Hundreds of years before Hippocrates suggested “let food be thy medicine,” Ayurvedic medicine offered a specific roadmap for how to make this sage advice practical. We literally ARE what we eat, in mind, body, and spirit. By considering the timing, combination, seasonality, individuality, and state of awareness with which we prepare and consume our meals, we either bolster – or break down – our digestive health. (Something modern nutrition fails to recognize.) By understanding that our foods are more than just a sum of their parts and that the context in which we eat matters, we create health, vitality, and energy through food, and we enjoy the peak performance we were born to live.
The following 10 “rules,” serve as a guide for tapping into the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda in our modern lives.
Ayurveda maintains that each of us has a unique mind-body constitution, called our “dosha.” The doshas are comprised of one to two of the earth elements heightened in our physiology. This original state of being is referred to as prakruti and the goal of Ayurvedic medicine is to align the current state of well-being with this original state. That’s not quite as easy as it would seem, for our bodies, minds, and beings are naturally and constantly being impacted by the experience that we’re living. This impact inevitably creates an imbalance, called vikruti. One of the ways that we pull the vikruti back in balance with the prakruti is by eating foods that decrease the heightened elements, restoring harmony and diminishing dis-ease. In general, the following Ayurvedic principles can be applied to selecting and preparing foods for the three doshas:
Want to know your dosha? Take the dosha quiz here!
Despite what you’ve heard from western nutrition science, more is not always better when it comes to protein…particularly when it means eating more than one kind of protein on your plate. Yep – that means your meat lovers pizza with sausage, pepperoni, and bacon is out. Cheese in your eggs, that bean and chicken burrito, chili that combines beans and meat, eggs and bacon, and pasta with meat and cheese are all on the Ayurvedic no-no list.
The Ayurvedic texts maintain that combining animal proteins with vegetable proteins, or multiple types of proteins at one sitting complicates digestion and weakens digestive strength; one of the primary superpowers that Ayurveda strives to protect. This wisdom may seem wild (knowing that so many of the foods Western cultures have come to praise and love combine proteins,) but this practice does make sense; all proteins are challenging to digest – in a good way. They provide nutrient density to our systems that are typically running full bore. But, more is not always better. Consuming a slightly larger quantity of one kind of protein is easier for the body to manage than adding many different types to the same meal. The proof of this one is in the pudding; separate out your proteins for one week to see if this makes a difference in your digestion, sleep, and performance. If you experience less gas, better bowels, a happier gut and improved skin, you’ll know that these ancient texts are worth their weight in gold.
Similarly to the above wisdom on protein, food combining principles are at play here and Ayurveda suggests never consuming raw fruit with other foods. Yes, that includes fruit in your yogurt, and in your cereal. It means no slathering cheese or nut butter on apple slices. Leave berries off your ice cream, and don’t even think about consuming a smoothie with protein powder (trust me on this one.) The reason is: fruits are high in simple sugar fructose. Fructose breaks down quickly in the stomach, instead of in the small intestine where fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are digested. Since all of the food we eat in one meal moves through the digestive system together as a bolus, if you did eat berries with your yogurt, you now have digested (and quickly fermenting) berries mixed with not-yet digested yogurt (and probably granola.) By the time the granola and yogurt are digested, you have a partially fermented, highly acidic ball of breakfast that is quickly changing the pH in your gut. Most commonly, this creates gas, bloating, discomfort, inconsistent bowels, loose stools, and in more serious cases can lead to digestive issues such as GERD, IBS, and more.
Modern nutrition science suggests that macronutrients build the body. This is true. But it’s the FLAVORS that these building blocks carry that should actually be considered in building our plates. Ayurveda recognizes six tastes, each of which conveys a specific energetic benefit to our physiology. When we eat a piece of food, our tongues analyze the flavors (which indicate what enzymes are needed by the gut to break them down,) and then send a signal to the digestive system to get ready! By incorporating each of the six tastes into every meal, the body receives a bio-diverse energetic palate, and we ensure complete and ultimate nutrition and satiety. In general, the six tastes inform the body with the following cellular information:
Aim to include a small amount of each taste in each and every meal. It may be only a pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon, or a pinch of spice but as long as the taste is present, the energetic puzzle will be complete and peak performance will be in our grasp.
Sleep is the body’s time to repair, heal and restore while the mind rests, digests emotions and experiences, and prepares us for the next day. We need blood and energy to complete these tasks, and if the body’s resources are diverted into physical digestion, the physical healing and mental digestive processes are halted. For this reason, Ayurveda medicine recommends that the last meal of the day be relatively light and be enjoyed at least three hours before bed (the same amount of time for the bulk of digestion to take place) to avoid this imbalance. In this way, the body is free to do all of its jobs to the best of its ability while we’re asleep.
