An Ayurvedic Guide to Eating

We live in a world of distracted eating—eating breakfast on the go, eating lunch at your desk while you work, eating dinner while watching television. It will come as no surprise that there are better, healthier ways to enjoy our food.

Cat Pacini, LMT, an Ayurvedic Health Counselor, Kripalu faculty, and a graduate of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, offers some Ayurvedic guidelines for getting the most out of our meals. She says there are four aspects of eating to keep in mind: how, when, how much, and what we eat.

How we eat, not what, is surprisingly the most important aspect—and the one we tend to pay the least attention to. Often, eating comes secondary to something else, like driving in to work or typing up a report or catching up on the news. When we’re not focused primarily on the act of eating, our bodies don’t digest food properly—this is exacerbated when we’re engaged in something stressful while we eat. Cat shares an old Indian proverb: “If you eat while standing, death looks over your shoulder.” While the metaphor might be a little extreme, it is significantly better for our digestion, health, and enjoyment of food if we take the time to eat while relaxed and give our full attention to eating. An effective way to do this is to try silent dining, with no distractions (no electronic devices, no work, nothing!). Eat slowly, chew well, and pay attention to what you’re eating—the flavors, the textures, the scents. Not only does this improve our body’s ability to digest and retain nutrients, but it allows us to appreciate and enjoy food more.

How much we eat is also important. Cat likens healthy meal patterns to maintaining a fire: If we add too much wood to a fire, it won’t burn properly. Similarly, if we eat too much over a short period of time, we don’t digest properly and may experience gas, bloating, or nausea. Plan to eat two to four meals a day, though the standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a great way to regulate how often we eat. Avoid snacking as much as possible; frequent snacking is akin to adding more wood to the fire than we need, as the body needs time to digest in between meals instead of having to deal with more food coming in.

This leads into when we eat. It’s often suggested that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but in Ayurvedic practice, lunch is actually the most important. Midday is when our digestive fire (called “agni” in Sanskrit) is at its strongest, so it’s best to eat the biggest, heartiest, most nourishing meal for lunch. Breakfast can be a light meal, just enough to get us through until lunch. Dinner can also be a smaller meal because the body doesn’t need energy or fuel for sleeping. Plan on spacing meals about four or five hours apart—to leave enough time to digest properly—and have dinner at least two or three hours before bed. While Ayurveda recommends avoiding snacking, it’s okay to indulge in a craving every now and then. “Part of being a healthy eater is not being perfect,” says Cat. “Just try to eat healthy 60 to 80 percent of the time.”

Lastly, what we eat clearly affects our overall well-being. Unprocessed, organic whole-foods are best, Cat says. She recommends following Michael Pollan’s guideline: “Eat food cooked by humans, not corporations.” Protein, grains, and vegetables should comprise most of our diet, and the food should preferably be cooked, as it’s easier to digest. Eating foods that are seasonally appropriate is also important. For example, warming foods like soups and stews should be eaten in the winter, while cooling foods like salads are ideal for the summer months. Paying attention to what foods (produce, in particular) are available regionally in any given season is another good tip; eat what you would find at a farmer’s market. Finally, if you’re anticipating eating a large meal (or several large meals, particularly during the holiday season), prepare in advance with food, tonics, or supplements that kick-start digestive fire—ginger is especially potent, and ginger tea or thin slices of ginger sprinkled with lemon or lime juice and a pinch of salt help your body handle a heavier food intake.

By paying attention to how, what, and when we eat, and following simple Ayurvedic guidelines, we can ensure that we get the most out of what we eat—and enjoy doing it!

Find out about Ayurveda programs with Cat Pacini at Kripalu.

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