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Ayurveda: Sattvic diet, fasting and more

Ayurveda: Sattvic diet, fasting and more

This issue focuses on the ayurvedic principles of healthy eating — from igniting your sattva guna (purest quality of mind) with food to fasting techniques imbibed in ayurveda — to comfort your mind and body to live a long and healthy life

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Here’s why ayurveda gives sattvic diet a thumbs-up

As a holistic system of medicine, sattvic diet not only focuses on the body’s nourishment but an overall emphasis is given to the diet that enhances the sattva guna (the purest quality of mind) and the healthy harmony of your body and mind.

The practice of sattvic diet is all about incorporating foods in their purest or fresh form. Some common sattvic foods are fruits, vegetables, milk, honey, ghee, seeds, nuts, rock salt and mild spices like turmeric, cardamom, and cumin. The foods listed under this diet are nurturing, comforting and provide a calming effect on the mind. They are also associated with healthy ageing, boost immunity, and have anti-inflammatory properties.

The term satva means essence or purity. And this term is held in high regard in Ayurveda when it comes to one’s diet.   

The practice of a sattvic diet is all about incorporating foods in their purest or fresh form. Some common sattvic foods are fruits, vegetables, rock salt, honey, milk and mild spices like turmeric, cardamom, and cumin. Food which is less processed or not processed; and has moderate amounts of oil, spices and salt is also said to be the sattvic.   

Yoga, which espouses an agile body and a calm but alert mind through specific physical activities, also advocates eating sattvic food for a sound mind and body.  

The body-mind connect 

Before we go to sattvic foods, we need to understand the three broad human qualities or trigunas, which, according to Ayurveda, determine one’s personality and mental health. They are classified as satva, rajas and tamas. 

People with a predominant sattva guna or nature quality are said to be noted for equanimity or calmness, harmony, spirituality, positivity and self-control.  

People with rajas as the main guna are said to be aggressive.  

People with a dominant tamas are said to be dull, sluggish, slothful, and inactive both in body and mind.   

Likewise, foods also fall into three categories based on their qualities:  

  • A sattvic food is in its pure and fresh form 
  • rajasic food is overly spicy, oily, or salty. 
  • A tamasic food is cold, frozen, and stored or not fresh


Which foods to have or avoid? 

A sattvic diet is highlighted by fruits and vegetables. Foods under this category are rich in nutrients such as antioxidants, zinc, vitamins C, E and K, and beta-carotenes; they are also associated with fighting ageing, onset of diseases and psychological disorders by providing anti-inflammatory action.  

Dr Shreevathsa, Professor, Department of Samhita & Siddhanta of the Government Ayurveda Medical College in Mysuru, says Ayurveda stresses on the concept of the sattvic diet for mental health. Food that is oily, spicy, and salty is rajasic and needs to be avoided. Tamasic food, which is stored, stale, over-cooked or half-cooked, should also be avoided. 

“Freshly made food which is enriched with vegetables, whole grains, and fruits is sattvic in nature. Eating freshly prepared and nutritious food helps us to maintain our overall health, of both body and mind,” Dr Shreevathsa says.  

Does meat make the cut?  

There is a myth that Ayurveda is a vegetarian system of medicine. Despite espousing herbal medicines and foods, Ayurveda also talks about meat as food, called Mamsavarga. You can have fish, white meat and eggs in your diet. However, when it comes to a sattvic diet, any form of meat or seafood is excluded.  

Dr Daisy Rani Rao, a lifestyle consultant, nutritionist, and general physician at Medical Trust of Seventh-day Adventist, says, “Right food translates to energy and longevity. Wrong food choices could end up causing trouble for one’s physical and mental health. A sattvic diet, however, doesn’t harm one’s body or mind in any sense.”   

Benefits are plenty 

Ayurveda cautions against unhealthy dietary habits – such as eating food that is not good for your health; which is of poor quality without nutrition; which is polluted; and incompatible or conflicts with other foods that one is having, such as ghee and honey; and habitually eating less food than one needs. Such habits, it says, can cause conditions such as insanity (unmada), epilepsy (apasmara), and psychic perversion (atatvabhinivesha).   

survey study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2009 found that people who consume fruits, vegetables and fish are protected against the onset of depressive symptoms for at least five years, whereas people who consume a diet rich in processed meat, chocolates, desserts, deep-fried food, refined cereals, high-fat and dairy products are vulnerable.  