You’ve heard it before, but what does this really MEAN? Eating with the seasons means consuming the foods that are being naturally grown and produced right around where you are, in the season that you’re living in. For most of us, that means avocados and bananas are out almost all year. Berries, cucumbers, tomatoes and tender lettuces in the winter. There are several reasons that this is so vital to our health. First, the further our food has to travel to us, the fewer nutrients it carries. So by the time that those berries from Mexico reach Montana, they’re practically worthless. Second, our bodies are aligning with the seasons in deep and critical ways, even when we aren’t recognizing it. During the winter, for example, the body is doing everything it can to keep warm and eliminate waste. By consuming cooling foods that ice down the digestion, we aren’t helping it do any of its job, and we’re sabotaging our performance. The same is true in the summer; drinking hot coffee and steaming hot bowls of porridge isn’t going to help your body keep its cool.
The best thing you can do for your microbiome is NOT taking a prebiotic. It’s stopping with the snacks.
According to Ayurvedic medicine, there are three stages of digestion that must be completed after each meal. In the first hour after eating, the Kapha energies are dominant, making the body feel full and heavy. Between two and four hours after eating, the Pitta elements take over, increasing hydrochloric acid and elevating internal body temperature in an effort to transform our food into sustenance for the system. Between four and five hours after consuming a meal, Vata energies rise as the body has the opportunity to absorb and put its fresh new energy to work. Interruption of the digestive cycle with more food leads to incomplete digestion and leads to a weakening of the digestive fire (read, the trillions of healthy microbes that are responsible for your digestion are tired, and when they get tired, they stop doing good work.) Over time, incomplete digestion results in the accumulation of ama or toxins, which may present as a plethora of mild to moderate symptoms. For this reason, Ayurveda recommends three meals each day, with as few snacks as possible to maintain digestion and keep your stomach stress-free.
For athletes, this can be tricky as for longer endurance efforts, we need calories to keep the body’s fuel source stoked but it is possible! The solution? Work with your unique constitution and the realities of your training schedule to keep energy AND digestion high.
Eager to learn more about how this strategy could work for you? Schedule a consultation with me and we’ll start aligning your training fuel with your training and health goals!
This one is kind of a no-brainer. Because foods that are in packages (even ones that say organic and natural on the outside,) have lost nearly all of their nutritional value, and most packages contain at least a few ingredients that aren’t food, or that your body can’t use as fuel. But if you need another reason, Ayurveda has one.
Prana—the life force energy that flows through our bodies, powers our actions, empowers our prowess, nourishes our bodies on the most fundamental level, and generates health, vitality, and energy, is what’s keeping us alive. (Surprise! It’s not food!) But, the various elements of food, such as the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrient contents are merely reflections of the energetic, or pranic value. Put another way, the more energy and vitality in our food, the more we get to benefit from it.
The fewer packages we consume, the more whole, fresh, vibrant, living foods from sources that infused love, vitality, and generosity into them, and the more our beings will shine.
Every time we consume something, the body has to bring it up to 98.6°F to process, digest, and turn it into nourishment. The cooler the food, the more of our precious energy is dedicated to this “pre-heating,” and the less energy can go towards activities we love, our goals, our successes, living vital, vibrant lives…you get the picture. Reduce the number of ice-cold foods and drinks you consume (ie: smoothies, iced coffee, ice cream, salads, ice in your water at restaurants, etc) and you’ll find your digestion (and your performance) thrive.
Our digestive strength (agni) is strongest when the sun is highest. And so, by consuming the largest meal of the day in the middle of the day, the body is able to use its powerful inner fire to break down and assimilate nutrients with less energetic output than at other times of the day. Lunch is the best time of the day to integrate heavier or difficult-to-digest foods such as proteins, fats, or complex carbohydrates. This is also the most ideal time for foods that challenge the digestive system (such as an ice cream cone or sugary treat). By eating the largest meal at midday, the body also has energy readily available for its most energy-intensive tasks, which inevitably eliminates the late-day slump (and the cup of sleep-sabotaging coffee we feel inclined to enjoy as a result.)
By eating our biggest, most nutrient-dense meal at dinner, we’re putting gas in the car AFTER it needs it….
Experiment with these practices, and as always, aim to enjoy your meals with gratitude. You’ll find that your digestion, and your overall well-being, benefit from simple and small changes, and that the actual sacrifice is NOT feeling our best.
* Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.