Growing up in western culture, many of us have been raised on certain dietary norms. These can be hard to dispute as we were told to eat everything on our plate, drink our milk, eat less fat, and don’t waste food so put it in the fridge for later. And…we were always given a snack before bed.
As if all of that in itself isn’t bad enough, we are told that things like 1% milk, strawberry yogurt, frozen fruits and smoothies, canned vegetables, salads, white meat, veggie trays, organic sweet potato pomegranate cacao turmeric kale potato chips (that’s not a typo, it’s a joke!), and anything vegetarian are all great foods for health. This simply is not true. Even the healthy organic companies are lying to you about what to eat.
Thank you for hanging in here with me, I know dietary beliefs are right up there with religion and politics, both of which I no longer enjoy discussing. Please understand that the American diet is not one that is going to help anyone enjoy life after 60, 70 or 80, unless one of you happens to have superafabulousoffantastico genetics. Our diet hasn’t been shaped by nature, nutritionists or even scientists. What we are eating was influenced by politicians, money and industry leaders…well before many of us were even born.
If you consider the history of ayurveda, it comes from a beautiful, spiritual culture. One of health, riches, beauty and respect for nature and life. Although it comes from an ancient culture, the laws of nature never change, thus making ayurveda an art and science that will never become obsolete. That being said, I am asking you to consider that ayurveda may kindly be offering you more truth than American culture and businesses.
When Should I Eat?
Let’s first look at when to eat. It’s important to eat 2-4 meals a day, depending on your digestion and body type. If you have slower digestion and have a bowel movement less than once a day, two meals a day may be sufficient. One of them should be lunch, then perhaps skipping breakfast or dinner. If you are hungry all the time and find yourself in the bathroom a few times a day, then 3 meals is great. If you’re a lighter eater, super active and buzzing around like a hummingbird, then 3-4 meals a day should be planned.
Meals should be spaced at least four hours apart, with dinner at least three hours before bed. Snacking should be avoided in between meals and especially after dinner. Snacking taxes the digestive system and mixes digested food with undigested food so it gets nasty in there. If you are actually feeling hungry for a snack, then have something light and easy to digest, like fresh fruit, broth soup, steamed vegetables or a little rice. (Boy, with that list, who would want a snack anyway?!)
Lunch should be the largest meal of the day. If you like cheese, creamy sauces, heavy foods, fried foods, cold foods – this is the time to sneak them in. If you are a meat eater, this is your time. Dinner is a great time to have lighter foods – soups, stews, whole grains, legumes…anything cooked, warm and light. It should easily pass right through before you fall asleep so your digestive system can chill out and relax for a bit. You don’t want to wake up to a tired, grumpy gut, do you?
Now that we have discussed times to eat, let’s put together a schedule…and follow it for eternity! Eating at the same time each day is very important. Every day, not just week days. Consider the window for maintaining consistency to be about 45 minutes. So if you eat breakfast at 800am most days, you could think of your breakfast time being 745am-830am. So grab a piece a paper and make your dietary schedule!
Just a quick note that if you’re not feeling hungry at a mealtime while still getting used to your schedule, eat a little bit instead of skipping the meal. Also try having a cup of hot ginger tea about 30 minutes before the scheduled meal to help ignite the fire. 1/4 – 1/2 tsp of dry ginger, pinch of clove and 1 cup of hot water will rock it!
How Much Should I Eat?
Next let’s look at how much to eat. Ayurveda says to eat one anjali of food. That means eat as much as you can fit into your cupped hands. If you prefer to eat mindfully, eat until you feel satiated. If you just need something to tell you when to stop, usually the first burp is a warning sign that you have had enough.
Ideally at a meal we should fill our stomach half full of food, a quarter full of liquid and a quarter left empty. It is best to sip warm water with meals. Save the coffee as a treat for an hour after breakfast. Save the ice tea for never. Ice is the worst thing you can throw at your digestive fire. Just. Don’t.
What Should I Eat?
