There are a few steadfast rules about nutrition in an Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle. Most of these represent a commonsense approach to healthy eating as a whole. When I teach my Ayurvedic lifestyle course, I emphasize the 90–10 rule, which means you may implement the nutritional guidelines 90 percent of the time and allow yourself 10 percent flexibility in your daily diet.
In the beginning these guidelines may seem rigid or extreme, but they are less extreme than many of the weight-loss schemes in mainstream society, and they don’t exclude any major food groups.Once you integrate these guidelines into your daily life, it will be difficult to go back to the way you ate previously, because your body will begin to feel fantastic and you won’t want to lose that feeling. But the rules are meant to guide you back to health, not make you crazy. There’s a wise saying in Indian philosophy that states, “Infinite flexibility is the key to immortality.” So, when applying the guidelines, keep in mind that deviating from time to time is okay and may even be healthy, because with flexibility you can enjoy life more. So go ahead and eat your grandmother’s mincemeat pie, or drink that milkshake from your favorite ice cream shop. But do it with awareness and enjoyment, and don’t overdo it. Remember the 90–10 rule.
The Twelve Guidelines for an Ayurvedic Diet and Lifestyle Eating Plan
1. Eat freshly prepared foods at every meal.
2. Choose organic and locally grown produce and grains whenever available.
3. Choose only organic grass-fed dairy, eggs, poultry, and meat.
4. Eat all six tastes at every meal: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent.
5. Reduce your consumption of packaged and processed foods.
6. Choose the five sattvic, or healing, foods in their organic form whenever possible: milk, ghee, almonds, honey, fruit.
7. Let vegetables and fruit make up 50 to 60 percent of your daily food intake.
8. Eliminate unhealthy oils: hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, margarine, and shortening.
9. Eliminate high-fructose corn syrup; other types of corn syrup; artificial sweeteners; bleached, enriched flour; and white, processed sugar.
10. Reduce your consumption of frozen and canned food.
11. Drink filtered, distilled, or spring water.
12. Be moderate and avoid extremes.
Ayurvedic Diet Guideline #1: Eat Freshly Prepared Foods at Every Meal
I understand that this rule may turn you upside down. American cooking has emphasized using leftovers or making meals ahead of time and freezing them. If you’re from a different culture, the concept of eating only freshly prepared foods may not seem so foreign to you.
“We’re only as healthy as the cells that make up our body.”
When we think about nourishing our bodies, we must think about optimal nutrition on all levels. We’re only as healthy as the cells that make up our body, and so we need to offer our body food that contains the most nutrients in every bite. Let me clarify that we are not talking about calories here. As Americans, we are overly focused on the number of calories when we should be focused on the quality of the calories. In order to create healthy cells, our bodies must be able to extract the nutrients — phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and so on—from the food we ingest. According to Ayurvedic diet philosophy, The fresher the foods, the more of these nutrients they contain. After a food is cooked or picked, or even worse, once it’s been processed, the food begins to decompose and loses its nutritional value. Here’s my rule of thumb: eat the prepared food within twenty-four hours of making it. This requires you to cook less food and prepare it more often; but with the exception of certain curry dishes and marinated salads, fresh food tastes better anyway.
Ayurvedic Diet Guideline #2: Choose Organic and Locally Grown Produce and Grains Whenever Available
Organic fruit, vegetables, grains, and even meat can be found in most grocery stores and supermarkets today. An important component of Ayurvedic diet and nutrition is to minimize the amount of toxins entering the body and maximize the number of nutrients. Organically grown food is grown without synthetic pesticides (including herbicides) and synthetic fertilizers and is free of genetic modifications. As a consequence, organic foods are higher in antioxidants and phytonutrients and lower in toxins. Furthermore, by keeping harmful chemicals out of our soil and water supply, organic food helps to keep our earth healthy. And in general, organic food tastes better.
When it’s not possible to buy organic produce, the next best option is conventionally grown local produce. Check out a nearby farmers’ market and talk to the farmers. Ask them what their practices are regarding pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Many farmers will say they operate a “no spray” farm but cannot receive the USDA organic label because it’s too costly for a smaller farm. This doesn’t necessarily mean these local farmers are growing organic produce, but it may be a good option when organic produce is not available. Another option for buying produce is to join a food co-op. During the spring and summer, many farms offer co-op programs where you can purchase a box of produce weekly. Depending on the program, you may be able to choose what’s in the box, and you’re guaranteed fresh produce each week. Go to localharvest.org/organic-farms to find a co-op program near you.
