In the science and art of Ayurvedic nutrition, food is revered as divine, and a primary substance to balance the three doshas, three subtle forces that manage all bodily processes. Food also nourishes the physical body, and supports the mind. Āyurveda calls the physical body “the food body” because the five great elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether—that comprise the physical body, primarily enter us through food. Important ideas and practices in Āyurvedic nutrition involve:
One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to chose foods to balance your constitution or dosha is to eat for taste.
Āyurveda sees taste as a crucial function that includes six primary flavours—sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Distinct tastes arise when one or two of the five great elements (earth, water, fire, air, and ether) dominate. Based on the flavours presented, the digestion recognises the mix of elements and primes its fires. The taste of a food also indicates the qualities it introduces into the food body, and its short- and longer-term energetic effects. Two of the five great elements dictate each taste.
Elements and Qualities Dominating in Each Taste
Taste Elements Short-term Qualities Long-term Qualities
Sweet Earth and Water Cool, moist, heavy Highly building
Sour Fire and Earth Warm Mildly building
Salty Fire and Water Warm, moist Highly building
Pungent Fire and Air Hot, dry, light Highly lightening
Bitter Air and Ether Cold, dry, light Highly lightening
Astringent Earth and Air Cool, hard, heavy Lightening
For Āyurveda, a balanced, wholesome diet includes all six tastes every day. Across all dosha types naturally sweet or bland-tasting foods should make up the bulk of the diet, plus smaller amounts of naturally sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent foods. Taste proportions and intensities are chosen according to each person’s unique constitution, and external factors, such as the prevailing season.
Summary of Tastes that Balance and Aggravate the Doshas
Dosha Balancing, Pacifying Tastes Aggravating Tastes
Vata Sweet/bland; sour; salty Pungent; bitter; astringent
Pitta Sweet/bland; bitter; astringent Sour; salty; pungent
Kapha Pungent; bitter; astringent Sweet/bland; sour; salty
Vata-Pitta Sweet/bland Pungent
Pitta-Kapha Bitter; astringent Sour; salty
Vata-Kapha No over-lapping tastes No over-lapping tastes
There’s an internal logic to choosing foods that provide more of the elements and qualities we lack, and fewer of those we already have in abundance. People with a dual constitution should focus on tastes that balance both doshas, and that pacify the aspect of the constitution most aggravated by the current season or circumstances.
To find out more about taste, its short- and longer-term effects on the food body, choosing tastes according to your dosha type and the season, and much more, see my book, The Art of Ayurvedic Nutrition—Ancient Wisdom for Health, Balance, and Dietary Freedom.
The sages that revealed Āyurveda to the world identified twenty primary qualities among the five great elements, and common to all life. To get to know the five great elements, the foods we eat, the physical body, and the environment we live in, Āyurveda teaches us to observe their innate qualities.
The twenty primary qualities exist as ten pairs of opposites. Each quality and its partner exist along a continuum from neutral to excessive (but not from good to bad or positive to negative). Each quality is purely descriptive; independent of value judgements.
The Twenty Primary Qualities
Cold -- Hot
Oily/Moist -- Dry
Heavy -- Light
Low/Slow/Dull -- Sharp/Penetrating
Big/Gross -- Small/Subtle
Dense -- Flowing/Spreading
Static/Stable -- Mobile
Soft -- Hard
Smooth -- Rough
Cloudy -- Clear
In clinical and personal practice, all qualities are useful (and are not limited to these twenty), but some qualities are more influential than others. In foods, and in the human body, the qualities of cold and hot, oily/moist and dry, and heavy and light are readily perceived, or exert tangible effects.
The heating and cooling potential of food is known to Āyurveda as its energy or virya. Warming foods are higher in the fire element (think the instant heat of pungent chilli). They transfer stimulating, dispersing, lightening properties into the body. Cooling foods are higher in bitterness, astringency, or are naturally sweet. They are more calming and contracting (think bitter, astringent greens).
Observing the heating and cooling qualities of foods greatly assists to balance the doshas.
Āyurveda also recognises a post-digestive taste and effect, known as vipāka. It takes between six to forty-eight hours for food to move through the gut and liver (depending on what we eat and the rate of digestion). Once digested, the original taste of food often changes and takes on different qualities and long-term actions. The post-digestive effect of some foods contributes to reasons why it can be so hard to lose weight.
I discuss the qualities of foods, their short- and long-term effects, and how to work with important Ayurvedic principles including “Like Attracts Like” and “Opposites Reduce,” in my book, The Art of Ayurvedic Nutrition—Ancient Wisdom for Health, Balance, and Dietary Freedom.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, the mixing of certain foods and ingredients can create harmonious tastes and qualities that help balance the body—or create unpleasant tastes that offend the palate, cause enzyme conflicts, dosha aggravation, and promote indigestion and the build-up of toxins.
