Tag Archives: Cooking

Ayurvedic Concept of the Role of Taste in Nutrition

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For those familiar with Ayurveda, one of the most surprising observations regarding modern nutritional science is that the relationship between taste and nutrition has been completely overlooked in Western investigations and conceptualizations. This is especially true when one considers that the sensation of taste is the primary and most obvious influence for every food that is eaten. The concept that taste may contain important clues to the biochemical actions of food is certainly an intriguing one, especially in light of the exquisite sensitivity of the taste receptors. Sweet taste can be perceived in a dilution of 1:200; salty, in a dilution of 1:400; sour, in a dilution of 1:130,000; and bitter, in a dilution of 1:2,000,000. According to the concepts of Ayurveda, this exquisite sensitivity of taste represents a communication mechanism to signal the physiology of the complex biochemical qualities of each food.

The sense of taste performs the dual role of informing the individual about the external world and connecting that perception with information about their internal environment. It is known from research into the sense of taste that molecules act on taste cells in particular areas of the oral cavity to trigger signals which are then transmitted to the cortex via afferent nerves, the caudal hindbrain, and the thalamus. The hypothalamus and limbic system are also reached by taste afferents. The taste of food is known to trigger physiological as well as behavioral reactions.

According to Ayurveda, when the taste buds first experience the different tastes and textural properties of food, an enormous amount of information is delivered throughout the body, triggering basic metabolic processes. These are held to reflect individual characteristics of the food as indicated by the taste. The influence on the physiology is then individualized according to the metabolic style determined by the individual’s Ayurvedic psychophysiological constitution and disturbances in the physiology.

Ayurveda describes six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Of these, the two that are not specifically recognized in Western nutritional science are ‘pungent,’ which refers to hot, spicy foods, and ‘astringent,’ which refers to foods with a drying, absorbent property (Table 1).

Table 1. The Six Tastes and Some Examples

  • Sweet – Sugar, milk, butter, rice, wheat, bread, pasta, honey
  • Sour – Yogurt, lemon, cheese, tomatoes, sour citrus fruits
  • Salty – Foods with a high salt content
  • Pungent – Hot spicy foods, hot peppers, ginger, cumin
  • Bitter – Spinach, other green leafy vegetables, turmeric
  • Astringent – Beans, lentils, apples, pomegranate, tannin in tea 

Ayurveda recommends that all six tastes be represented in each meal, although the proportions of the six tastes will vary according to the individual’s psychophysiological constitution and physiological disturbances. When all six tastes are experienced, the appetite will be satisfied by this balanced intake. If any of the tastes are left out, the person will likely continue to eat even though they are full, in an effort to satisfy the body’s hunger for the missing tastes. Inclusion of all six tastes is easily accomplished by use of Ayurvedic churnas, which are spice mixtures tailored to different constitutional types.

Because of the gate-keeper role that the taste buds play, taste is considered central to the classification of foods. It should be noted however that the analysis of food in Ayurveda is more sophisticated and precise than the analysis of taste alone. In analyzing food, additional properties are also taken into consideration, including six major qualities of food that are identified as heavy, light, oily, dry, hot, and cold (Table 2).

Table 2. The Six Major Food Qualities and Some Examples

  • Heavy – Cheese, yogurt, wheat products
  • Light – Barley, corn, spinach, apples
  • Oily – Dairy products, fatty foods, oils
  • Dry – Barley, corn, potatoes, beans
  • Hot – Hot (in temperature) foods and drinks
  • Cold – Cold foods and drinks 

Dietary prescriptions in Ayurveda are tailored according to individual need, based on determination of the individual’s Ayurvedic psychophysiological constitution and disturbances in the physiology.

Ayurvedic Guidelines for Diet & Digestion

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Diet and digestion are considered to be of the utmost importance in Ayurveda. They constitute one of the three pillars of health. Not only is what you eat important but also when you eat, where you eat, whether you are paying full attention to what you eat, what your hunger level is when you eat, and what your mood is when you eat.

