Ayurvedic Diet In The Modern Food System
Learn your own personal constitution before we begin by taking this quick and easy free quiz on Banyan Botanicals.
By: Cameron Klass
Ayu translates from Sanskrit as “life” and Veda as “science or knowledge”, making the ancient 3000-5000 year old study of Ayurveda, the “science of life”. Ayurveda originates from India as a holistic approach to keep the body in its natural state: a balanced state that is well and functioning properly as a whole system. Ayurveda integrates diet, exercise, lifestyle, disease prevention, early diagnosis and personal treatment plans. Diet is the first means to changing one’s internal environment to stay in/reach optimum health. An Ayurvedic diet is primarily vegetarian, un-processed, and focused on using whole, real and fresh foods in accordance with what is seasonally available. It includes dairy (ghee, milk, butter, yogurt, paneer), beans, rice, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole-grains. However, in a narrower scope, it will differ from person to person based on the individuals unique constitution or dosha, as well, be influenced by the individuals imbalances and ama (toxins) build up in the body. A food is characterized by the five elements (ether, air, fire, water, earth) and Ayurveda’s breakdown of taste (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent) to determine its effect on the human body. With emphasis on the body as a whole system, rather than individual systems or parts (like the approach of allopathy- modern medicine), true Ayurveda takes into consideration the source of the food, how it is grown and comprised, whether it is in season or not, whether it is local or imported, and the energy the food holds (sattva, rajas, tamas). This traditional medicine system holds credibility in ancient wisdom, practices, philosophy and physics, and this should not be overlooked due to a lack of evidence (clinical trials, placebo and control groups, randomized studies, dose forms and side effect data) defined by modern medical methodology. However, due to the changes in farming practices, the food industry and food availability in comparison to the roots of Ayurveda, the diet principles need to evolve so the original, intended purposes of health and balance are reflected in the modern world of today.
The foundation of the traditional medicine practice of Ayurveda lies in being person centered medicine (PCM), where unique lifestyle, prevention and treatment plans are tailored to the individual based on the persons constitution (Prakriti). There are three body constitutions defined in Ayurveda: Vata, Pitta and Kapha (doshas). Every person has a combination of all three, but it is rare that they are in equal balance; often an individual will tend to have characteristics that favor predominately one or two doshas. If the alignment of the doshas becomes too far skewed towards a particular one, imbalances in the body occur (physically, physiologically, and psychologically) which is the root cause of illness and disease. The Ayurvedic approach works to align the elements within the body to keep a natural state of harmony and balance.
Through a tailored diet for ones elemental make-up, lifestyle, exercise, and cleansing techniques one can prevent and treat the onset of disharmony or disease at the root cause. Ayurveda has been scientifically recognized for its “ability to treat chronic disease such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and asthma, which are untreatable in modern medicine” (Chauhan, A. p.1). The wisdom embedded in this form of medicine is valuable, it has what modern medicine fails to present: a solution to the root cause of illness. Explained in the article Bridging Ayurveda With Evidence Based Scientific Approaches In Medicine, “Ayurveda is experiential, intuitive and holistic, whereas that of the modern medicine is based more on experimental, analytical and reductive reasoning…Modern medicine is based more on rationalism, reductionism with deeper understanding of molecules, cells, organs or diseases as parts. In the process, however, the sight of the whole person seems to have been somewhat neglected.” (Patwardhan, B.).
Throughout history, in not just India’s Ayurvedic system, but other traditions such as Ancient Chinese Medicine, the emphasis is put on holistic health, a combination of lifestyle factors. The first “line of defense” (if you will), is diet (which is the topic of focus in regards to this article; however, looking into the Ayurvedic cleansing techniques, yoga, and pranayama practices in combination with diet is worth your time!
Each dosha (Vata, Pitta and Kapha), is defined by a set of qualities or characteristics to describe a person. Food as well is described according to its qualities. Ayurveda then recommends and discourages certain foods for specific body constitutions to help maintain balance. Foods create differing effects in the body, so diet must be centered towards what is needed to bring the specific individual into balance.
