The process of eating and digesting is a wondrous thing. It is magic. It is alchemy. Ayurveda acknowledges this. In our Western culture the process of eating has become mindless or, at best, a form of entertainment. Too often as we eat we watch TV, have meetings or socialize or, worse, we eat standing or on the run. The consequences of this disconnection to the process of eating and digestion are seen in the growing prevalence of problems such as malabsorption, irritable bowel, food sensitivities, bloating, gastritis, indigestion/heartburn, and excess gas. It also leads to lowered immunity. Before opting for a flu shot this winter, think about fine-tuning your eating habits.
There is an ancient Ayurvedic proverb: “Without proper diet, medicine is of no use. With proper diet, medicine is of no need.” When we think of proper diet we need to think not just of what we eat but also how we eat and how we support our ability to digest and assimilate what we have eaten.
Let’s think about what happens when we eat. We take in vegetables, grains, and animal products and we transmute those materials into their fundamental components in a form that our cells can assimilate. From that we create tissues, organs, bones, and fluids. We eat a tomato and turn it into a heart. We are recreating ourselves everyday through a process to which we give little to no thought or attention.
According to Ayurveda, food is a tiny package of intelligence. The reason we eat is to extract and assimilate that intelligence. If digestion is incomplete or if we eat food that is essentially devoid of intelligence, we are deprive ourselves of the basic building blocks needed to create healthy balanced physiologies. What is the secret of good health? Choosing the right diet and maintaining a strong digestion. Everything else is icing on the cake. If you are looking to avoid colds and flues during the winter, if you are trying to avoid binge eating, if you are looking for more energy and focus, the answer may simply be to elevate eating to a position of proper respect and priority.
Let’s look at these two aspects of creating health.
Ayurveda focuses on enhancing digestion so that we are able to get the most from the food we eat. Below are some general guidelines. However, if your digestion is compromised, you may benefit from an Ayurveda consultation in which individualized recommendations can be given to address your specific doshic imbalance and state of balance.
Eat only when hungry—when your digestive fire is strong. If you do not feel hungry, try eating a small slice of ginger with salt as you first sit down. This stimulates the digestive process.
Avoid cold foods and cold drinks while eating or immediately after meals. These will “douse the fire of digestion”.
Eat in a settled and quiet atmosphere. Avoid the telephone, television, reading material, and over-stimulating conversation during meals.
Avoid eating when upset.
Avoid eating when standing (or walking).
Savor each mouthful and chew your food well. When you chew your food, your body releases digestive enzymes in the stomach that help to break down the food. Saliva also contains digestive enzymes, so the longer you chew, the more time these enzymes have to start breaking down food, making digestion easier. When large particles of improperly chewed food enter your stomach, they may remain undigested when they enter your intestines. This may lead to gas, bloating, constipation, cramping and other digestive problems.
Eat until you are satisfied—but not full. Avoid overeating. Leave room in your stomach for the digestive process to take place.
Sip small amounts room temperature or hot water during your meal.
After you are finished, sit quietly for at least 5 minutes. Don’t immediately jump up from the table.
The food you eat should contain lively intelligence. Processed food, canned and packaged foods are essentially “dead”. Fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fresh dairy products can provide the intelligence your body needs to build healthy tissues every day.
Choose organic foods, when possible, so that you are not introducing harmful chemicals into your body. In addition, studies have shown that organic foods contain between 20 to 40% more antioxidant activity than conventional foodstuffs. These antioxidant compounds, which go by names like carotenoids and flavonoids, protect cells from the effects of aging and from the sort of damage that can lead to cancer.
Food without intelligence or heavy foods such as meat and fried foods tax the body’s digestion capabilities and end up creating ama in the body. Ama blocks the body’s channels of communication and delivery. Thus as well as not supplying your body with needed intelligence, these foods end up blocking other sources of intelligence from reaching your cells.