Following are some important guidelines for healthy diet and digestion:

1.   It is best to eat your main meal around noontime. This is when digestive powers are at their maximum. Eating a large meal late in the evening when digestion is weak can lead to all sorts of health problems, including obesity, lethargy, and poor sleep, to name a few. Eating a small breakfast ensures that the appetite will be maximum at noontime. A large breakfast is incompletely digested by noon when it is time to eat again.

2.   Digestion is better when you refrain from eating another meal until the previous one has been completely digested. It takes about two hours for the stomach to empty but it may take 4 to 6 hours to completely digest a big meal. When you feel hungry again, this is a sign that the previous meal has been digested. Snacks between meals should be avoided by most individuals. If you have eaten a very large meal, you may want to skip the next meal.

3.   It is best not to eat unless you are hungry. When you have a sharp appetite, it means that your physiology is ready for food and will make maximum use of it. If you eat without any desire for food, it may actually have a harmful effect on your body. If you are angry or upset, wait until those feelings have passed before eating. Eating should promote feelings of pleasure to ensure proper digestion.

4.   When eating, do not indulge in other activities, such as reading the newspaper or a book, watching TV, having an intense conversation, etc. The process of eating requires your full attention in order for the food to be properly digested.

5.   After eating, it is good to sit like a king or queen for 5-10 minutes to allow the digestive process to get a head start before plunging back into activity. This helps the digestive cycle be maximally effective.

6.   Cold drinks should not be taken immediately before a meal or with a meal or immediately after a meal. Ayurveda considers cold drinks to be very harmful for digestion. They decrease the function of the digestive enzymes. This means that by drinking cold drinks, you actually decrease your body’s ability to digest your food. Drink room temperature or hot beverages with your meals. Hot water pacifies Vata dosha, the king of the doshas and the one most easily imbalanced. In summer, those with large amounts of Pitta dosha can have cold beverages, but not around mealtimes. Once you put this guideline into practice for a few weeks, you will notice the positive effect on your digestion and you’ll wonder how you ever tolerated cold drinks at mealtimes.

7.   It is good to take a walk after meals. It helps the digestive process function properly and settles the mind, which aids digestion because the mind and body are connected.

8.   A simple cure of many digestive ills is to avoid overeating. Ayurveda suggests eating to 2/3 to 3/4 of capacity. It is best not to leave the table feeling ‘stuffed.’ The digestive system can become overwhelmed. When we exceed our digestive capacity, the production of Ama can be the result. Ama refers to products of incomplete digestion that result in the build-up of toxins in the system. This material can circulate and cause damage by sticking to vital channels in the body and plugging them up. Ama is sticky. The white sticky material you scrape off your tongue in the morning is one type of Ama. It is a visible guide to how well your digestive system is functioning. When you eat a heavy meal at night your tongue will likely be coated with whitish sticky material in the morning. When you eat in moderation and get regular exercise there will likely be a visible reduction in the amount of Ama on your tongue.

Eating in moderation is recommended for better health and longevity. Modern scientific studies have demonstrated that animals which are slightly underfed outlive those that have food in front of them all the time.

9.   It is better to eat in settled circumstances. It is best not to eat while standing. Sit to enjoy your food. This will allow the mind to focus on eating. Eating while driving is not recommended. It divides the mind. Eating is one of the most important things we do each day and it requires our full attention.

10. The value of well cooked food. Ayurveda recognizes that food contains vital energy, called Prana. Freshly cooked and served food is high in Prana. Frozen foods, canned foods, and foods that have been refrigerated for a long time are completely devoid of Prana. Raw foods contain this energy but are very difficult to digest and thus are of less benefit than well cooked food. Ayurveda not only considers the nutritive value of the food but also its bioavailability.

Prana does not last after the food has been cooked. According to Ayurveda, food should be consumed within five hours of cooking. Refrigeration may extend this for some time. It is best to avoid leftover foods, canned and processed foods, snack foods, etc. This also applies to juices. Canned or bottled juices are devoid of Prana and are thought to produce Ama, which is not good for health. Fresh juices are better, according to Ayurveda.

11. Exercise or walk for 30 minutes every day. Exercise tones the body and sharpens the digestive powers. However, it is best not to exercise right before meals or if you are very hungry. Also avoid exercising right after meals.