overloaded. This is why dinner must be eaten as early as possible (6-7pm).
This goes against our culture of sandwiches for lunch and main meal at dinnertime. I have noticed I have more stamina when I have a big healthy lunch, but feel sluggish if I have a big dinner. Kaphas are recommended to have a very light breakfast and dinner and a main meal at lunch, if they want to lose weight.
How much should I eat?
I once went to a talk and the speaker said we should eat only when we have hunger, not just because it’s dinner time. We should wait for true hunger to start (stomach rumbling etc). This means we shouldn’t snack too much in between meals, and should fast (skip a meal) if we have no appetite or are sick. To eat when we have no real hunger creates ama – the food just isn’t digested properly. We shouldn’t eat if we’re upset either.
To overeat is dangerous too – the extra food just won’t get digested. Ideally, we should only eat two handfuls of food at most. You should stop eating once you feel full (or after two burps!). You should not eat before 2-4 hours after your last meal. Listening to your body is crucial.
What about drinking?
Cold drinks stop the digestive process and create ama, if drunk with a meal. It is best to drink lukewarm drinks in between meals, and if you must, drink warm drinks just before you eat. Too much liquid can dilute the stomach acids so food won’t be digested properly.
If good digestive practices are followed, health will naturally follow. The person who has digested well has released all the prana in the food and drink into their own cells. Ojas will be created and it is this that we see glowing from a healthy person.