Imagine a medical system that warns against eating raw salads for optimum health, or advises some people that they're best off skipping breakfast.
These notions would seem to fly in the face of most conventional ideas about health and nutrition. But unlike most of the diet information we get today, this is no fad. It's a way of eating based on Ayurveda, an Indian health tradition more than 5,000 years old. With that kind of longevity, the swamis must be on to something. And it?s not just for the patchouli crowd. Mintel, a consumer research group, is predicting that Indian food will be the hot cuisine of 2004. To clinch the deal, experts recently have begun blending Ayurvedic eating traditions with some of the most popular American methods for weight management.
One book in particular, Stop Your Cravings (The Free Press, 2002) by Jennifer Workman, borrows heavily from concepts in The Zone and glycemic index-based diets, and readily acknowledges the importance of having healthy ratios of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Workman's path diverges from those of other diet gurus when she emphasizes Ayurvedic concepts such as eating in a calm, unhurried manner, and eating the kinds of food that are most easily digested, which varies by individual constitution.
"Everyone pretty much knows the Western approach isn't working," says Workman, whose Boulder, Colo.-based company, The Balanced Approach, helps customers incorporate Ayurvedic traditions into their culture through individualized programs and modified menus. Americans, she says, "are not going to live on curry and mung dal."
It's important to note at the outset, though, that Ayurvedic eating is not a quick fix. True, many people have used Ayurvedic supplements and tinctures to treat physical, emotional or psychological disease. But for greatest benefit, Ayurveda emphasizes an entire lifestyle. "The most important level of treatment is the preventive level," said David Frawley, founder and director of the Santa Fe, N.M., American Institute of Vedic Studies, speaking during Yoga Journal's retreat in the Rocky Mountains last summer. "It can prevent disease from manifesting." Along with exercise and meditation, diet becomes critically important. And for natural foods retailers, the kind of diet Ayurveda recommends is like the sound of one cash register ringing. And another. And another.
First and foremost, food should be both organic and fresh, according to Shubhra Krishan in her book, Essential Ayurveda (New World Library, 2003). "Fresh foods are rich in prana, or life force." Organic food," she writes in an e-mail, "is food as nature intended it to come to us ... It is, in Ayurveda-speak, "alive with nature's own intelligence and, hence, tremendously healing to us." "On the other hand, 'processed, refined and radiated foods lack any life or nutritive value," she writes in her book. She feels the same way about fermented, canned and frozen foods. For Workman, organic food also boosts compliance with a healthy eating plan. "It tastes better," she asserts.
Whole grains are encouraged along with fresh fruits and vegetables, writes Rama Kant Mishra on Boloji.com. In particular, rye, quinoa, amaranth and millet have a high-protein, high-mineral and high-fiber profile. These grains are said to promote detoxification and immunity and, not least of all, bliss. Meat is discouraged; the terror the animal felt at slaughter remains in its flesh.
For those not ready to go completely vegetarian, though, Workman advocates eating what she calls clean proteins—"those derived from wild (not farm-raised) cold-water fish and seafood, from organic, range-fed animals" and from free-range eggs, organic cottage cheese, soy and other beans that have been grown organically.
Ayurveda also teaches the time (eat supper at least three hours before bed), amount (until your stomach is only three-quarters full) and attitude with which to eat (mindfully, without distractions). It also discusses temperature in some detail. Water, for example, should be drunk at room temperature, never ice cold as it douses the agni, or digestive fire. Likewise, lunch should be the largest meal of the day, when agni is strongest. And food should be cooked, not raw, because raw foods are more difficult to digest.
The elements of health
But that's where the generalizations end. Ayurveda identifies three basic constitutional types, or doshas, each representing a natural element, and dietary recommendations depend on a person's dosha. The vata dosha is associated with air, and a vata person is often thin or wiry in build, with dry, cold skin. Sometimes characterized as flighty, indecisive and worriers, vatas are also quick learners and active. They can be imaginative, even clairvoyant. Health-wise, they are prone to chills, cramps and constipation.
The pitta dosha has fire as its element, and people with this constitution are assertive and bold, warm and friendly. They tend to have a reddish or yellowish complexion and a medium build. They have a strong, steady appetite but usually don't put on weight until after age 40. They are often intelligent and well-spoken. Pittas tend to be perfectionists. Health ills that plague pittas include heartburn, fever and hot flashes.
