Ayurvedic diet for peace, clarity and contentment
In many medical systems around the world, consuming healthy food is not only the best medicine, but it is also the best long-term disease prevention strategy. In Ayurveda, we believe that a wrong diet is responsible for 90 percent of physical disease. A wrong diet can also reduce or negate the effects of herbal treatments, thus Ayurveda places great importance on the correct food and optimal ways to prepare and eat food.
Most people recognise that a balanced diet is the key to good health. However there is a lot of discussion and confusion on what a balanced diet should be. In modern times, we are bombarded by so many different trends, from paleo to vegan, keto, calorie counting, low-fat, low-carb, DASH, blood type diets etc. There are so many different opinions and recommendations from "experts" that selecting a "healthy diet" has become very frustrating.
From an Ayurvedic perspective a balanced diet can be very different from what is commonly understood in the West. When we speak of balance in Ayurveda, we do not refer to vitamins, minerals or nutrients, but rather we focus on the effect of food on the three doshas (Vata, Pitta, Kapha), agni (the digestive capacity) and the three gunas (Sattva, Rajas, Tamas). This is because Ayurveda perceives people as unique individuals and each individual has a different nature, digestive capacity and mental sensitivity. There is no one type of eating pattern or diet that suits everyone.
First, we must know our individual constitution (Vata, Kapha,Pitta), and then we must know the basic action of the six tastes on our constitution. For example, bitter, astringent and very spicy tastes increases Vata, so it should be minimised or avoided in every meal if your constitution is predominantly Vata. A person with Vata constitution should consume predominantly sweet, sour and salty tastes. It is important to choose the foods that balance or harmonise our constitution over a long period of time.
Of course the Ayurvedic approach also considers the climatic conditions and our digestive capacity. However, I will not go into more detail about these in this post, but you can read a previous blog post about digestive fire and watch a short video I put together regarding the Ayurvedic seasonal routine https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeq_jyB5NLQ
Apart from understanding the workings of the six tastes on our body type, it is important to understand that food choices and emotions/mental state (i.e. the sensitivity of the mind) are interrelated. Ayurveda and Yoga recognise three mental states known as gunas: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Each mental state has an influence on the type and quality of the decisions we make.
Tamas represents inertia and is a state of ignorance and fear. This energy is dull, heavy and depressed. A tamasic person is mostly selfish, lazy, attached and possessive.
Rajas is a state of mind where the qualities of ambition, drive and perfectionism dominate. It is the energy that moves everything into action. A rajasic person is restless, always setting goals to be achieved with considerable effort, and can become aggressive in reaching those goals.
Sattva or a Sattvic state is that of purity, balance and equilibrium. Sattva is light and its characteristics are clarity, compassion, devotion and faith. A Sattvic person is stable, calm, quiet, intelligent, creative, truthful, spiritually minded and health conscious. It portrays a person that maintains a feeling of contentment regardless of the circumstances in life.
When in a Sattvic state, we gain the power of clarity, insight and the true knowledge of reality. From Tamas comes the power of ignorance and obstruction. This hides the true nature of the self, and creates darkness and lack of awareness. In a state of Rajas we have the power of false imagination which projects a wrong idea or perception of things.
Sattva, Rajas and Tamas are strong forces of nature. It is our choice which one of these great forces we align ourselves with.
According to Dr David Frawley: "we can compare them to three powerful streams. Our only choice is which stream to put our vessel into. Yoga and Ayurveda show us how to put our vessel (mind-body) into the stream of Sattva to aid in our overall well-being, growth and transformation. If we enter into the streams of Rajas and Tamas, we can easily get carried away and lose control of our karma. Similarly much of Ayurvedic treatment is showing people how to move out of the currents of Rajas and Tamas and into that of Sattva"
Yet, all three gunas perform specific functions in nature and they cannot exist without each other. Energy and prana (life force) is created by Rajas, while the form and the body is created by Tamas. Rajas and Tamas only become negative when they disturb the Sattvic nature of the mind. In fact, being in a Sattvic state requires the correct balance of Rajas and Tamas.
The aim of Ayurveda and Yoga is to increase the power of Sattva so as to be able to counter the ignorance and false imagination of Tamas and Rajas.
When we are in a Sattvic mental state, we are able to instinctively choose the correct foods which will create balance in our body and mind. In a Sattvic state, all dosha's are balanced and natural healing is promoted.
We can increase Sattva in ourselves by following a diet that promotes Sattva and avoiding a diet that increases Tamas and Rajas. Rajasic and Tamasic foods disturb or dull the mind and create diseases.
What is Tamasic diet?
Tamasic foods cause hypoactivity, lethargy, apathy, excess sleep, and accumulation of mucus and waste materials. Tamasic foods increase Kapha and Ama (toxins in the body). It is food that is reheated, rancid, artificial, greasy or heavy. It includes:
Not fresh, stale food including all fast food/junk food.
All ‘dead’ food (red meat, particularly pork and animal organs)
Canned and overly cold food.
White processed sugar and grains.
All industrially produced packaged food.
Over ripe food.
Poor quality dairy products especially those produced by factory farms.
Food grown with pesticides and chemicals.
Excessive intake of fats, oils, and pastries.
What is a Rajasic diet?
