Ayurvedic Nutrition as Subject Oriented Nutrition
Ayurvedic Nutrition is a radically different approach than that of Western Nutrition. I like to call it Subject Oriented Nutrition because in Ayurveda our main focus is how we experience the food we consume and what information we're able to derive from that experience. What our experience can tell us, what the five senses can tell us.
This is why one of our first units for understanding food will be TASTE. It sometimes seems strange to those used to Western Nutrition because they think that just because a food tastes a certain way that doesn't mean it has certain nutrients, etc.
Nowadays in general, we tend to view our bodies at best as stumbling blocks and perhaps even as enemies. We assume that if something tastes good it must be unhealthy and that healthy food will taste bad by necessity.
However, I believe we should have a bit more respect for our bodies. We actually have quite developed instruments for determine how a food will affect us. The Intelligence in the process of Evolution has provided us with a sensory apparatus that gives us a lot of information about our world and even our food.
First Look at the Tastes
Let's look at what information we can get from food on just the level of tastes. The classic Ayurvedic tastes are Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent (Spicy), Bitter, and Astringent. Though we will go over how Ayurveda talks about each of these tastes, I like to start by pointing out what information on a scientific level they are providing us with.
We can detect the presence of carbohydrates, important for our caloric intake, from the Sweet taste.
We can tell the pH of a food within a certain range through the Sour and Bitter tastes. If you don't remember or you've never learned Chemistry, pH is the ratio of Hydrogen ions (positive) to Hydroxide ions (negative). Our body needs to maintain certain pH's in different organs and tissues in order for them to function properly.
We can detect the presence of a specific ionic compound: NaCl, salt. This compound is necessary for the proper transportation of water across the cell membrane and is so vital to our systems that we have developed taste receptors just for it! Despite being present at most tables nowadays, it is also reasonably rare in nature and so it was doubly important to detect.
What are we detecting when we taste something as spicy or pungent? I think this one is particularly interesting because it relieves how we all are at least a little masochistic. Pungency is detecting through our tongues pain receptors. That means that these receptors respond to spiciness the same way they'd respond to something actually being too hot in temperature. So, it makes perfect sense that we call spicy food "hot."
Astringency is a little different because it is not a "taste" per say, but a feeling in the mouth. Here we are detecting whether something is absorbing water. If it does, it makes our mouth feel dry and we call it "astringent."
Refinement of Awareness
So, getting back to this idea of oriented our eating from our own experience, even when we talk about unhealthy foods that "taste good", that is not the entirety of our experience of that food. For example, excess of sweet treats might "taste good" at first, but we also experience sleepiness, sluggishness, and maybe even congestion.
Coming at Nutrition from a Subject Oriented point of view thus isn't just a simple "Do what feels good!" We have to refine our awareness and use mindfulness to keenly observe what *actually* feels good beyond just the immediate effect.
The Purpose of Subject Oriented Nutrition
One side effect of some of the aspects of Modern Life is that we often find ourselves disconnected or alienated from our environment, our community, and even our own selves.
We see this disconnect in the way we approach food. Many people can much more easily recognize a food by its packaging rather than its origins on a farm. Children in school are unable to identify different vegetables, but they can distinguish between the boxes of dozens of different breakfast cereals (all of which probably contain the same ingredients!).
We even see this when we start to think of a food as a mathematical entity: a certain number of calories, a certain number of grams of protein, a certain amount of Vitamin A, etc. This is the strategy of Western Nutrition.
Obviously, it *is* useful to be able to talk about the "Nutritional Value" of food in this way, but I believe our scales have shifted so far to that side and that we are at a point where that approach needs to be balanced or it only increases our alienation from our lived experience.
We could do with a readjustment towards seeing food as it is in front of us. Towards understanding food by how we experience it on a sensory level.
Here I refer everyone to the great Michael Pollan. I think it was Dr. Svoboda who pointed out that, without studying Ayurveda or ever using the word, Michael Pollan has popularized what is essentially an Ayurvedic perspective and has done much to bring our popular consciousness back in line with embodiment.
Michael Pollan's famous advice on what to eat, which I will endorse as the simplest Ayurvedic Nutritional advice we can give, is:
Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
This advice, like a Sanskrit sutra, contains within only a few words a wealth of wisdom. So, like one would do with a Sanskrit sutra, let's break it down:
Eat food means two things. It means eat food instead of eating calories, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc. It means think of your food as *food* and not as a mathematical entity.
