Food as Medicine – Ahara Vidhi Vidhaan in Ayurveda
Ayurveda, India’s timeless medical treasure, is based on the concept of promoting a holistic life through a healthy ayurvedic diet and lifestyle. A lot of diseases in modern times (diabetes is a prime example) are the result of unhealthy dietary choices and undisciplined lifestyle habits.
Ayurveda has always stressed the fact that the food we ingest affects our entire wellbeing and is directly linked to our health – physical, mental and emotional. Diet or ahara in ayurveda is responsible for nourishing not just the body but also the mind and soul and any disruptions in healthy eating habits is the main cause of diseases. That is why Ayurveda refers to ahara as one of the three Upsthambhas or one of the key pillars of human life.
Ayurveda classifies ahara as diet and anna as food. Anna is the actual consumption of food whereas ahara is about diet beyond just ingestion of food. Unlike the modern concept of healthy food that is limited to just calorie intake, Ayurveda classifies food based upon methods of consumption, quantity, quality and mainly a person’s ability to digest that food or the strength of the digestive fire or agni.
Ayurveda provides comprehensive knowledge of ahara shastra or the science of diet distinguishing it on its ability to be digested (laghu/light or guru/heavy), its source, form as well as the effect each type of food (Sattvic, Rajasic, Tamasic) has on physical and mental health of an individual.
Rasa or taste is considered quite important in Ayurveda. The shad rasa or six tastes are madhura (sweet), amla (sour), lavana (salty), katu (pungent), tikta (bitter) and kashaya (astringent). In fact, Ayurveda recommends including all the six rasas in every meal of the day to ensure a well balanced and nutritious meal. As the rasas affect the tridoshas (vata, pitta and kapha) in the body, adjusting the ratio of various rasas can help balance the tridoshas.
Ayurveda also refers to Vipaka, a combination of Vi (specific) and paka (agni responsible for proper digestion). Vipaka is the post digestive effect of any food that is consumed that takes place in the gastro-intestinal tract where the food is metabolized and converted into an absorbable form by the action of three specific agnis namely Jatharagni, Bhutagni, and Dhatwagni of the body.
Acharya Charak mentions that the shad rasa produce three kinds of Vipaka – Madhura vipaka (sweet), Amla vipaka (sour) and Katu (pungent) vipaka which determines the specific action of that food on dosha, dhatu (tissues) and mala (waste matter).
Ayurveda states that Virya (or the power or strength with which any food or medicinal herb performs its desired action) impacts the tridoshas in the body. Fresh food and herbs are good for health due to their high potency whereas stale food will not be as nutritious due to its loss of potency. Acharya Charak states two types of Virya (ushna/hot and shita/cold). On the other hand Acharya Sushrut expands Virya to include eighth types (ushna/hot, shita/cold, snighdha/oily, ruksha/dry, mrudu/soft, tikshna/sharp, visada/non slimy and pichila/distasteful).
Ushnavirya aggravates the pitta dosha whereas pacifies the vata and kapha doshas. Shitavirya aggravates the vata dosha and pacifies the pitta and kapha doshas.
Ayurvedic diet is a subject that has been researched by the highly learned acharyas in great depth and provides detailed advice on food preparation, how the mental state of the person preparing the food should be, hygiene standards, utensils that need to be used, the right time to eat food to ensure perfect digestion, the appropriate quantity of food etc. so that the food ingested provides maximum nutrition.
Acharya Charak, the father of Ayurvedic medicine who scripted the Charak Samhita one of Ayurveda’s foundational texts, has given ahara vidhi vidhan or dietary methods and guidelines, an exhaustive scientific rulebook that recommends specific rules and processes of consuming food that can prevent many diseases that arise out of faulty dietary habits.
Ahara Vidhi Vidhaan provides guiding principles to prevent infections and delves into the dos and don’ts regarding food & drink. It states that ahara that is consumed as per Ayurvedic principles is responsible for Ojas (vital energy), teja/agni (inner fire), dhatus (body tissues), five senses (panchindriya), bala (strength), Tushti (satisfaction of mind) and arogya (health) of a person.
Acharya Charak states that food is the life source of all living beings and is responsible for strengthening the digestive fire or agni that aids optimum digestion. According to Charak Samhita, right food or ahara is not just important for physical wellbeing, but also for happiness, satisfaction, growth, strength and a long, stress-free life. Ahara Vidhi Vidhaan provides a systematic explanation and method including
Ushnamashniyat /eating warm food
Traditional Indian food is always well cooked and consumed hot/warm. The reasons behind it are scientific and have been laid out by Acharya Charak thousands of years ago. Warm, well cooked food tastes good (activates the taste perception in the brain (rasanendriya) or rasa in ayurveda), balances the digestive fire, pacifies the Kapha and vata dosha and is easy to digest. Also, the fact that the food is well cooked means that the heat kills off any microbes or infections that may enter the body via food. Consuming cold, raw food places more burden on the digestive system and can cause sluggishness in the body.
