“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.”
Most of us grew up eating the way we were taught by our parents or peers or role models. No one typically teaches us to eat for our natural constitution, though. About one in three Americans have some kind of digestive problem. When digestion is compromised, nutrients cannot be properly absorbed by the body. And, according to Ayurveda, this malabsorption of nutrients can lead to an increased production and storage of fat cells, impaired immunity, allergic reactions, poor wound healing, skin problems, mood swings, and an overall lack of energy.
What does this tell us? Our health depends on good digestion, and good digestion starts with the food you eat; however, food can be a complicated topic.
Eating is bio-individual, meaning your body has unique needs. And, everyone else’s body has unique needs. Since every body’s needs will vary, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet. What works for someone else may not work for you, and the reverse is also true. It might initially sound overwhelming to think about when you’re first figuring out your body’s unique needs. However, the more you understand about your needs and which foods can help improve your digestion, the greater your ability to enliven your body’s inner intelligence will be.
Many practitioners and health coaches I know start with The Blood Type Diet, a popular personalized diet system based on Dr. Peter D’Adamo’s work, while also keeping the client’s dosha and food intolerances in mind (through elimination and testing). As an Ayurvedic Doctor, I like to discuss the foods that work best for their dosha (your individual mind-body constitution – take the quiz Here) and lifestyle to see how we can improve their inflammation levels, gut health, brain health, and support healthy weight management.
By taking a deep dive into how to eat, gut health, seasonal detoxification, improving sleep, self care, and your Dosha, we are able to completely transform how people eat, and thus how they feel.
In the Ayurvedic understanding, our dietary lifestyle is one of the key sources in disease prevention; it is also the center of healing. Ayurvedic dietetic texts don’t go as much into the combination of fat, protein, and carbs we should consume; instead, they offer guidelines on how to eat.
The ancient Ayurvedic text titled Charaka Samhita explains all of Ayurveda in its pages. According to Charaka, it is the Ahara (how we eat) “which maintains the equilibrium of bodily dhatus (tissues) and helps in promotion of health and prevention of diseases” (C.Su.-25/33).
According to Sushruta, an ancient Indian physician known as the Father of Surgery, “Ahara is that which restores the vigor, provides strength immediately after taking, sustains body and increases the life-span, happiness, memory, power, ojas and digestive capacity (S.Ci.-24/68).”
Simply put, how and what we eat is the way to absorb the most nutrition and prana (life force) from our food.
Whether or not you work with a coach or practitioner, it’s important to check in with yourself to see how you feel after you eat something. Was it good or bad? Do you feel good or bad? Check in with your gut. Check in with your own intuition. And, of course, know your dosha and which foods support it, and which ones don’t.
Here is a list of guidelines from Ayurveda that teach us how to eat our meals to support better digestion, absorption, and assimilation of the foods we consume. Here are 6 tips on how to start the day optimally (Ayurveda has many more that I like to customize based on what people’s goals are).
Start the morning by igniting digestion—the digestive fire is called agni. We want to stoke the digestive fire, wake it up, and get it started for the day! This is why a couple of your morning rituals are so important: tongue scraping, drinking a glass of room temperature water, and deep breathing (pranayama) all start this.
Your “morning elixir” should not be caffeinated coffee or tea, because caffeine taxes your adrenals. Ayurveda recommends starting off the morning with warm or hot water with lemon; ginger and lemon; or ginger, lemon, and honey. That’s your morning elixir. Save the caffeine, if you want it, for later.
People are accustomed to having a glass of ice water, whether at a restaurant or at home. This is a BIG NO-NO. Ayurveda teaches that we should not eat or drink anything cold before a meal. All drinks should be avoided 30 minutes before and after a meal, allowing the acids in the stomach to digest the food completely. If you’re thirsty, have some tea or warm/hot water. Oftentimes, the reason we stop to eat is because we realize how thirsty we are—which is an indication to start consciously hydrating ourselves outside of mealtimes. The reason why we shouldn’t drink something cold right after eating is because it’s like throwing ice water on your digestive fires. Anything cold will extinguish the fire, and shut off the digestive process. If you love having icy drinks, have them away from mealtimes. Unfortunately, that goes for ice cream, too!