Eat food also means eat food instead of "edible food-like substances." Our grocery stores are full of so much processed and crafted food and almost none of it is health promoting. Some more good advice that can serve as a corollary to this is to shop from the sides of the supermarket not the center. In the sides you will find a diversity of foods: vegetables, fruits, eggs, dairy, even meats. In the central aisles you will find a diversity of boxes with mostly the same 4 ingredients: wheat, corn, soy, sugar. Even just from the perspective of having a diverse diet, this is a disaster!
Michael Pollan often explains this one by saying, "Eat something your grandmother would recognize as food." I don't know how old any of you are, but unfortunately we're getting to the point where for many we'll have to say "your great grandmother." It was the WWII generation that saw the drastic increase in processed foods and so many of the people of that generation fell hook-line-and-sinker for those flashy new products.
I could also add that our grandparents (or great grandparents) were probably culturally more isolated. One more positive byproduct of our globalized world is that we have access to lovely recipes around the world. So, even though my great grandparents might never agree to eat a curry, I can still enjoy them. So, perhaps we can amend "eat something your grandmother would recognize as food" to "eat something *someone's* grandmother would recognize as food."
Not too much.
Put simply, don't over-consume. Eating too much exhausts our digestive energy (a topic we will return to). It also shows a lack of respect for our environment. The production of food requires labor and resources. If you over-consume you are not showing respect for that sacrifice (a topic we will also return to).
Ayurveda often gets billed as vegetarian in orientation. This does not have to be the case. Ayurveda accepts vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike and even sometimes prescribes the medicinal use of meat (for those who are not ethical opposed). However, whether a person is vegetarian or omnivorous, in order to be healthy their diet should still consist *mostly* of plants. With some constitutional exceptions, most of us should eat a diet that consists in a large part of vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and other goodies of the plant kingdom. If we decide to have some meat on the side of that or we decide to abstain, that's still well and good.
Food & Emotions
When we start to attend to our experience of the food we're eating, we will quickly notice that our responses and cravings are not just merely physical. In Ayurveda, we acknowledge that food also has an emotional component.
Sometimes, what we desire is not the food per say, but instead the food as a surrogate for a certain kind of emotional nourishment. This explains why we might overeat or undereat or have cravings or aversions that aren't due to physical needs.
A mindful approach to food can then start to parse out when we actually have hunger for a food itself and when we have a hunger for something less tangible. The easiest example is that, in Ayurveda, we associate the Sweet Taste with Love. So, often a person will over-consume Sweets because what they really want is to feel loved. Cultivating good relationships and even developing a healthy sense of Self-Love is thus critical for overcoming this craving.
Digestion as a General Metaphor in Ayurveda
People often say, "You are what you eat." In Ayurveda, we say, "You are not so much what you eat as what you actually *digest*."
When you have started to develop a good understanding of your experience of food, you will also naturally start to develop an understanding of your own appetite. You will notice wen you feel full, when you can longer put something to proper use. When you can't "digest" any more.
This becomes a larger metaphor in Ayurveda, where we discuss not just digestion of food, but also digestion of experience or information.
Everything we experience is only so much "raw data" (note the term here) until we can digest it into information. Hopefully, we can digest that information into Knowledge, and, if we're *really* lucky, we can even digest that knowledge into Wisdom.
And so, we must not only feed ourselves right (physically and mentally), but also work to foster and caretake our ability to digest.
In Ayurveda, we use the metaphor of AGNI or FIRE to talk about this. Ayurvedic students and practitioners are thus always going on about our "agni." "Oh, my agni is feeling a little taxed today." "Wow, my agni was so strong today that I almost bite my co-worker's head off when he tried to talk to me when I was on my way to lunch." etc.
Just like making a campfire, you can put fuel on a fire that will help it grow, or you can put things on it which will put it out. If the fire is strong, it may be able to take a heavy log, but if it is not, it might require some kindling.
Building a healthy fire takes care and patience and time.
The Ritual of Eating
For our final topic here I'll try to be brief. Basically, Ayurveda will also emphasize not just "what we eat," but also "how we eat."
There is some good advice that I have given in your manual to help with this, but one thing I'd like to discuss a bit further is the idea of Gratitude.
Gratitude is essential for maintaining strong agni.
Gratitude not only orients us towards our food like the spiritual equivalent of our mouths watering, it also causes us to prioritize other people and our environment as well as ourselves.
If we have true gratitude for the food that is placed in front of us, then we won't over eat or eat things which are very unhealthy. We will realize that sacrifice and labor has gone into everything we eat and that, to a certain extent, everything we eat is coming at the expense of someone else. Even if we are vegetarian, we must still kill or harm plants to eat.
Gratitude is what transforms that process from one of taking to a cycle and a circle. We give as we take. Food that we eat is sacrificing itself to become our bodies and even our consciousness. In our own individual ways, we should all live lives that are worthy of that sacrifice!