The vata dosha corresponds to the space and air elements. Physical characteristics include a thin build, getting cold easily, energy in bursts, dry skin, cold hands and feet, light sleeping, and sensitive digestion to name a few. Emotionally, vata type are quick and always on the go, lively, creative, enthusiastic, quick to anger and forgive, anxious, worry, talkative, and learn quickly yet forget quickly. Signs of imbalance can include constipation, weight loss, arthritis, restlessness, weakness, and any aches and pains. To counter balance the dry, rough, and airy qualities of a vata, the Ayurvedic diet for this dosha includes warm foods with spice. This means cooked foods that heat the digestive system. To offset the dryness of vata, it is recommended to eat cooked over raw foods. A vata type should “garnish(ing) foods with generous amounts of high-quality oils or ghee” (Vata-Pacifying Diet.) The vata Ayurvedic diet favors oily over dry foods, grounding foods (cooked grains, spiced milk, root vegetables, stewed fruits, nuts, and seeds) over light foods (Vata-Pacifying Diet.). It is recommended to avoid stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. A vata pacifying diet favors smooth over rough foods (rough includes raw vegetables and beans). Flavors to help balance vata are sweet, sour and salty; foods that are more pungent, bitter and astringent will cause aggravation. It is common to see suggested foods of milk, butter, ghee and yogurt for a vata type because it falls under warming, oily and sweet foods. To pacify and balance vata, eating at routine times is found to be more beneficial, helping to ground the naturally quick and moving behaviors. Lunch is suggested to be the heaviest and largest meal of the day with dinner ideally being a bit smaller.
Pitta, the fire constitution, is recognized by a medium-size build with moderate muscle. Their skin is fair, warm, reddish, soft and moist; freckles and moles are often present. They are quite sensitive to sun exposure and burn easily. Pitta types have a good appetite but can become quite irritable if they miss a meal. They are intelligent, powerful, focused, quick tempered, overly ambitious, often competitive in nature, and can have meaningful conversations. Due to pittas qualities of internal heat, oily, light and liquid, a recommended diet to pacify pitta and counterbalance the natural qualities of pitta are dry, cooling, mild, grounding and dense foods. Most spices will aggravate the heat already present in pitta. Cooling foods, raw fruits and vegetables, will help reduce that internal fire. It is suggested to avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol due to their warming properties. To counteract the lightness of pitta, more heavy dense foods are favored; this includes grains, milk, vegetables and seeds (highly processed and fried foods lack nutrients and prana and are not supportive of achieving optimal health). Dry foods are favored over oily and liquid foods. It is common to see the recommendation of cooking oils and ghee to be used in moderation. If an individual is predominately pitta, he/she should opt for tastes that are sweet (diary products such as milk, ghee, and yogurt is often categorized in sweet flavor by Ayurvedic data), bitter, and astringent. As a result of pitta qualities, eating behavior should be regular, 3 meals a day (the most dense and nutritious meal at lunch) and one should bring awareness to the act of eating to prevent overconsumption.
Kapha reflects qualities of the water and earth elements. Body type can be characterized by stocky builds, a large and sturdy frame, round facial features, and a tendency to gain weight easily. One’s hair is often thick, oily and wavy. Hands and feet have a tendency to be clammy and cool. Personalities tend to be easy going, patient, slower paced, grounded, and resistant to change. Kapha types are heavy sleepers and may tend to over sleep. Appetite is steady and slow with regular bowel movements. Overall qualities to describe Kapha are cool and wet, oily, heavy, dense and stable. Due to these characteristics a diet to pacify Kapha is just the opposite: warming, dry, light, and easy to digest. Cooked foods are ideal for kapha; however, they can also easily digest and process raw foods like fruits, vegetables and salads because of the foods light nature. Heavy foods, which would aggravate Kapha and therefore want to be avoided include: cheese, flours, breads, pastas, meats, nuts, sweets, and fried foods. Spices are heating in nature, so can be used generously to pacify kapha. Dry foods (beans, dried fruits, popcorn, etc.) are favored over oily foods (avocado, cheese, milk, cream, yogurt, nuts, etc.). Rough over smooth foods in nature are advised, which includes most fruits and vegetables (roughages); smooth in texture could refer to many dairy products. The tastes recommended for kapha constitution are pungent, bitter and astringent to help bring balance to the body and mind. As a result of kapha’s fondness for food, eating three stable meals, sometimes just two meals is sufficient, is encouraged, with no snacking. Sweets are discouraged.