Poor food combinations occur when foods with strongly opposing qualities or strongly similar qualities are eaten together. In every day terms, foods that contain ingredients that clash include banana milkshakes; mango lassi (yoghurt); omelets with cheese or milk; fish or meat with dairy; mixed fruit salads; banana pancakes; sour lemon juice on bitter greens; cold liquids with any foods; hot liquids with other hot or heating foods.
In addition to a range of physical qualities, Āyurveda works with three subtle qualities of Mother Nature, that also enter us through food. But instead of directly affect the food body, these three subtle forces—known as sattva, rajas and tamas—exert their effects on the mind.
At birth, our essential mental nature is sattva—harmonious, illuminated, peaceful. But as life proceeds—through the foods we eat, the circumstances and company we keep, and our worldly interactions—we take in more rajas (dynamism) and tamas (inertia), and the mind’s sattvic nature is obscured. A fundamental goal of Ayurvedic and Yogic psychology is to re-establish the elevation of sattva, which cultivates mental and emotional balance, and increases the positive attributes of all three doshas.
In general, a sattvic diet is high in foods that are fresh and freshly prepared, and naturally sweet, mild, and easy to digest. In a sattvic diet some foods can be eaten raw, but most meals are warm and lightly cooked, preferably by someone who themself is high in sattva.
As well as consume foods high in sattva, it’s necessary to limit or avoid those excessive in rajas and tamas, including foods that are strongly flavoured, spicy, over-processed, and old.
For detailed discussion on the effect of food on the mind, and how to eat a sattvic diet and live a sattvic lifestyle, please refer to The Art of Ayurvedic Nutrition—Ancient Wisdom for Health, Balance, and Dietary Freedom.
In the material creation, and in the psychology, sattva is the principle of illumination that supports intelligence, understanding, honesty, patience, serenity, flexibility, caring, and joy.
Rajas is the principle of dynamism; a hot, mobile force that drives curiosity, expansion, creation, and action, and keeps thoughts and emotions flowing. Too much rajas creates instability, hyperactivity, agitation, frustration, impatience, anger, over-reaction, aggression, and turbulence.
In counterpoint to rajas, tamas is the principle of substance and inertia. Tamas offers heaviness, coolness, and restriction; it holds mental processes in check and delivers us to sleep. When over-ruled by tamas the mind becomes dull, lethargic, and rigid, and stupidity, dishonesty, repression, delusion, manipulation, greed, and perversion all become possible.
Digestion is the remarkable, essential process by which a little piece of Mother Earth (the foods, fluids, air, light, and sensory inputs we take in) is transformed to become part of our bodily system.
Āyurveda sees digestion as the primary bodily process, taking place in every living cell. Good digestion underpins the health of the entire organism. Poor digestion is the root cause of so much (some say all) disease.
The Charaka Samhita states that correct digestive functions bestow us with energy, growth, strength, immunity, enthusiasm, perception, intelligence, heat, happiness, lustre, and longevity [Chikitsasthana 15:3-4]. While a weak or volatile digestion slumps the vitality and metabolism, suppresses the immune system, reduces nourishment to every tissue, depresses the emotions, and encourages the build-up of excess tissues, toxins and disease.
What can imbalance the digestion? A great many factors, including (but not limited to):
Working to optimise our digestive fires and manage digestive complaints, helps to prevent the build-up of undigested toxins, or āma, and the onset or spread of further imbalance.
We are what we digest... and also what we DO NOT digest...
In Sanskrit, the word āma means raw, uncooked, unripened, referring to substances that enter the body but are not properly digested, and cannot be readily assimilated. Often these residues are sticky, and in no hurry to leave. They need help to be evacuated.
Āma, or undigested toxins readily accumulate in the gut as a result of everyday toxic living. Especially if the digestion is burdened, low or irregular. Over weeks, months and years, undigested substances glue to the intestines where they become poison. Rather than a role in nourishment, undigested toxins depress the immune system; inflame surrounding tissues; inhibit cellular functions and communications—all-the-while feeding pathogens and disease. If not mobilised and excreted, in time undigested toxins enter the circulation and penetrate weakened tissues. Particularly vulnerable are systems, organs and areas that are already injured, overworked, inflamed, or in an otherwise damaged or repressed state.
Further insights into how āma makes us sick, symptoms of undigested toxins, plus numerous strategies to optimise digestion and eliminate toxic build-up are offered in The Art of Ayurvedic Nutrition—Ancient Wisdom for Health, Balance, and Dietary Freedom.
Or please get in touch for a personal assessment and guided cleanse.
To Āyurveda, food is a divine gift from Mother Nature to sustain life on earth. Eating should involve attention, reverence and gratitude, as we offer this gift to the digestive fires.
As an extension of this view, the practice of embodied eating involves clearly seeing, tasting, feeling, and experiencing the foods we eat. Embodied eating includes noticing food's short, medium and longer-term effects on the physical body and mind--and responding to maintain balance. It involves how we relate to food, and manage daily dietary practices.
To deeply explore the concept and practice of Embodied Eating please see my book:
The Art of Ayurvedic Nutrition—Ancient Wisdom for Health, Balance, and Dietary Freedom.