The Ayurvedic Perspective on Dairy
Dairy has played an important role in the diet of various cultures and has been considered a staple by many throughout history. In today’s day and age, dairy has become a much debated food source with extensive discussion as to whether it is beneficial for us to consume or not.
Ayurveda’s robust philosophy offers a holistic understanding of the qualities of dairy that can help us to understand whether this food group is useful for one’s individual constitution. It can also help us understand the potential benefits of dairy alternatives and milk substitutes, along with the effects of dairy on gut health and digestion.
The Ayurvedic Approach
In Ayurveda, the foods that we digest are known to nourish not only our bodies, but also our thoughts and emotions, which ultimately impact the way we interact with the world around us. Therefore, it is invaluable to understand how different types of food affect one’s constitution.
Having a basic understanding of one’s Ayurvedic constitution—your unique combination of vata, pitta, and kapha—is an important foundation. From there, Ayurveda can help us make the best decisions for our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Knowing one’s current state of health—known as vikriti—is also helpful in acknowledging whether a specific food will be supportive at any given time.
In Ayurveda, there is a common saying that “any dravya (substance) can be a poison or a medicine depending on how it is used.” This is absolutely true of dairy, and there are many factors that can add to its benefit or detriment.
To begin with, each of the doshas plays a role in understanding how a specific food may be beneficial or harmful to one’s constitution.
The strength of one's agni, or digestive fire, is important to understanding how a substance will integrate within the body.
Identifying the Qualities of Different Types of Dairy
In general, dairy products are considered to have nourishing, cooling, and lubricating properties in Ayurveda. They can have a range of other qualities based on which form they take.
- Milk in Ayurveda is considered sweet and heavy, giving it a nourishing effect on many of the body’s tissues. The virya of milk is cooling and the post-digestive effect is sweet. Milk is considered sattvic by many and high quality, whole milk nutrition is traditionally believed to enhance one’s spiritual well-being.
- Yogurt and cheese are viewed somewhat differently as they have a sour and pungent rasa, a heating virya, and a pungent or sour post-digestive effect—depending on the form it is consumed in.
- Ghee, Ayurveda says, has a sweet and cooling nature and is considered to be tridoshic, making it one of the best dairy choices for all three doshas. It is known to have a beneficial effect on agni, making it easier for the body to absorb nutrients from other foods. Banyan’s grass-fed whole milk ghee is an excellent source of dairy for all doshas.
Dairy and the Doshas
Pitta, associated with the fire element, governs digestion, metabolism, and transformation. When this dosha becomes imbalanced, it can lead to issues like acidity, irritation, and skin disorders. Dairy products such as whole milk and ghee are commonly used in Ayurveda to mitigate pitta imbalances, due to their cooling nature.
Most cheeses, on the other hand, tend to have a heating energy. This means they can increase internal heat in the body and are not indicated for a pitta predominant constitution. Cheese is a good thing to avoid in the summertime if you are sensitive to the heat of the season. If cheese is a must, fresh mild cheeses like paneer tend to be less heating than hard cheeses.
Vata dosha, which is made up of the ether and air elements, tends to create irregular digestion and can cause dryness and frenetic energy. Dairy products predominant in the earth and water elements have an inherently grounding and nourishing effect which are beneficial for this dosha.
Cheese and yogurt are best used in moderation for vata. While they are warming and have a sour taste which can help balance this dosha, they are also quite taxing on the digestive system.
Because dairy products require strong agni to digest, it is recommended that vata dosha only consume these products if their digestion is healthy and balanced. In general, fresh and mild cheeses tend to be less aggravating than hard or aged cheese.
Kapha dosha, created by the water and earth elements, governs stability, structure, and the framework of the body. Kapha individuals often have a strong constitution but are prone to lethargy, sluggish digestion, and weight gain.
Dairy consumption is generally not advised for those with a kapha constitution or imbalance, especially in large doses. This is because agni can become very low and have a hard time digesting dairy’s heavy qualities.
Chai Spiced Ghee makes an excellent choice for kapha dosha, thanks to the tridoshic nature of ghee and the extra kick of spices.
Holy Cows and Other Considerations
It’s important to note that Ayurveda originated in South Asia where it was, and still is, very common to worship cows. This reverential relationship is integral to the history of Ayurveda and dairy is a large part of the culture because the cow is cherished as a symbol of generosity, compassion, and love. This can be seen in the way ghee is used in several aspects of daily life—as food, medicine, skincare, and oil for ghee lamps.
Throughout the history of Ayurveda, various forms of dairy have been consumed. Goat, water buffalo, sheep, and even camel milk are described in the texts of Ayurveda. Though these tend to be consumed less in modern cultures, it speaks to the fact that the qualities of various dairy products change based on the animal from which they are sourced. For example, goat milk and camel milk have very different qualities and can be used for different purposes.
It is also important to note that while dairy is considered beneficial for many, our current modernized practice of producing dairy products varies greatly from historical practices.
Large-scale dairy farms often prioritize quantity over quality, producing dairy products whose properties of taste, energy, and digestive effect differ from Ayurveda’s traditional viewpoint because of the maltreatment of the animals.
If you choose to consume dairy, we suggest sourcing dairy that is produced locally, by a small farm. It is believed by some that milk from cows with A2 molecules may be easier for many to digest and therefore the best milk for gut health.
Is Dairy Right for You?
As you can see, the question of whether or not to consume dairy products is a complex and nuanced question—even from an Ayurvedic perspective. Applying all of the information we discussed above, we recommend developing a relationship with dairy that feels supportive for you.
See how your digestive system feels an hour or two after consuming dairy. If you feel clear, have good energy, and don’t experience gas, bloating, or indigestion, then dairy is likely beneficial for you. If you have a hard time digesting dairy, you may do better with dairy substitues or milk alternatives, of which there are a wide range available.
Dairy can be a medicine or a poison depending on how, when, and in what form it is consumed—we hope you feel empowered to make the choice that is right for you!