Ayurvedic Diet Guideline #3: Choose Only Organic Grass-Fed Dairy, Eggs, Poultry, and Meat
In addition to being fed plants treated with pesticides and grown from genetically modified seeds, feedlot animals are given antibiotics and growth hormones to maximize and speed up their growth and keep them alive. Dairy cows are given a genetically engineered hormone, rBGH, to increase milk production. And most cows, who are meant to eat grass and clover, are fed a grain-based diet. Unless you have your own cow, the best way to ensure that you’re getting the best dairy products possible is to choose grass-fed dairy products. One of the best dairy-product lines I’ve found is Natural by Nature. Find distributors of this company’s products at natural-by-nature.com. If you eat beef, you can also find grass-fed beef in organic markets.
When choosing organic eggs, make sure they are USDA certified organic. And go with the better-known brands, such as Vital Farms, Organic Valley, and Horizon Organic. Be wary of phrases on labels such as “natural,” “farm raised,” and “free range.” While these words may be enticing, they do not hold the farmer accountable with respect to organic and sustainable practices.
dairy and meat should be organic and humanely raised when following an ayurvedic diet. photo: vicuschka photocase.com
Ayurvedic Diet Guideline #4: Eat All Six Tastes at Every Meal: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Pungent, and Astringent
In Ayurveda, foods are composed of six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. Any given food has a primary, or baseline, taste and may also have a secondary and even a tertiary taste. A good example of this is meat: the baseline taste of meat is sweet, but its secondary taste is salty. According to Ayurvedic diet philosophy, we must receive all six tastes at every meal for optimal nutrition and to minimize cravings and prevent overeating. Once you learn how to integrate the six tastes in every meal, you will see the spikes and valleys in your hunger level out.
In the audio program Magical Mind, Magical Body, Dr. Deepak Chopra points out that animals in the forest don’t have the faintest idea of what the USDA has to say about the food pyramid or of its recommendations for vitamin and mineral intake, yet they don’t have nutritional deficiencies. The only species that becomes nutritionally deficient is the human species. And we do so because we’ve completely lost touch with the inner wisdom of our bodies. As we start to heal and attune ourselves to our bodies’ needs, we begin to know exactly what they need. Have you ever finished a meal and felt dissatisfied? It may have felt that something was missing but you couldn’t put your finger on it. By getting all six tastes at every meal, you will be continually fulfilling your body’s need for specific nutrients, and so you will be less likely to overeat or eat the wrong kinds of food. This concept is unique to Ayurvedic diet philosophy and truly helps diminish and eventually eliminate cravings.
Sweet: The first taste is sweet and is found in protein, fat, and carbohydrates. In the West when we think of the sweet taste, we generally associate it with sugary products like candy and ice cream. In Ayurveda, meat, oils, and butter are sweet. Milk, too, is sweet, as are cereals, other grains, and sweet fruit.
Sour: The second taste is sour and is the taste of citrus fruits and fermented foods and drinks, such as yogurt, sour cream, cheese, vinegar, and alcohol.
Salty: The third taste on our list, salty, presumably doesn’t require further explanation; it is easy to receive in food.
Bitter: The fourth taste is bitter and is most often found in leafy greens or vegetables.
Pungent: The fifth taste, pungent, is the taste of spice or peppery heat. Pungency is found in such foods as spices, hot peppers, garlic, onions, and ginger.
Astringent: The sixth taste, astringent, is not a true taste but nonetheless must be included. Foods that possess astringent taste have a peculiar flavor and have a compacting and drying effect on the body. Some examples are beans, lentils, and pulses but also green tea, spinach, and cranberries. If you’ve ever had a cup of pure green tea without anything added to it, you have experienced a dry taste in your mouth. That is the effect of astringency.
Since only a small quantity of foods with bitter, pungent, or astringent tastes is necessary to satisfy our requirements, it’s relatively easy to include them in your daily diet. For example, a couple of dashes of pepper will add the pungency, while a small amount of raw spinach in a salad will give you the bitter and astringent tastes.
“The only species that becomes nutritionally deficient is the human species. And we do so because we’ve completely lost touch with the inner wisdom of our bodies.”
Below is a list of common foods in each taste category. This list is a guide and, while it doesn’t include every food, it can help you determine which foods you can eat more of to help you balance your Ayurvedic dosha. Keep in mind that most foods have a dominant taste but also a secondary taste. Some foods have more than two tastes. For example, apples’ primary taste is sweet, and their secondary taste is astringent. When filling your plate, try to include foods from each of the six taste categories.