The Why, How, How Much, When, and Where of Eating
Excerpted from The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook
Why and How We Eat
In Ayurveda, why we eat is the most important factor in our relationship to food, as it determines how the food will be received by the body. When you begin to use food as medicine, hold the intention for the food to be nourishing, energizing, enjoyable, and easy on your body. Keep in mind, there is room for both enjoyment and nourishment. Ayurveda references the hunger of the tongue as well as the hunger of the stomach. Pleasing the palate is an important aspect of Ayurvedic cookery, one that is accomplished through the use of digestive spices and the inclusion of the six tastes.
Eating foods that one dislikes is not considered beneficial. So, although the focus is on nourishment first, remember that the foods you eat should also be pleasing to you.
How we eat is certainly more important than what we eat. For instance, you could have a carefully chosen, lovingly prepared meal in front of you, but if you eat it while worrying that it will cause you to gain weight, the worry can create nervous indigestion or cause your body to reject the food.
The key to eating with the right mind-set is to approach your meals with gratitude. Just as you would take care to listen to a friend in need, take care to notice your foods. As soon as your body smells food, it begins to prepare the appropriate enzymes for the fare it recognizes. Before you’ve even taken a bite into your mouth, the process of digestion has begun! Engage the senses by looking closely, smelling, and feeling the qualities of the food on your plate. What colors, scents, and textures do you observe?
PRACTICE TIP: Make a practice of taking a few moments to sit with the food before you eat it—just a few breaths to take it all in with your senses and to prepare for eating.
Imagine that your stomach is divided into four parts. The ancient texts of Ayurveda suggest that “two parts of the stomach should be filled with solid foods, one part by liquids, and the remaining one part should be kept vacant for accommodating air.” 1 The amount of solid food you can hold in your cupped hands is a good measure to go by.
Drinking liquid is an important part of each meal. The ideal drink would be warm water, plain or with fresh-squeezed lemon, or a digestive tea, which you will find recipes for in the seasonal sections of this book. A small cup of six ounces or so will suffice. Drinking a lot of water less than thirty minutes before a meal or within two hours afterward will dilute the digestive juices. The right amount of liquid will make a nice ahara rasa, juice of the food.
PRACTICE TIP: Eat slowly, making it a point to put the silverware down after every few bites and sit back. This can take some willpower. The payoff is that as your practice of attentive eating grows, you will simply stop eating when you begin to feel full. The indicator of fullness is the first belch. This signifies the stomach is letting out some air to make space for the food—so if you add more food in there, your stomach will run out of room. Eat slowly enough to notice the belch, and you will find it’s your body’s built-in system for portion control!
When we eat
Eating at the proper time of day determines whether the food will be well digested or not. Believe it or not, a burger at noon is preferable to a salad at midnight. In Ayurveda what we are working toward is to eat food at mealtimes and nothing in between. The general recommendation is three meals a day, but for some people, two meals a day may be enough; others may need four. This will depend on your amount of physical activity, your particular metabolism, and, of course, the season—in the winter, for example, you are likely to be hungrier than in the summer and eat more to keep your body warm.
Remember that the digestive fire is like a campfire. If you wait too long to add wood to it, the fire will die out. If you continuously add wood to it, you will smother the flames, and you will need to stop adding and wait until it grows again before putting more wood on. Most of us are in the habit of eating too often. The fire never gets to come to full strength because it always has something new to digest. The practice of not eating between meals allows the fire to grow.
PRACTICE TIP: Take a few weeks to experiment with how much breakfast you need to get you through to lunch without snacking. This will require you to have a general routine for what time you eat your meals. It is easier to make it through the morning than it is to make it through the afternoon without snacking.
Once you feel comfortable with your breakfast and lunch routine, you can start observing how much food you need to eat at lunchtime to keep you from getting too hungry or spacey before dinner. At the very least, you will begin noticing if you have a tendency to skimp at lunchtime and end up eating a few other things (like sweets and coffee) through the afternoon. A full lunch will keep you satisfied and out of trouble.
It took me about six months to feel comfortable eating only at mealtimes. One day I was so hungry after breakfast and the next I was stuffed! I hadn’t been in the habit of eating meals—I was a grazer, and it all felt new to me. After a year, I felt like eating only at mealtimes and I experienced fewer symptoms of poor digestion by allowing each meal to completely digest. Even so, some days I say forget it, and I have a snack! I take pleasure in indulging in a break from the routine from time to time.
NOTE: The metabolism needs time to get used to a shift in eating patterns. Take care not to be too rigid about it and give yourself plenty of time to transition to eating square meals at routine times of day. If you make it happen even half of the time, you are doing your digestion a favor.
Traditional Tips for Improving Digestion
Following a few rules of thumb can make a huge difference in helping you maintain a healthy digestive fire, strong metabolism, and regular elimination. Some of these recommendations may seem simple, but the effects can be profound. Pay attention as you read the list below and see if one or two items jump out at you. Start by working on just those habits.
- Do not take iced drinks, especially with meals. Ask for hot or room-temperature tap or still bottled water at restaurants.
- Drink warm water throughout the day, and in cool weather carry a thermos instead of a water bottle.
- Favor warm, cooked foods over raw.
- Reduce the amount of leftovers you eat and get into the habit of cooking fresh meals more often.
- Wait two hours after meals before drinking.
- Space out your meals by at least three to four hours to allow for complete digestion before eating again. You may have to make this change gradually to allow your blood sugar to adjust. Avoid grazing—your digestive fire can never build up with constant input.
- Do not eat when you aren’t hungry. It is OK to skip a meal if you’re not hungry, and in fact it can be harmful to habitually eat when not hungry, even if the mind tells you it’s time. Remember that sometimes you have to slow down to notice if you are truly in need of food.
- Take your time to eat and rest a little for ten minutes afterward, but do not sleep directly after eating.
- Take a light walk after you eat.
- If you are going to have a treat, enjoy it with lunch, when the digestion is strongest, and do not eat again until dinner.