Each dosha has specific recommendations in diet to help pacify the natural tendencies associated with the particular constitution; this is to bring balance overall to the body. Diet recommendations go beyond just food properties: seasonal availability and region specific produce is taken into account. However, generally speaking, there is a trend in Ayurvedic research and diet recommendations to encourage dairy products for vata and pitta constitutions. Whether for its sweet taste, mucus forming properties, grounding qualities or oily characteristics, dairy is often suggested in the form of ghee, milk, yogurt, and cheese. Kapha is found to be the only dosha aggravated by dairy. Although this dairy recommendation served Ayurvedic treatment in the past, the modern dairy industry has drastically changed since the origins of Ayurveda. Countless research, studies, and clinical tests, prove dairy today is no longer beneficial for overall health, and is leading to inflammation and aggravation in the body. Modern day dairy farms produce products that work in opposition to the core values Ayurveda was built on. The principle of Ayurveda is keeping balance in the body to reach optimum health; to maintain this foundation, dietary dairy recommendations need to evolve to take into consideration the facts of modern day farming and production. It should be noted that Ayurvedic recommendation for refined oils and grains should also be revised to reflect modern day production; however this article focuses solely on dairy.
The Modern Day Dairy Industry
The dairy industry has dramatically changed since the foundation of Ayurvedic principles were created 3000-5000 years ago. Today, diary farming is commercialized into an industry that cares more about profits and bottom lines rather than the standard of the product and the quality of life for the animal. This creates a three-fold issue in Ayurvedic philosophy: affecting mind, body and spirit.
A typical modern-day dairy farm in the USA has between 1,000-5,000 cows; however, large dairy farms can contain upwards of 15,000 cows. Environmentally, dairy cows contribute considerably to deforestation, pollution, and greenhouse emissions that cause global warming. A significant amount of land and forest is being destroyed to accommodate large scale farms and food production for the animals effecting numerous ecosystems and habitats. Due to the substantial amount of waste and manure created, it is often not treated or disposed of properly, finding its way into water sources. Today, the dairy farm is worth roughly $47 billion a year, making it a well represented voice in politics and the US government, despite scientific dairy research cautioning its concerns for public health (Hyman, Mark).
Cows have been bred to contain higher levels of A1 casein than A2 casein, and as a result their products cause more inflammation, irritation, allergies, acne and gut problems to the consumer (Hyman, Mark). Studies have shown that roughly 70% of the world population cannot digest dairy. An average glass of milk has around sixty different hormones in it, this is due to rampant hormone and antibiotic injections on dairy farms. Of those hormones, many of them are anabolic, meaning they cause cells to grow, including cancer cells. IGF-1 in particular is a hormone found in milk that has been linked to cancer cell production, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, and heart disease. There are far more health concerns consuming cow’s milk than benefits. The old saying “milk gives you strong bones” propaganda has recently been debunked as countless studies have proven that calcium consumed from dairy increases one’s risk of stress fractures and osteoporosis. There are many types of milk now on the market including 1%, 2%, whole milk, skim milk…but this just creates more confusion to the consumer, each variety still lacks nutrients and hinders one from obtaining optimum health. One of milks few benefits would be its fat content; fat free varieties of milk have been linked to obesity and many other health issues. When stripping milk of the fat, it loses the properties to allow vitamin absorption, therefore even if the milk is fortified with vitamin D or A, the body won’t be able to properly absorb the nutrients. (Hyman, Mark.)
In addition to the present day dairy farms environmental impact and negative health impact, the ethical treatment of the animals is also a concern. This would go against Ayurvedic values of consuming high energy food. The environment and conditions for the animals are disturbing. Farms are crowded so the animals live in high-stress and low sanitation conditions. The typical life span of a dairy cow is 7-8 years, a quarter of its natural lifespan of 25. Cows are separated from their offspring within 24 hours causing a great deal of stress to both animals. If the calf is male, it is often sent to be raised for veal or is killed. In regards to milk production, utters often get an infection known as mastitis, making it painful to pump milk for the animal. Despite the discomfort, animals are still continuously forced to produce in high amounts. The cows also experience stress from being fed an unnatural diet of (GMO) corn, grains, soy, candy and feed with bacteria and fillers (Hyman, Mark). This causes inflammation and stress at a cellular level for the animal, and in turn negatively impacts the quality and energy of the milk produced and those that consume it.