Whole grains, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, quality oils, legumes, seeds and nuts, some dairy if possible, quality meats if you choose, and spices…learn how to use spices!
You’ll notice that most of these things can be purchased in about 4 spots at the grocery store. Produce, bulk, dairy, and 1 aisle of packaged items to get the oils, seeds and nuts. All of that other stuff is processed fake food. The chips – even if they are organic, hemp seed, kale, acai and avocado, are still processed and the body will not know how to digest most of it. Canned goods, no. Frozen strawberries for morning smoothies? God, no. Fruity yogurt? Nope – could contain sugar and fruits, especially sour, don’t mix well with dairy. Salads and raw veggies? Not ideal, they are hard to digest. Frozen organic meals? No. Organic pizza? Well, ok, maybe a little.
Ayurveda isn’t about being rigid, it is about making good decisions for wherever you’re at. For example, in ayurveda we don’t eat leftovers, which is anything that sits overnight. But when faced with the choice of eating homemade leftover food that is only a day or two old, versus grabbing a burger and fries, the leftovers are a hands down yes! That is why I mentioned splurging at lunch time because if you have to eat something that isn’t ideal, do it when the digestive fire is burning at its hottest. Using ayurveda is making the best possible choices for your situation, even if all of the options aren’t the greatest. It’s not about right or wrong, but rather what might be a little better or a little worse.
The list of foods mentioned above all require cooking. They don’t just pour out of a carton and heat up on the stove. Eating well takes a little time to figure out and adjust to. But it is possible! If you’re super busy and don’t have time to cook, you may want to consider the value of your health and what it is worth to you. If you get IBS at age 40, is that worth all the processed food and eating out you had 20 years prior? Ayurveda is about supporting habitual patterns and is not trying to deny amazing and quick foods that may be enjoyed. Ayurveda is about making conscious decisions that stem from the intellect instead of the senses.
When thinking about what to eat, think about what you eat consistently. Try keeping a food journal. Some of my clients say that just filling out my paperwork is eye-opening and offers real awareness of what they eat and how they spend their day! The reality of your diet will proudly present itself all over those notebook pages. Once you know what you are eating, then start to make changes. Instead of a bowl of Cheerios in the car on the way to work, perhaps there is a little time to cook up a scrambled egg and wholegrain piece of toast with some yummy fig jam. For dinner, if you like to eat out, find a quality restaurant where you could get a bowl of noodles and fresh vegetables in a soothing broth. If you’re in a hurry and want to cook at home, it doesn’t take long to whip up some vegetables and tempeh, add some nuts and olives, and wellah! awesome dinner in 15 minutes!
The final part about what to eat is choosing spices. Cooking at home is great because you can experiment with many new and different flavors! Plus you don’t want your spice cabinet getting old…spices loose their potency after some time, so try to use them up within a year. Perhaps buy a new spice jar each time you shop and try some new recipes with that spice. Some super awesome spices to use that will help increase digestion and overall health are: dry ginger, cumin, fennel, turmeric, coriander, oregano, bay leaves, saffron, black pepper, mustard seeds and cinnamon. Once you feel comfortable with those, you can get a little crazier by trying: Indian curry leaves, fenugreek, asafoetida (hing) and ajwain seeds.
In ayurveda if somebody is healthy, we recommended eating all foods that are in season…and local if possible. If someone is working with imbalance, it is best to talk to an ayurvedic wellness counselor for ideas about what foods could support coming back into balance. I know a lot of these tips are opposite of what we grew up with, but consider that what we know has come from malformed protocols. Ayurveda comes directly from nature and it can never grow defunct. It is a grandmother who cares for you, protects you, nurtures you and loves you.
Recommended Cookbook: Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind: 100 Simple Sattvic Recipes by Kate O’Donnell – I love this cookbook because it has many easy, quick and tasty recipes!
Maria is an Ayurvedic Wellness Counselor and offers health consultations. If you want to learn about your dosha and how to live a happy, healthy…ayurvedic life, book an appointment.