These findings suggest that healthy eating patterns provide additional benefits, and that diet should be considered as a potential guard against mental ailments.  Researchers from the Agharkar Research Institute in Pune compiled data on the nutrient contents of different foods based on the dietary habits of healthy adults. The foods were classified according to their qualities (satva, rajas and tamas).  

The study concluded that the foods classified under the sattvic category had the highest density of nutrients. The fat content in sattvic foods was around 18 percent, rajasic was found to be 42 percent followed by tamasic which was 72 percent. The study also stated that a diet plan that excludes tamasic and rajasic foods and increases sattvic foods would help to improve mental health. 

Sattvic diet & yoga 

Ayurveda and yoga have their roots in the Vedas (ancient Indian literature) and share some similar theories. The concept of the three qualities of mind (triguna) is common to both the systems and so is the sattvic diet.  

Yoga, which espouses an agile body and a calm but alert mind through specific physical activities, also advocates eating sattvic food for a sound mind and body.  

California-based yoga enthusiast and educator Salila Sukumaran shares a glimpse of her sattvic lifestyle. “For me, a sattvic lifestyle and diet is all about being in touch with myself and constantly being a witness to the thoughts that arise in my mind including my cravings. It is all about honouring my mind and body by providing it with the right food.” 

Sukumaran, who is also the yoga ambassador for the Ministry of Ayush, Government of India, and Kerala Tourism, says that when one is not in a sattvic mindset, one starts craving tamasic and rajasic food.   

“One can attain a balance through yoga, meditation and practices that add to the satva guna of the mind. A sattvic diet is attuned with yogic principles and foods that are natural, seasonal, and organic,” she adds.  

(The AYUSH ministry’s name is an acronym for different medicine systems coming under it, namely Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy.) 

Plants that resemble our organs could be good for them

One of ayurveda’s fundamental theories, Samanya Vishesha Siddhantha, says that consuming foods that have similar physical features to body parts or organs enhances and takes care of those organs.

Did you ever notice that tomatoes, when cut open, look like one of the chambers of the heart? Whether taken freshly sliced in salads, juiced, processed, or cooked, tomatoes are known to protect the heart from diseases. This story will introduce you to many more such fruits and vegetables and their beneficial effect on our body parts.

Our ancestors, living amidst bounteous nature and familiar with the flora around them as food and medicine, seem to have decoded a close relationship between the habitat and the human body. 

The Yajurveda – an early Indian literature that documents various practices and rituals – describes the human body as a replica of its external world or the universe (brahmanda).  

Taking it a step further, the Samanya Vishesha Siddhantha, one of Ayurveda’s fundamental theories, says consuming food items that have physical features similar – or common (called samanya in Sanskrit) – to body parts or organs enhances and takes care of those organs.  

A similar Western theory, The Doctrine of Signature, chronicles how humans discovered medicinal uses of plants and vegetables; and those certain plants, fruits, and vegetables may hold the key to health and healing of the very organs they resemble. 

According to Samanya Vishesha Siddhantha, consumption of meat enhances muscle bulk as the two have similar qualities. Similarly, using foods or substances with opposite qualities to a body condition mitigates those conditions. For example, rubbing oil on a rough, dry skin softens the skin. 

Many tell-tale features 

Both Ayurveda and the Doctrine of Signatures touch upon the shape, colour, smell, and texture of fruits and vegetables, with these attributes having a bearing on the body organs. Some as listed here. 

Habitat: The environment where animal and plant species coexist also holds clues to their medicinal needs. The cyperus plant (mushta) grows in waterlogged places and swamps and has a cooling effect on one’s body. Studies support Ayurveda’s use of these rhizomatic or nodular roots for treating fever. 