The kapha dosha represents earth. These people tend to be large and strong, with abundant, thick hair. Kaphas' digestion is slow, and their skin is smooth and soft. They use slow, gentle movements, and are often sluggish in the morning. They are practical and even-tempered. Typical kapha complaints are congestion, fluid retention, lethargy and joint pain.
"The purpose of these types is not to stereotype but to give you a foundation for optimal health, and this pervades the yogic tradition," Frawley says, adding that when people get sick, they tend to have health disorders associated with their dosha. For example, the common cold is most strongly affiliated with kapha. If it becomes feverish, it represents an imbalance of pitta. If fatigue and dehydration set in, blame vata. "But," he cautions, "all the doshas are present in each person, so anybody can have any disease." Most people have one dosha that dominates, one that is secondary and one that is tertiary, though many people have two doshas of approximately equal strength.
Customers seeking guidance on determining their dosha can take a quiz in any of a number of books on Ayurveda, including those cited herein.
Diet and dosha
The goal of Ayurveda is to achieve and maintain the original balance of doshas present at birth, but they can become unbalanced through external factors, such as the change of seasons, and internal factors, such as the accumulation of ama, or toxins. Most practitioners agree that ama is almost always the result of inefficient digestion. A vata who eats too many heavy foods won't have enough agni to metabolize them; likewise, if vatas eat only light foods, they won't get adequate nutrition and will actually exacerbate their vata qualities.
Ayurveda makes dietary recommendations for increasing or decreasing each dosha depending on circumstances.
In addition, the Ayurvedic tradition categorizes every food into one of six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter or astringent, with each dosha differently affected by each taste. Sweet tastes, for example, decrease vata and pitta but aggravate kapha. Pungent tastes, often craved by pittas, actually aggravate (unbalance) pitta and vata while lessening kapha. Ideally, all six tastes should be represented at each meal.
Not only does the practice balance the doshas, but it also eliminates cravings, says Workman. "It gives [people] information that it's not wrong, that the cravings are correct," reflecting an attempt to bring the body back into balance.
While common wisdom holds that skipping breakfast is sabotage to a diet, Vasant Lad, author of The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies (Three Rivers Press, 1998), writes that while vatas and pittas should eat some breakfast every day, kaphas are better off waiting until later in the day for their first meal. That's because the day, the seasons and even a person's lifespan are broken up into doshas, and the morning is considered kapha. "Eating during kapha time will increase kapha in the body," Lad writes.
A newcomer to Ayurveda might find all this rather daunting, accedes Krishan. But, she notes, "Ayurvedic sages actually recommended making these changes in easy, doable steps." After all, "Ayurveda is against putting any kind of stress on yourself."
Even making just one change is worthwhile, Krishan says. "Try eating the Ayurveda way just for one day, and the rewards will start to come immediately." A light supper, for example, leads to better sleep, which leads to a healthier appetite, which leads to more energy.
Communicating the concept
Although interest in Ayurveda is on the rise, few retailers have gone so far as to create special sections, or even provide literature helping customers determine what to buy and what to avoid based on their doshas. "I'm not so sure that [an employee] wants to be handing out something that says "You shouldn't be buying this at this store,' " says P.K. Dav'e , president of Nature's Formulary. His company believes instead that if it can communicate the basic concepts of Ayurveda—through its Web site, point of purchase brochures, etc.—then those interested will be able to develop their own lifestyle plans. "Once the basic concept is imparted, it takes on a life of its own," he says.
Dav'e says that while his company manufactures supplements and body care products, and not foods, they can all be integrated for a holistic approach. For example, gymnema, an herbal preparation that Nature's Formulary makes, delays sugar absorption until it is much farther along in the digestive tract than usual, he says. That, in turn, helps to reduce sugar cravings.
Some practitioners extend the concept of nutrition beyond diet. "From food we get the gross elements: earth, water, fire, air. The gross elements indirectly feed the mind," says Frawley. But, he adds, the senses, which are really sub-elements, directly feed the mind. "The wrong use of the senses is a primary cause of disease," he says. "What junk food does to the body, junk impressions do to the mind." Junk impressions could be anything from odorous traffic to violent computer games. "It's very important to balance our nutrition through the senses," whether through meditation, walks in nature or listening to beautiful music.
"The Ayurvedic lifestyle is one of the best lifestyles for natural living."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 2/p. 38, 40, 42