It’s important to wait until you are hungry to eat. This guideline is one where ancient Ayurveda and modern-day diets conflict. Many modern diets teach to eat five to six times a day to rev up metabolism, but Ayurveda wants you to eat when you are hungry. Above all, an eating routine is important—so listen to your body to find the best way for you. If eating when you’re not hungry just because it is time to eat leaves you feeling lethargic or unwell, adjust your eating habits accordingly. A good guideline to follow is to allow three hours between meals to give your food time to digest—this allows most people three to five meals per day.
Ayurveda preaches that stress inhibits digestion, which is why so many mind-body-spirit practices (yoga, meditation, pranayama) are taught through Ayurveda. They are all part of eating. Stay with me here: when you sit down to eat or have a drink, take a deep breath and feel a moment of peace or gratitude—even if it’s for a split second. You can also just say to yourself, “Relax,” then drop your shoulders and relax for a moment, dropping yourself into your parasympathetic nervous system. Then, you eat or drink.
You’ve now given your body what it needs to digest what you’re putting in. You took yourself out of fight-or-flight mode. If you can, for one meal a day, eliminate screens like your phone or a TV and say grace or take three to five deep breaths before you sit down at the table.
Eat in a calm and comfortable place. Be present while you eat. Don’t eat unconsciously. Digestion begins with saliva and the taste buds; it sets up the rest of the digestive process when you’re tasting and smelling your food, so take a moment to really taste your food each time you sit down to eat.
No standing! When you’re standing you aren’t grounded or focused on the food. Standing is a more vata energy (vata is one of the three doshas): it’s moving and ready to go. To sit and eat is to give your food and this practice of eating the respect it deserves.
Be conscious about what you are eating. We call this mindful eating nowadays. What does mindful eating really mean? When you are eating, look at your food. Focus on it. Smell it. TASTE IT. Experience it. Avoid inhaling your meal—that will leave you feeling hungry because you won’t even realize what you just ate or how much you ate. If you have a lot going on mentally or in your life, it’s especially important to take one moment and just acknowledge what you are eating and its benefits. Then keep going. At the least, connect from your brain to your mouth to your stomach what you are doing. This also helps the body release the correct digestive enzymes to digest the food you are consuming.
Honestly, I think our planet is going nuts. There’s way too much information flying around about what to eat. The media, the science, all the ideas and fads—they’re confusing us and stressing us out. From what I’ve learned, if you follow guidelines for your dosha as well as your own intuition, you will get what you need. And, as you’ve learned, Ayurveda asks us only to be balanced, to stoke our digestive fire, to watch our food combinations, to watch the time of day we eat, and to create practices around our food.
No matter what tradition we practice, food is often the center of the home. Indians have always valued food tremendously, as do many other cultures. But, what many are doing in the United States is disregarding real food and eating “food products” instead. Please eat real food, not food-like products. Use real spices and herbs for flavoring. Your body will thank you.
We are people of such extremes nowadays. Vacations tend to equal binge eating, drinking every day, and going totally in one direction. When we return from said trip we go the other way. What if you were balanced at both times?
Noah, my previous trainer from Jacksonville, used to tell me, “I don’t care where you go on this planet, your breakfast should always be protein + limited grains + super healthy—even if it’s your cheat day.” I’ve always remembered that. If our lives are always spent yo-yo dieting and jumping from one extreme to the other, our bodies won’t know which way is up. I’ve also found it gets tougher and tougher to bounce back after any trip, injury, or setback.
So instead, let’s try the Ayurveda Way. Moderation. There’s a Yin and Yang to life, and that Yin and Yang applies to food, too. Going to an awesome happy hour tonight? Work out today, alkalize with green juice, eat beforehand, and have fun! Had too many acidic or inflammatory foods this week? Give the gut a rest with a day of Kitchadi (Ayurveda’s favorite way to give the gut a day of rest – see the recipe in my anti-inflammatory cookbook).
Find your path to moderation, collect some peace along the way, and see you on the other side! Ayurveda gives us the tools for the preventive health and vibrant health that we crave. Oftentimes, we are craving more ease and flow, more clarity and energy, and the current tools we have aren’t giving us the results we want. I have found Ayurveda gives us the sacred rituals, the toolkit, and the new approach to managing our gut health, hormonal health, and food practices to create a lasting change for our health and immunity.