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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.

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Healthy Diet


healthy foods

OK, it’s time to lay to rest a notion—namely that healthy meals taste bad. Sure, all those prepackaged diet meals taste bad, but they aren’t really that healthy. Raw mustard greens aren’t going to float anybody’s boat either. Celery shake? Yuk.

In fact, the healthiest meals you can make also taste the best. If they don’t taste really great, they aren’t healthy. Really. Here’s how that works. You see, if something tastes great, you salivate over it prodigiously. Your other gastric juices get pumping away spontaneously.—Stomach acid. Just the right amount of bile. Everything gets working. Then you digest better, produce more nutrients, and make fewer toxins.

You should be happy while you’re eating. That’s not just a moral stricture. If you’re happy, you have positive neuropeptides floating around in your body. Positive neuropeptides help you digest better. Again, you create more positive chemicals in your body and fewer toxins. Happiness is a digestive aid.

On the other hand, food that tastes yucky is bad for digestion. Stuff that “turns your stomach” just doesn’t get digested well, and that wreaks havoc throughout your system. For starters, it sits in the colon and tries to attach bad stuff to the linings there. It sends free radicals catapulting through the system looking for healthy molecules to attack. It’s not good. It makes you sick in the long run, and sometimes in the short run, too.

The Munificent Meal

It’s best to have your main meal of the day at noon, when the digestive fire is highest. Here’s what to put on the plate of your sumptuous meal, which is nevertheless quite easy and quick to prepare. Once we’ve given you the big picture, we’ll break it down component by delectable component in the rest of the chapter:

  • A small piece of ginger to awaken the appetite before you begin
  • Some nice, whole grain, such as rice
  • A nicely spiced bean dish, such as dal (chicken instead for the non-veggies)
  • Green, leafy veggies
  • Flat bread (known as chapati or roti)
  • Green, leafy chutney
  • Fresh cheese (panir)
  • Nuts, perhaps walnuts
  • A nice, gentle sweet
  • Lassi

That’s the meal. Eat it every day for lunch, and you’ll do wonders for your health. You can vary lots of the participants, so it doesn’t become boring. You can have all kinds of whole grains, various veggies, numerous nuts, and so on. And, with a few spices and the right preparation, the combination is a taste delight (way, way more sumptuous than, say, a Big Mac from McDonald’s).

Jolly Ginger

To make sure your digestion is wide awake and ready to roll, take a thin slice of fresh ginger root and sprinkle it with a little salt. Eat this right before you start your meal to put your digestion on high alert.

A Wholesome Whole Grain

Whole grains are healthy, but most people aren’t even too sure what they are. It’s hard to tell the whole ones from the partial ones. Whole grains keep their fiber, their vitamins, and their minerals like zinc and potassium, whereas processed grains lose some. The complete grains have antioxidants, lignans, phenolic acids, and other phytochemicals. They are rich in healthy things, whereas partial grains come along with much of those things stripped out. The fiber enhances digestion, and other phytochemicals in the whole grain aid in disease prevention.

Here are some whole grains to choose from (gluten-sensitive people should avoid grains with gluten):

  • Barley
  • Couscous
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Rye
  • Rice

Beneficent Beans

Often overlooked in American cookery, to be served with franks on a picnic, beans are a potent nutritional player in the diet. First, they have protein. You don’t have to eat meat to get protein. You help your cause a lot if you eat beans, dals, and lentils. Second, this family of foods (which we simplify to just “beans”) also has fiber, like grains. So, in having beans, you’re doubling up your beneficial fiber. Third, beans have complex carbohydrates and vitamins.

You can use them all kinds of ways: appetizers, salads, soups, main dishes, sides, and even dessert. You’ve had rice pudding before, right? Well, beans can be used in desserts as well.

If you want to choose a favorite, the Vedic medical tradition gives a nod to mung beans, the split ones with the skins removed (which are referred to as moong dal in Indian groceries). They’re easier to digest than most of the other beans and dals. You can eat them every day without any bad consequences.

Generous Greens

The dark green leafy vegetables, half-scorned in Western cookery as Popeye’s strength builder, hold a high position as a health-promoter. They have beta-carotene, other carotenoids, lutein (an unyielding antioxidant), and—above all—DNA-enriching folate. They’re rich in minerals like calcium and Vitamin A.

Vedic medicine has known about them forever and has held them in high esteem. Know what they have that Western medicine is just beginning to measure? Prana (a Vedic term), which is pure life energy. Also, according to the Vedic approaches, green leafies have juices in them that keep your body nice and fluid.—They keep open subtle channels in the body where nutrients have to flow if they’re going to keep cells strong.

Here are some green leafies you’ll enjoy:

  • Bok choy
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Turnip greens

Different greens have different cooking requirements, of course. Some (spinach) are pretty tender and cook fast. Others (kale) take longer to get tender. But do cook them. Otherwise, your stomach may complain.

Bountiful Bread

Know what’s good about chapatis (flat breads)? You can use them instead of silverware. In some places in the West, people frown on such behavior. It’s standard in the East, where touching the food is considered an integral part of the dining experience. Chapatis also taste good and contribute to the delight of the meal. You can buy them in the store or, if you have time, make them yourself.

Satisfying Sides

Enjoyment is an essential part of a healthy, delightful meal. Remember, you’re trying to keep the celebration of life going on in your body at even its most quiet levels (well, all right, especially at its most quiet levels). To do that, you should keep pleasing your tastes in all kinds of ways. Variety is good. And spice is the variety of life. For instance, a nicely spiced chutney is almost a requirement for your healthy meal.

