Ever wonder why people always say, “you are what you eat?” If this were truly the case, then I wonder why I haven’t turned into a blob of chunky peanut butter or metamorphosed into a massive chocolate chip cookie.
Ever wonder why people always say, “you are what you eat?” If this were truly the case, then I wonder why I haven’t turned into a blob of chunky peanut butter or metamorphosed into a massive chocolate chip cookie. True, this 19th century aphorism is not to be taken in the literal sense, but one must wonder if there is any sort of veracity behind the statement at all. It’s curious, though, isn’t it, that when you were growing up, your mother would always feed you those disgustingly squishy steamed carrots and defend herself by saying that “they’re great for improving your eyesight.” You would fuss, no doubt, but trusting that mother knows best, you’d accept her wisdom and somehow manage to eat them.
There is a science behind food and eating, however. And for reasons, all of them even unbeknownst to your mother, there is a purpose behind why her forefathers and their forefathers passed along this age-old wisdom of food and nutrition. But, unlike modern-day nutrition, the Indian system of Ayurveda takes a different approach on why and what to eat. The oldest health care system known to civilization, Ayurveda is not a form of medicine in the conventional sense. Rather, it is a holistic science that views the body as a single integrated system, where the soul, body, and mind are equally important. It is a curative AND preventive form of medicine, that incorporates practices and lifestyle habits that teach us how to protect and sustain our good health. In Sanskrit, “Ayu” means all aspects of life from birth to death. “Veda,” in Sanskrit, denotes knowledge and learning. Thus, taken together, Ayurveda signifies the science of life, where the body is viewed as a dynamic and ever-changing powerhouse. Therefore, it looks to prescribe those medicines, diets, and behaviors that are beneficial for life and warns against those that are destructive.
“Without proper diet, medicine is of no use, and with proper diet medicine is of no need.” In writing this precept, ancient Ayurvedic sages clearly recognized the multifaceted nature of one’s diet. Acting as both a preventative and curative form of medicine, food nourishes every aspect of your body, mind and soul. So how exactly do the Ayurvedic and Western conceptions of nutrition diverge? Dr. Deepak Chopra does a fine job elaborating on this topic by stating that the distinction is between a strictly materialistic view of reality and a view that encapsulates values at other levels as well. Most Western nutritionists attempt to evaluate food based on its material qualities, such as calories, fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and many, many more. In evaluating fats, for example, we analyze them to the very core, separating saturated from unsaturated fats to determine their impact on our health. What’s missing, says Chopra, is a comprehensive understanding of food’s intelligence value. In other words, how can food affect our behavior and mental health? While I do not wish to denounce the importance of evaluating food based on its material characteristics, Ayurveda goes beyond just analyzing each branch of the tree separately, and studies how nature’s intelligence influences each and every substance in the food that you eat. Think of it as each food having its own unique form of DNA.
Ayurveda attempts to identify different qualities in food based on several factors: their six different tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter or astringent), whether they are oily or dry, heavy or light, liquid or solid, hot or cold producing, and the season during which they are produced. Equally important is how these different qualities in these different foods communicate with your doshas, or bodily elements. Thus, in considering a diet, we are reminded that as each and everyone of us has different doshas that dominate our nature or are sometimes imbalanced, how we react to the foods we eat will never be ubiquitous. Rather, the reaction will be particular to that individual’s constitution. Just as much as foods are idiosyncratic in their nature, so too are human beings with their bodily constitutions. Thus, in deciding what to consume, you should be mindful of what suits you. In Nighantu, which is one of the most comprehensive and thorough texts on Ayurveda, the properties of each and every food are clearly delineated. From describing the attributes of peacock meat down to each specific kind of lentil, the authors have provided incredibly rich commentary on the value of different food items.
Texts such as Nighantu, and Ayurveda in general, provide insight into the characteristics of food and their particular impact on different body parts. They also go as far as describing which foods can and cannot be eaten together as well as how food impacts a particular dosha. Vegetables such as eggplant or butternut squash, for example, produce a lot of Vatta, or gas. But to ameliorate the effect of Vatta, Ayurveda prescribes that you cook them with fenugreek seeds. Depending on which dosha is predominant within you, even remedies such as fenugreek may not be enough to thwart off the ill effect that these Vatta producing vegetables may have on your system. Thus, it is especially important that you are aware of your constitution and what fits you best.
In both Yogic and Ayurvedic literature, there are certain energies, or “Gunas,” that are prevalent in our world. Of these, there are three that are shared between the two sister sciences that are relevant to understanding the science of food: 1) Sattva 2) Rajas 3) Tamas. Each Guna is different in its nature and bears different qualities. Dr. B.R. Sharma defines them as follows:
Sattva is the indicator of purity, creativity and bliss.
Rajas is said to be the indicator of stimulation, impatience and pain.
Tamas is indicated by ignorance, darkness and immobility.
In Ayurveda, each food item is categorized into one of the three groups and is said to produce the aforementioned characteristics within the consumer. However, one must be especially clear in using these three Gunas to define a particular food as “good” or “bad.” In fact, the demarcation of such is relative and heavily dependent on one’s purpose. Take garlic, for example. While it is defined as a Rajasick vegetable, or hyperactivity, it is also lauded for its high medicinal value. According to Nighantu, garlic is good for balancing one’s acidity, strengthening bones, improving eyesight, curing infections of the throat, killing parasites, calming excessive mucous and even beneficial for cardiac problems. Thus, while it is not a Sattvic vegetable, or completely pure, one cannot deny the many benefits it provides.
Swami Kuvalayananda once said “you dig your grave with your teeth.” In remembering his words, I am reminded that while the science of Ayurveda lays the foundation for healthy eating and living, the choice of doing so is ultimately ours. We can either channel our inner awareness and intellect to properly nourish our minds, bodies, and spirits or use them in a completely destructive manner. In doing so, I urge you to ask yourself: how will you dig your grave?
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