Snigdhamashniyat / including fats in the diet
Modern diet considers fats a big no-no as it is only focused on the calorie count. But Ayurveda considers the right amount of fats as essential component of ahara as they strengthen the digestive fire leading to proper digestion, improve the taste of food, boost growth, bring a glow to the complexion, sharpens senses, provides essential energy and fatty acids required for the development of nerve cells and brain, enable adequate absorption of vitamins (A, D, E, K) and calcium, help in breaking down existing fats by activation of PRAR-alfa and fat burning pathways through the liver.
Ruksha ahara or dry diet can lead to obstruction of strotas (channels through which materials/fluids flow). Including Ghrita or ghee (clarified butter) in your diet helps calm the vata and pitta dosha whereas taila or oil helps reduce vata and kapha dosha. Monounsaturated fatty acids help stabilize blood sugar level, Omega -3 fatty acids help regulate digestion that doesn’t cause repeated hunger to prevent obesity, enhances serotonin levels in the brain to improve mood and stimulates muscle protein synthesis in older adults.
Matravatashniyat / balanced diet
Ayurveda believes that matra (amount) consists of sarvagraha (the whole amount) and parigraha (the amount of each ingredient). Simply put it means that the daily diet must be made up of a variety of items that represent the different food groups in the right amount to cover all the micro and macro nutrients. Such a diet balances the tridoshas (vata, pitta and Kapha), eases digestion and flushing of waste from the body. Ayurveda prescribes that a person’s diet should be in proportion to that of the individual’s digestive fire/agni and bala/strength.
Jeerneashniyat /eating the next meal only after the previous one has been digested
Ayurveda always stresses the need for giving enough time for proper digestion and absorption of food. Accordingly, Charak Samhita advises that a person should have their next meal only when the previous one has been fully digested to prevent formation of ama/toxins that are the main cause of diseases. If a meal is consumed in ajeernavastha (before the earlier one has been fully digested) it can lead to stomach problems such as grahanidosh/dysentery as well as cause imbalance of the tridoshas.
Veeryaviruddhamashniyat / compatible foods that do not reduce vigour
Ayurveda describes a unique concept called as Viruddha ahara or an unfitting diet/incompatible food combinations (such as mixing sweet and sour tasting fruits, eating curd at night, eating fish and milk together etc.) that disrupts the balance of the doshas and Panchamahabhutas in the body which can lead to multiple health issues.
In order to prevent health problems such as hypersensitivity, kustha (skin troubles), raktavikar (blood problems), impotency, grahani (dysentery), amavisha (the type of sticky toxin that mixes with the doshas, tissues or waste products of the body and causes chronic problems), shotha (inflammation) etc. it is necessary to consume veerya-aviruddha ahar or diet that is compatible with body elements to prevent health problems.
Ishtadeshe ishtasarvopkarnam chashniyat /right meal at the right place with right tools
Ayurveda places great importance on a proper place to eat the meal, clean & hygienic conditions, correct vessels and no stress while eating the food. Negative or stressful eating conditions tend to increase the cortisol levels in the body which can cause overeating.
Naatidrutamashniyat /not eating too fast
According to the Charak Samhita, eating your food at a very quick speed is not at all advisable. There is a reason why our mothers and grandmothers always stress on chewing and then swallowing the food properly. Gulping your food down in a hurry can lead to choking as well as other respiratory tract infections. When you eat your food at the right speed it allows the enzymes to mix well with the food, ensuring smooth digestion and better nutrient absorption. Also eating at the appropriate speed ensures that the nerves in the brain receive the signal (takes approx. 20 minutes) that your stomach is full, preventing overeating (which can lead to obesity) resulting in improved appetite regulation.
Naativilambitamashniyat / not eating too slow
On the other hand, eating your food extremely slowly can also be harmful to your health as it can prevent proper mixing of enzymes with food resulting in indigestion and a feeling of being constantly hungry.
Ajalpanahasan tanmanabhunjeet / mindful eating
According to Acharya Charak the process of eating your food should be done with full concentration without external distractions such as watching TV, mobiles, talking or laughing loudly etc.
Ayurveda says that food is not only consumed through the mouth but is a collective experience involving all the other senses/indriyas so it is necessary that the food looks good (rupa), tastes good (rasa), smells good (gandha), and feels good (sparsha) to ensure that the body gets optimum nutrition from the diet. Outside influences such a stress, anger, depression etc. can prevent proper digestion of food.
Atmanamabhisamikshya bhunjeet samyak / eating food that best suits you
The founding principle of Ayurveda states that each person is born with a specific Prakriti at birth which is a result of the interplay between the tridoshas, agni and the Panchamahabhutas. Similarly, the ahara that an individual consumes should also correspond with their prakriti, agni, bala and satmya (natural constitution). Basically the diet should be in proportion to nutrient requirement as per age, gender, profession (manual labor or intellectual), condition (pregnancy), health issues (restricted diet supplemented by herbal medicines) etc. Older individuals may eat less but require more nutrition. Pregnant women eat for two and will require enough quantity but also maximum nutrition.
Ahara Vidhi Vidhaan is a scientific dietary guideline, tried and tested since thousands of years, that recommends eating nutritious ayurvedic food to prevent health problems that arise from incorrect food choices. Book an ayurvedic consultation with an experienced Ayurvedic Vaidya for a customized diet plan that is based on the principles of Ahara Vidhi Vidhaan.
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