Diet is a basic requirement for our health and well-being. New ways to optimize our diet have always been a subject of interest for research. Dietary supplements like vitamins, minerals, herbal extracts, and many others have managed to grow in this background. Ayurvedic wisemen of yore also saw these needs and described 8 factors to evaluate the utility of food components for constructing a wholesome diet. Finding ways to access great ingredients for improving the overall balance of our diet, right methods of processing, and also ensuring optimal ways to digest and assimilate that food have been the prime focuses to optimize diet.
तत्र खल्विमान्यष्टावाहारविधिविशेषायतनानि भवन्ति |
तद्यथा- प्रकृति करणसंयोगराशिदेशकालोपयोगसंस्थोपयोकत्रष्टमानि (भवन्ति) ||
(Caraka Samhita, Vimana-Sthana chapter 1, sloka 21)
Transliteration: tatra khalvimAnyaShTAvAhAra vidhi visheShAyatanAni bhavanti |
tadyathA-prakRuti karaNa saMyoga rAshi desha kAlopayogasaMsthopayoktraShTamAni (bhavanti) ||21||
Translation: These are eight specific factors of the method of constructing a diet: prakriti (nature), karana (processing), samyoga (combination), rashi (quantity), desha (place), kāla (time/stage of the disease), upayoga -samstha (rules for use) and upayoktra (consumer). || 21 ||
Prakriti refers to the inherent nature of food articles and how this nature can be used to shift physiology according to the gunas involved.
For example, curd is heavy to digest, is hot in nature, balances vata, increases kapha. Curd is said to increase meda (fat tissue), shukra (reproductive strength), bala (strength), and agni (digestive strength). Because of its amla rasa(sour taste), it is helpful in aruchi (lack of appetite known as anorexia), curd is also shown to have saliva-promoting properties1 which will be useful in conditions of anorexia. Being vata hara in nature it helps to normalize the movements of vata and being agni krit it normalizes the digestion which are both disturbed in conditions of vishama jwara (chronic, unstable and recurrent fevers).
In addition, certain probiotic strains have been shown to inhibit growth and adhesion of a range of entero-pathogens like Salmonella. Because of its grahi and vata-hara nature it is beneficial in conditions of peenasa (runny nose known as rhinitis). The bacteria in curd help repopulate the bladder and natural microbiome in the pelvic openings thus being beneficial in mutra-kruchra (dysuria). It is useful in grahani (malabsorption syndromes such as IBS) as curd is grahi and agni krit in nature. Because it is inherently hot in nature, curd is not advised in diseases of raktapitta (bleeding disorders and heat in the blood), and due to its guru, adhishyandi and kapha pitta nature it is not conducive in cases of shotha (interstitial swelling from inflammation).
Such detail is provided for hundreds of food articles in the classic ayurvedic texts. Understanding the basic prakriti of ingredients and how to combine them for individual needs requires much attention. In general, each meal should be balanced by including all six tastes.
Karana refers to the method of processing or preparation, sometimes called samskara, which includes dilution, application of heat, cleansing, churning, storing, maturing, flavouring, impregnation, and preservation.
For example, curd that is churned separates into the floating fat and the murky yellow-green water known as navaneeta (butter) and takra (buttermilk) respectively. Takra is a supreme food for alleviating edema whereas the curd from which it is born, promotes edema. Such processing or karana can potentially make a food's effect opposite to its original quality.
It also includes contact with time (think of oxidation) and utensils. While stainless steel is considered inert by modern parameters, it conducts heat and passes it on to the food, in different ways than stone or earthenware.
Therefore, food processes must be earnestly learned and understood, so that misinterpretations and misjudgments do not unintentionally aggravate imbalances to create stubborn diseases.
The combination of two or more food articles, known as samyoga (sam, with + yoga, joining) can create new effects, much as two colors combined can create a third color with completely different effects such as blue + yellow = green.
Pure authentic ghee and pure forest raw honey on their own are not deleterious. When combined in equal quantities of volume, however, the combination can be toxic and unfit for digestion, especially for those with low digestive power. A recent study done on the toxicity profile of ghee and honey in equal ratios concluded, “The formation of amadori product, decreased antioxidant enzymes and increased advanced glycation end product could be the possible cause of toxicity of equal ratio of honey and ghee.2 The sugar and protein reactions between components in each substance create complicated product compounds in the body that block the metabolism of essential amino acids, building blocks for making the body's proteins.
