Eating is a wonderful and enjoyable act. Unfortunately, with busy lives, we can forget how important it actually is and how directly it affects our minds and bodies. We easily fall into the habit of eating on the go, or rushing to eat whatever we can, just to “refuel.” We become unaware of what we are eating and how we are eating it. In Ayurveda, nutrition is viewed on a much deeper level; it is a holistic approach that recognizes not every food item will be right for every person. Thus, eating according to your prakriti (Ayurvedic constitution) has become an important part of how Ayurveda can support mind-body health through diet. As you dive deeper into Ayurvedic nutrition you find that not only the type of food you are eating creates this balance, but also the way you eat, the quantity and quality of the foods that you eat, and at what times you eat.
Ayurveda teaches that the act of eating is just as significant as the nutritional content of the food. One of the most important practices for establishing a healthy meal ritual is sadhana. Sadhana is a Sanskrit word that describes personal and individual spiritual effort. It is the main tool used when working to fulfill our purpose in life. Honoring the sanctity of food and the place in which we eat can be a wonderful act of sadhana. By bringing this into our eating practices we are observing the integrity of our physiology by nourishing our bodies and minds with dignity and respect. Here are some simple guidelines to help you honor the sadhana of food and facilitate digestion:
Create a Mealtime Ritual
- Eat in a space that is peaceful, warm, and free of clutter.
- Take a moment before each meal to connect with the physical action of eating and show gratitude for the food in front of you.
- Never eat while lying down or standing up.
- Be mindful of your conversations during meals. While it is best to observe silence during meals, you may choose to engage in calm, soothing conversations.
- Chew your food well and be aware of its smells, tastes, textures, and sounds. Experience the joy of eating. You can do this by eating with your hands. When you touch your food it awakens your agni (digestive fire) and allows you to digest more.
- Take a gentle walk after you eat to encourage proper digestion.
Keep the Serving Size in Check
Another important consideration is in determining the appropriate quantity of food that one should take. It is generally recognized that we must eat enough food to satisfy our system without having a feeling of heaviness afterword. To do this, Ayurveda recommends filling one third of the stomach with solid food, one third with liquid, and leaving one third empty to facilitate digestion. Ayurveda offers a simple technique to determine the appropriate amount of solid food eaten at each meal per individual. To do this, take both of your hands and hold them out in front of you touching side by side, now cup your hands. The “cup” of your hands is referred to as anjali and is the perfect measurement for your particular stomach. The smaller your hand, the less food and drink you need to sustain yourself. When drinking liquids with your meal, drink no more than one-half anjali.
During seasonal junctions or illness we are advised to reduce our food intake to one-third the size of a normal meal. Decreasing food intake allows the body to reorganize itself by reducing its workload, so the body is nourished without unduly disturbing its agni. In the same respect, when you are doing physical work or lots of exercise, it is important to eat a larger amount of food. If you have a day where you are exerting very little energy, you will want to reduce the size of your meals.
Choose High Quality Ingredients
The Ayurvedic sage Charaka taught, “For food to be digested in a timely manner, thus promoting energy, healthy complexion, strength, and longevity, it must not only be imbibed in proper measures but in wholesome quality.” With this knowledge we can make wise food choices. Here are some helpful concepts to determine the quality of food:
- Use foods that are seasonally and organically grown.
- Bring attention to the smell, color, touch, and taste of food to ensure its freshness.
- Avoid foods with preservatives, or ingredients that are genetically altered in any way.
- Avoid hydrogenated oils. Use organic, naturally processed oils.
- If using dairy products, ensure they are organic. Use raw dairy products if you have a source that is clean, safe, and reliable.
- Drink pure spring or well water, or water that has been re-mineralized.
- Discard old spices.
- Avoid frozen foods and commercially canned foods.
- Eat warm and freshly cooked meals.
- Avoid processed foods.
- When using sugar, use unrefined sugar, raw honey, or pure maple syrup. Avoid white sugars or sugar substitutes.
- Use natural mineral salt or sea salt.
- Avoid fruits that are waxed or sprayed with chemicals and pesticides, and dried fruits that have been sulfurized or treated with processed sugars or chemicals.
Get the Timing Right
The last topic to emphasize is the importance of the times we eat and the kinds of foods we eat at those times. This concept makes a lot of sense when you start to see that our bodies are directly connected to nature. Just as the sun rises, our digestion rises, and as the sun gets stronger throughout the day, so does our digestion. Similarly, as the sun starts to set, so does our ability to thoroughly digest our food. With this easy daily marker, we can set the times and types of meals we should be eating to best assist optimal digestion.
In the morning, you want to eat something warm, moist, light, and freshly cooked between the hours of 7–9 a.m. A good option is cooked whole grain cereal with spices like ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon with warmed milk. If you prefer something savory for breakfast, try cooking your whole grains in veggie broth instead. Thinking of your digestive power as an actual fire is a good way to understand what is happening naturally with your body’s digestive system. As an example, you don’t want to throw 4–6 logs on a barely existing fire and smother its flames. Similarly, eating a heavy or cold meal first thing in the morning only puts the digestive fire out.
Just as the sun is strongest at mid-day (11 a.m.–2 p.m.), so is your digestive fire. This is the ideal time to have your largest meal because the fire is strong and able to handle foods that would be harder to digest at breakfast and dinner. If you are non-vegetarian, this is the time time to eat animal protein. Also, portions can be slightly larger, and raw food can be eaten as long as it is no more than twenty percent of your meal. Keep in mind that raw fruit is best taken either twenty minutes before or twenty minutes after a meal.
In the evening, you will want to eat between the hours of 6–8 p.m. The evening meal should be warm, light, and easy to digest. A nice option is steamed rice with vegetables, or a vegetable soup. Eating after 8 p.m. is especially difficult for the digestive system. In the evening and while sleeping, the body is working on cleansing and restoring, which is why it is important to eat a light dinner and not load more work on the body by snacking late at night.
With a busy life, it may feel like these suggestions are somewhat impossible, but appropriate eating habits are as important as exercising and good sleeping routines. When your body feels supported by healthy eating habits, you can experience increased vitality, emotional calm, and ease in the natural process of digestion and elimination. Give it a try for one week and see what kind of results you get!