Rajasic foods cause hyperactivity, restlessness, irritability, insomnia, increases toxins in the blood and promotes hypertension. They bring Vata and Pitta dosha out of balance. It includes:
Very salty, spicy or sour foods (chilies, garlic, onions, wines, pickles, mayonnaise, sour cream, and vinegar).
Most fried food or roasted foods.
Coffee, black tea, tobacco, chocolate.
Meat, fish, shellfish, chicken.
Food too hot in temperature.
Drugs, alcohol and other intoxicating substances.
What is a Sattvic diet and lifestyle?
While a Sattvic diet is traditionally meant for yogi's, it is well suited for anyone who uses their minds a lot. It improves mental energy and helps to treat mental disorders by restoring harmony and balance to the mind.
It is also recommended when recovering from disease or after cleansing the body of toxins. It helps to tone and rebuild tissues in the body and improves our state of consciousness.
A Sattvic diet includes pure foods (rich in prana or life force) that are light in nature and mildly cooling in energy so as not to disturb the mind. It consists of:
Pure, fresh organic vegetarian food prepared with care and love.
Lightly cooked food with a little spice to make it easier to digest.
All foods with a naturally sweet taste (not refined sugar).
Fresh ripe fruits & vegetables.
Spices like coriander, cumin, basil, turmeric, fennel, cardamon.
Oils like ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, sesame oil.
Natural sweeteners such as raw honey, coconut blossom sugar and raw cane sugar.
Unprocessed and non-homogenised organic dairy products like fresh young cheeses.
In addition, Sattvic lifestyle habits like regular Yoga asana, meditation, mantra, spending time in nature, exposure to sunshine, adequate rest and sleep, and living according to your constitution will also contribute to maintaining body-mind balance.
According to Dr David Frawley, although a Sattvic diet helps bring peace to the mind, it may not be nourishing enough for those who do strenuous physical labor. Since Sattva is lightness, it may not be grounding enough for people who have high Vata conditions or a Vata dominant constitution.
This is why some people who follow strictly vegan diets for prolonged periods notice that their health deteriorates.
Therefore a Sattvic diet can be modified as per your current imbalance or constitution.
Sattvic Vata diet (reduces excess air element)
A person with Vata dominance or a Vata condition is prone to become Rajasic and agitated. Therefore the diet should consist of mostly Sattvic and very little Tamasic foods to counter the effect of Rajas. When you notice an excess of Rajasic qualities, consume more Sattvic food. When Tamas qualities are more dominant, use Rajasic spices for Vata like cayenne, black pepper, mustard and asafoetida in moderation. Avoid using salt excessively.
Sattvic Pitta diet (reduces excess fire element)
The standard Pitta balancing diet is predominately Sattvic as described above. Those with Pitta dominance or Pitta conditions are also prone to becoming Rajas. However, they are able to easily follow a completely Sattvic diet because they do not need as much grounding as Vata dominant people.
Sattvic Kapha diet (reduces excess water element)
Those with Kapha dosha dominance or conditions tend to become Tamas, as they easily develop lethargy, inertia, mucus and stagnation.
Adding some Rajasic foods to the Sattvic diet prescribed above is beneficial, and especially a small dose of heating spices to get out of inertia and into more movement. Sattvic spices like ginger, cinnamon and cardamom can be used generously, including drier whole grains like corn or millet. Excess sweet taste should be avoided, using mainly raw honey as sweetner.
Does this all seem a little daunting?
I am aware that it may seem very challenging to follow a completely Sattvic diet and I admit that I sometimes struggle with it myself. The good news is, you don't have to follow it all the time to stay healthy. As my Ayurvedic teacher once told me, as long as you try your best to follow a Sattvic diet about 80% of the time, you are on the right track.
Since my constitution is mostly Vata, I can get away with adding some Rajasic and Tamasic food to my diet once in a while, especially in combination with a daily Yoga practice. I do run into difficulties when eating out, especially when travelling for longer periods without access to home cooked meals. I am quite sensitive and I notice the consequences of an excessively Rajasic and Tamasic diet on my body and mind.
Before I started practicing Ayurveda, 95 percent of my diet was Rajasic and Tamasic. I was depressed, fearful, anxious, had digestive issues, was getting a flu/cold at least once or twice a year, and my hormones were totally out of balance.
Now, after ten years of slowly adapting and changing my diet gradually, I eat about 65 percent Sattvic, 25 percent Rajasic and 10 percent Tamasic food. Not yet the ideal ratio, but I have noticed a tremendous improvement in my digestion, and physical and mental health.
Just being more aware and recognising the body's signals that it is time to switch to a more Sattvic diet is already a big step in the right direction. For example, I believe that switching to a Sattvic diet when I noticed more mucus in my system helped me prevent the escalation of a cold or flu.
For many of us, we live to eat and we derive a lot of pleasure from preparing and sharing delicious meals with our friends and family. Ayurveda is not about eating meals that you do not enjoy even if they are perceived as being very healthy. When it comes to food, it is about striking the right balance between health and pleasure.
The most important thing is to never feel guilty or stressed when you are eating what you enjoy!
I will be sharing some of my simple delicious Sattvic recipes soon. Make sure you don't miss them by signing up to my newsletter on my website www.deolaayurvedayoga.com
Thank you for making it this far!:)
May your food give you lots of health and joy!
Dr David Frawley, (2000), “Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide”.
Vaidya Atreya Smith, (1998), "Practical Ayurveda: Secrets for Physical, sexual and spiritual health"