Some combinations enhance the benefits obtained from each ingredient and make a great flavorful combination, such as between rice and bean preparations such as dal, sambaar, raajma, or besan.
Rasi emphasizes the quantity of food intake and can refer to the whole meal amount or an individual ingredient. This is determined both by the agni, digestive power of an individual at that time in that season and climate; and by the hardiness of the individual's kukshi (stomach).
While in modern science quantity of food intake is given in terms of calorie intake, Ayurveda explains quantity with respect to the nature of food article and the volume it takes up in the stomach.
Acharya Kashyapa advises that half of your stomach should be filled with solid food, a quarter portion with liquids and the rest should be left empty for the doshas to work. The movement of vayu and the heat of pitta must have space for the proper digestion of food. However, if the nature of the food is laghu (easy for digestion), a larger amount can be ingested until one feels satiated. This is because laghu ahara is agni vayu mahabhuta predominant and therefore doesn’t hamper the digestive fire. However, there should be no feeling of compression, heaviness in the abdomen, cardiac area, or flanks.
Deśa refers to the natural habitat and climate in which food is grown. Seasonally harvested fruits and vegetables that are locally grown are always more suitable because the body is most comfortable processing things made in the same water, air, and soil that it interacts with. While an occasional unusual dish will not harm a hardy digestive system, it is best to fill your meal components with locally grown produce. It also helps local farmers and reduces the burdens of transportation, called "food miles."
Kaala refers to the state of the individual's wellness and illness, as well as to the time of food intake and the season in which a meal is eaten. For a healthy individual hunger should guide the time of food intake in the day, but a healthy individual will generally get hungry around the same time.
General guidelines advise eating only after giving enough time for the previous meal to get digested because a properly constructed diet is beneficial only if your body can properly digest and assimilate the food. Signs of proper digestion that each person should know for self-assessment include:
- Clear belching (udgaara shuddhi) if at all
- Feeling energized after the meal (utsaha)
- Proper and timely excretion of stools and urine (yatochita vegotsarga)
- Lightness of the body (laghuta)
- Timely feeling of hunger and thirst (kshut pipaasa)
Chrononutrition a developing branch of science focuses on the importance of time of food intake, circadian rhythm, and health. For example in the case of lipid metabolism, irregular meals even with the same quantity of food have been shown to disrupt circadian rhythm in the liver, altering the gene expression of CYP7A1 and subsequently causing hypercholesterolemia.3
Beyond the basics of food, Upayogasamsthaa are guidelines that include logistics, hygiene, and etiquette that optimize the meal experience.
Eat food that is hot and fresh. Eat in a place you feel comfortable that is quiet, without direct sunlight, wind, or visual distractions. Have all necessary tools and utensils available. Neither hurry nor eat too slowly. Eat quietly and with utmost focus on the food, as the food experience is not only for your body, but also feeds the senses and the mind.
Upayoktaa addresses the particular needs and factors of the individual who consumes the food and what s/he is accustomed to eating. Often called saatmya, upayoktaa refers to the cuisine, foods, and ingredients a person is accustomed to having. If a person grows up with a certain type of food, the body's machinery learns to digest that food in childhood successfully. Thus, when the person is older, during times of illness and vulnerability it is important to eat foods that the body already knows how to digest.
Most importantly a diet becomes wholesome only when it is loved by the person having it.
Since ancient times, we know instinctively that diet has a major role in health maintenance, disease prevention, and treatment. When the outlook shifts from the current reductionist focus on a bunch of nutrients to a much broader holistic viewpoint, then we will move toward harmony of our mind and body in the ecosystems in which we lie and thrive.
- Babaee, N., Gholizadehpasha, A., Zahedpasha, S., Moghadamnia, Y., Zamaninejad, S., & Moghadamnia, A. A. (2011). Effects of milk curd on saliva secretion in healthy volunteer compared to baseline, 2% pilocarpine and equivalent pH adjusted acetic acid solutions. Indian journal of dental research : official publication of Indian Society for Dental Research, 22(4), 547–551. https://doi.org/10.4103/0970-9290.90294
- Honey and ghee - Aditi P, Srivastava S, Pandey H, Tripathi YB. Toxicity profile of honey and ghee, when taken together in equal ratio. Toxicol Rep. 2020;7:624-636. Published 2020 Apr 22. doi:10.1016/j.toxrep.2020.04.002
- Oda H. (2015). Chrononutrition. Journal of nutritional science and vitaminology, 61 Suppl, S92–S94. https://doi.org/10.3177/jnsv.61.S92