Due to the fact that our modern dairy farming practices began in the 1900s, it cannot be that the founding practitioners and recommenders of dairy in the system of Ayurveda could have predicted the negative health impacts dairy would have. The USA and India differ in many ways: culture, perception of cows, food production, safety standards, traditional cuisine etc. As the wisdom and practice of Ayurveda makes it way to the western world, it needs to evolve its dietary advisements. Reasons for the dietary alterations and modifications are to preserve the core values of Ayurveda and reflect the current research and data of modern day dairy. This will excel and strengthen the traditional system by re-placing an emphasis on product sourcing and food energy.
Ayurvedic Diet Evolution
Although the Ayurvedic diet is primarily plant-based (some reports claiming 95% plant sourced), there is still an emphasis on dairy products especially for vata and pitta constitutions. Even minimal use of dairy, if consumed on a daily or per-meal basis, will cause inflammation and adverse health effects overtime. As previously discussed, the products coming for the modern day dairy industry lack nutritional value and have a lower vibrational frequency in regards to energetic value. Some practitioners advise only for the use of organic, unpasteurized milk; however, there are far better sources of grounding, oily and sweet foods to replace the need of dairy.
There are a plethora of milk alternatives such as nut milks including almond, cashew, hazelnut. Oat milk as well as soy or rice milks are also popular alternatives. With so many options in the modern world, it seems that at least one non-dairy choice would work with the individuals constitution and dietary needs. Of course wholesome ingredients should be taken into account as well.
Ghee is recommended in a lot of Ayurvedic recipes and is often found as a kitchen staple throughout India. In Ayurveda this form of clarified butter is viewed as the most precious oil for its healing and health effects on the body. Plant based alternatives to have similar desirable effects without the down falls of dairy include coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, or other high quality oils derived from nuts or seeds.
Cheese can also be recommended for an individual under Ayurvedic dietary guide lines. For plant based alternatives, one could choose artisan nut ‘cheeses’ made from clean ingredients. Nutritional yeast contains great nutrients such as B vitamins, and has similar cheesy flavor. In the West, cheese has become over used in quantity and the quality has plummeted. Creating a shift in perspective will also help one see a life of optimum health without cheese is attainable.
Yogurt is another dairy product that can be recommended for certain constitutions and body/mind types. Plant based alternatives could be coconut yogurt. There are many recipes today for making it homemade, which would provide a knowledge to its source and ingredients.
There seems to a be a blurry line between Ayurvedic food and what is convenient and widely accepted in traditional Indian cuisine. To achieve optimum health, there should be a clear distinction between the two. As discussed, the widely accepted use of dairy does not reflect Ayurvedic principles, and modern-day research advises against the use of refined oils and wheat which still remain in Ayurvedic dietary recommendations.
Upon reviewing and reflecting the diets recommended in the Ayurvedic tradition, based on the root principles of Ayurveda and the modern food industry, I conclude that dietary recommendations should be revised to avoid the consumption of dairy. Culturally, ghee, milk, yogurt, paneer and butter are staples in the Indian cuisine. However, just because it is widely used throughout a culture, doesn’t mean it promotes optimum health. There are plenty of plant-based alternatives to dairy products that don’t result in adverse health effects. It is of critical importance to make the practices of Ayurveda reflect its foundational principles as it becomes more popular in Western countries and culture. Ayurveda is becoming more wide spread and expanding into pop-culture. If the ancient wisdom becomes muted by the popularization, effectiveness will decline. As well, if traditions don’t adapt to the modern-day world, the practices and ideals will be ineffective. There must be understanding and respect to the core beliefs of Ayurveda in balance and harmony with the current world we live in today for optimum health to be obtained and maintained.
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