Ayurvedic Nutrition Basics

Ayurveda_Herbal_NutritionAyurvedic nutrition is based on the six tastes (or rasas) of foods. In theory, if we are aware of the tastes of the foods we eat, we can better balance the doshas. The six tastes are sweet, pungent, astringent, bitter, salty and sour, and each is a unique composition of two of the five elements. Ideally, every meal we eat will have a dosha-appropriate varying degree of each of the six tastes. In this way, the body and mind feel that each of the elements has been balanced. In a nutshell, vata is reduced by the salty and sour taste. Pitta is reduced by the bitter and astringent tastes, and kapha is reduced by the pungent, butter and astringent tastes. Reducing any excess dosha actually benefits it by correcting imbalances.8

The Six Tastes

Any rajastic or tamasic energies will be balanced (through nutritional, herbal or other routes) to bring the body and mind into its more natural static state. For example, certain foods, like root vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and grains are static in nature and a practitioner may prescribe these foods in order to balance unfavorable energies. Some examples of foods recommended in Ayurveda to treat specific conditions might include:1

  • Constipation, a vata-related condition that might be treated with salty, sweet, spicy, and sour foods and/or certain vata pacifying herbs like triphalá.
  • Fever, a pitta-related condition, might be treated with sweet, bitter, and astringent foods and/or certain pitta-pacifying herbs (e.g., the Ayurvedic formula Mahásudarshan).
  • High cholesterol, a typical kapha-related disorder, might be treated with pungent, bitter, or astringent foods or certain kapha-pacifying herbs like guggul.

However, all doshas need a certain amount of all types of foods for optimal balance, so understanding the specific qualities of each food and taste is crucial in understanding the role of nutrition in Ayurveda.1

Sweet. Composed of the earth and water elements, this taste has an overall cooling effect on the body, and is heavy and moist in nature. Sweet-tasting foods are more than just baked pastries, ice cream, candy and sweet fruits. The sweet taste is often more subtle, and can be found in many whole grains and sweet vegetables.8

  • Mental effects: In balance, grounding, satisfying, and feeling loved.8
  • Physical effects: The sweet taste is nourishing, builds strength in the tissues and moistens mucous membranes.8
  • Dosha effects: The sweet taste calms both vata and pitta dosha. Because of the heaviness and cool moistness of the rasa, the lightness of air in vata and the heat of pitta are both alleviated.8

Pungent. The pungent taste is composed of fire and air. Pungent foods are hot and spicy. Examples of pungent foods are black pepper, cayenne, ginger, mustard seed, chili pepper, garlic, onions and any spice that is heating.8

  • Mental effects: The effect of the pungent taste on a mental level can be highly stimulating and clarifying.8
  • Physical effects: Stimulates digestion and clears sinuses.8
  • Dosha effects: Due to its hot nature, this rasa calms kapha dosha by heating and drying its moist and stagnant qualities. In small amounts, it is also a helpful taste for the vata dosha, as it warms the cool nature of the vata and aids in keeping circulation and digestion in optimal Too much of this spice will aggravate the pitta dosha, leading to emotions of anger and intensity.8

Astringent. The driest of all rasas, the astringent taste is made up of the earth and air elements. Examples of foods that have high levels of the astringent rasa are cranberries, quinces, crab apples, unripe bananas, pomegranates, and some beans.8

  • Mental effects: Stabilizing effects; reduces over-emotionalism.8
  • Physical effects: It has an overall purifying and toning effect on the body.8
  • Dosha effects: The light dryness of astringent tastes is great for reducing the excess moisture and heaviness of kapha dosha. It is also excellent for pitta in that it dries up excess heat. Vata doshas should eat low to moderate amounts of this taste, as the dryness can make digestion challenging for the airy dosha.8

Salty. The salty taste is composed of the fire and water elements. Examples of naturally-occurring salty foods are sea salt and sea vegetables. Salty foods are slightly moist and heavy.8

  • Mental effects: On a mental level, the salty taste can support a feeling of confidence and roundedness, but can also lead to excessive sensual indulgence.8
  • Physical effects: Enhances digestion and adrenal gland functioning.8
  • Dosha effects: Over time, and if taken in excess, salt can lead to excess water, and therefore kapha dosha, in the physical body. Because of its slightly warming and heavy nature, the salty taste is excellent for vata dosha, but can aggravate pitta’s heat.8

Bitter. The bitter taste is made up of air and space. Dark leafy greens such as kale, chard and dandelion are examples of bitter foods.8

  • Mental effects: Bitters offer a feeling of lightness in the mind, but when taken in large quantities, can lead to disillusionment and even grief.8
  • Physical effects: Balancing the digestive system.8
  • Dosha effects: It is an excellent balance for pitta dosha, as it is the most cooling of all rasas. It is also light, dry, and detoxifying, which helps to purify Kapha dosha as well. Vata should take care to not over-indulge in bitter foods, as they are drying.8

Sour. The sour taste is related to the elements of earth and fire. Lemons, pickles, buttermilk, plums, bananas, yogurt, miso, and sour fruits are all examples of this rasa.8

  • Mental effects: Reinforces clarity and stability.8
  • Physical effects: The sour taste is an excellent promoter of digestion.8
  • Dosha effects: It warms the vata dosha and grounds the mind. Kapha dosha may be aggravated by its moist and heavy nature, and should therefore eat it in moderate amounts. Similarly, pitta may be aggravated by its heat.8

Food Combining

Learning proper food-combining techniques is a simple Ayurvedic way to enhance digestion, and reduce toxic build-up in the body. In general, the following tips can aid us in combining foods in a way that promotes strong digestive capacities:9

  • Avoid combining starches and starchy vegetables with proteins, as these two food groups require the use of different digestive enzymes.
  • Eat heavy meats with lighter vegetables, such as bitter greens or a salad, or with grains and beans.
  • Whole grains can be eaten with most all vegetables and meats.
  • Nuts combine best with green vegetables and sour fruits.
  • Avoid eating fruits with protein and heavy starches.
  • Heavy starch vegetables like sweet potatoes or winter squash combine best with lighter, green vegetables.

Tips on Improving Digestion

In addition to following proper food-combining practices for keeping our digestive fire strong, there are also several other simple Ayurvedic suggestions:8-9

  • Avoid drinking liquids with meals to avoid diluting food enzymes, except for milk or prescribed herbal drinks.
  • Eat only when you are hungry—do not use food to fill emotional needs.
  • Completely chew food until it is almost completely in the liquid form, which aids digestion. Savor the flavors and allow them to spread throughout all areas of your mouth.
  • Avoid exercise or strenuous activity directly after meals. A gentle walk is acceptable.
  • For vata, eat smaller meals, three or four times a day. For pitta, eat three meals a day, with the heaviest meal at noon. Kapha should also eat the biggest meal at noon, with a lighter dinner, and should avoid snacking.
An herbal combination of 3 different tropical fruits—amalaki,
bibhitaki, and haritaki.
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