Fresh Cheeses Such as Paneer or Ricotta

Panir, if you aren’t familiar with it yet, is great. It’s very popular with those who do know it, because it’s light and easy to digest, yet bursting with the nutritional value of cheese. (Some cheeses you buy at the grocery store may be aged and can produce free radicals in the body, which are harmful to the physiology. They are also very heavy and can clog up your system.) You might find panir at an Indian grocery, or you can make it yourself.

Nuts

Don’t forget to toss in a few nuts with your meal. Nuts keep falling in and out of favor with the diet crowd. “Oh, they have protein. That’s good. Oh, they have too much fat. That’s bad.” In our crowd, they’re good. Besides adding protein, know what they can do? Feed your brain, and the brain is the main switchboard for everything going on in your body. Walnuts have the healthy Omega-3 fats. It’s best to soak your walnuts overnight before eating them, which removes a certain sharpness from them that makes them harder to digest.

Other nutritious nuts are sesame seeds (toasted), sunflower seeds, and almonds (blanched).

Death-Defying Desserts

The health-conscious individual can be understandably reluctant about desserts. Don’t desserts have processed sugars? Don’t they have fats? Aren’t they downright sinful? Not always, and it’s important to indulge your tastes, as we said. A dissatisfied body is a body wont to fall sick. Have some tasty, fresh desserts. Here are some suggestions:

Fruits

Sweet, juicy fruits can be eaten, but not immediately after meals. It’s best to eat fresh or cooked fruits as a healthy snack in between your meals. Have pears, apples, oranges, peaches, cherries, blueberries, mangoes, bananas. Whatever is in season is best. Dried fruits are great, too—apricots, dates, figs, raisins. An ideal dried fruit is an organic Medjool date. (If you’ve never had an organic Medjool date, you’ve never really had a date.) Their sumptuous richness can change your mind forever in favor of that fruit. You won’t be able to eat just one. Two to four should meet your needs nicely.

Forget These “Fighting” (Contradictory) Foods

We don’t like bringing this up in mixed company, but we feel that we have to . . . in the interest of preventing a lot of future indigestion in our readership. Look, some foods just can’t get along with one another. You can’t let them in the stomach at the same time. That’s just the way it is. They curdle, annoy, stifle, or otherwise rile the other food. That might be all right if it were happening in a test tube somewhere, but you don’t want it going on in your stomach.

Here is a partial list that has been developed, to help avoid the most common mistakes in food-combining found in the Western countries. Clearly, there are a lot more foods that don’t get along than the few we have here.

Here’s what to do.—Leave at least an hour between eating foods that are incompatible with each other. That’s the basic guideline. You don’t have to strain to do these things, just quietly have the intention. You don’t have to stop altogether right away with your orange juice milkshakes. (Well, maybe you should.) But cut the orange juice in the shake a little bit each day until, voilà, there is none there.

1.   Do not combine milk with:

  • Meals that have mixed tastes, e.g. vegetables
  • Sour foods, e.g. sour fruits, yogurt, etc.
  • Fermented foods of any kind, e.g. apple cider, soy sauce, etc.
  • Fermented herbal supplements, e.g. tinctures, etc.
  • Pickled foods, e.g. gherkins and many Indian condiments
  • Vinegar, or salad dressings containing vinegar
  • Citrus fruits – oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, etc.
  • Green leafy vegetables – spinach, kale, broccoli, arugula, etc.
  • Radish
  • Eggs of any kind
  • Baked foods containing eggs, e.g. breads, cakes, cookies
  • Meat of any kind – beef, chicken, pork, turkey, fish, etc.
  • Garlic
  • Salt
  • Foods containing salt, e.g. most processed foods, fish, sea vegetables, crackers, peanuts, etc.
  • Alcohol

We know this list sounds all-inclusive at first, as in, “Fine, then when can I drink my milk?” Most people who have been following Vedic guidelines for a while don’t drink milk along with their meals. They drink milk. They have it before bedtime. Milk is good, but you have to watch the company that it keeps.

While we’re on the subject, milk is much easier to digest if you boil it first. Organic milk is recommended. The cows that produce this milk were not given bovine growth hormone, and the food they ate didn’t contain pesticides, herbicides, or antibiotics.

2.   Use raw (uncooked) honey only. Do not heat honey or cook with honey. According to Ayurveda, cooked honey clogs the system and becomes toxic. Most honey you buy in the store has been heated during processing, so check the label closely to make sure you are buying “raw” honey.

3.   Do not mix yogurt with sour fruits or melons or mangoes.

4.   Don’t eat hot and ice-cold foods together (like the favorite—coffee and ice cream). Cold foods or drinks will suppress your digestion, whereas hot foods or drinks will activate it. This creates confusion in the system, disturbs the digestion, and results in formation of Ama (build-up of toxins in the physiology).

That’s it. Deciding not to mix foods can be a bit troublesome at first, like sorting through the stack of shoes in the closet and making some sense out of them. Once those shoes are sorted, you probably find it easier to make quick switches from business shoes to tennis shoes to cross trainers. Your stomach, similarly, likes to be able to know right away which foods to take on at which times.

Food. Everybody loves it. Nobody can get enough of it. Satisfy yourself one minute, and the next minute you’re ready for a fresh plateful of the stuff. Looking for a health-promoting ally? You’ll find one of the best in dear, adorable food. Grains, dals, fruits, and veggies can turn your body into a veritable fortress against unhealthy invaders. Following a few little precautions will help, such as using a little timing for when you drink your glass of milk. Use a little wisdom in how you eat, and your stomach will do its work better. Short term, a happier stomach means a happier you. Long term, it means a you that is much more likely to prevent the ravages of diseases.

This modified chapter was taken with permission from: The Answer to Cancer, by Sharma and Mishra, with Meade, SelectBooks, New York, 2002.