Colour: The colours of herbs, flowers, decoctions, vegetables, and fruits may proclaim their goodness on corresponding organs. The colour yellow is associated with bile and relates to the liver and the gallbladder.  

common example is turmeric (Curcuma longa). Turmeric has been found to play an important role in balancing the levels of free fatty acid, cholesterol, and liver functions. Likewise, yellow flowers, roots, latex, and dyes are a few traditional remedies for jaundice. 

Smell:  Sometimes, the clues to the benefits of a plant can be in their odours. The plant Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) smells of horses and hence its name: in Sanskrit, ashwa means horse and gandha means scent.  

While the horse symbolises power and virility, this plant is commonly prescribed to enhance sexual performance, or simply to strengthen a weak person. A pilot study involving 50 women participants established the efficacy of Ashwagandha in improving their sexual function without adverse effects.  

Look-alikes also heal 

  • Centella leaf and the brain: The centella leaf, called the Indian pennywort, resembles the human brain. It is known in Ayurveda for its role in improving memory and cognition. Studies have shown that consumption of centella reduces anxiety and slows down age-related decline in cognitive functions.   
  • Walnut and the brain: Walnuts have long been known as brain food. The shelled edible nut resembles the brain, its folds and wrinkles appear similar to the neocortex of the brain. They contain the essential nutrients omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, Vitamin E, magnesium, and potassium. Because of their high nutritional value walnuts are found to be beneficial for brain health.  Studies have established that walnut supplements can improve one’s mood and have a direct effect on triggering the release of two neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine: the two are commonly called the `happy hormones.’  
  • Carrots and the iris of the eye: Carrots are ranked tenth in nutritional value among 39 fruits and vegetables. A sliced carrot disc resembles the iris of the eye and its beneficial effects on eye health are well known. Carrots get their orange colour from beta-carotene, the pigmented and richest source or precursor of Vitamin-A. Beta-carotene is rich in antioxidants, which protect the body from free radicals and promote healthy skin and eyes.  Studies have shown that beta-carotene and lutein in carrots protect vision, especially night vision, and protect against macular degeneration and development of senile cataract. 
  • Bauhinia leaf and thyroid: The bauhinia tree has a cleft or bifid leaf. The unsplit compound leaf resembles the thyroid gland. There is reference in Ayurveda to using the bark of this tree to treat swellings and inflammation. specially swollen thyroid glands, a symptom which is the hallmark of hypothyroidism. A case study has examined the positive effect of this plant in managing thyroid-related issues. It is a preliminary finding and needs further studies involving a larger sample size across multiple centres.   
  • Grapes and alveoli of the lungs: Grapes are one of the most widely consumed fruits worldwide in both fresh and dry form. A bunch of grapes looks like the tiny alveoli of the lungs. The alveoli are tiny air sacs which enable rapid exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide when we breathe. Grapes have been shown to have anti-allergic, anti-anaphylactic properties. (Anaphylaxis is a severe life-threatening allergic reaction.) An animal study has demonstrated that grapes can help the mast cells to defend the respiratory system against asthma-causing pathogens.   
  • Tomato and the heart:  Tomatoes, when cut open, remind one of the chambers of the heart. Whether taken freshly sliced in salads, juiced, processed or cooked, they are known to protect the heart from diseases. Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene, beta-carotene, potassium, Vitamin C, flavonoids and Vitamin E. Lycopene gives it its redness. A 2012 study highlights the role of ripe tomatoes in the prevention of blood clots (thrombus) and cardiovascular diseases.  
  • Ginger and the stomach: Ginger are a go-to home remedy for stomach-related issues. The ginger rhizome’s shape resembles the human stomach. Ginger is used to treat conditions such as nausea, vomiting, indigestion, and constipation. Studies have clinically proven ginger to be a potent gastro-protective agent.  
  • Bitter gourd and pancreas: Bitter gourd is commonly used as a traditional household remedy for diabetes. The gourd reminds one of the pancreas, the organ that regulates blood sugar levels. Its juice acts like insulin and stimulates amino acid uptake into skeletal muscle cells. Studies have shown that the extract of bitter gourd can stimulate peripheral glucose uptake and regulate the amount of glucose absorbed by the gut.   
  • Cissus stem and long bones: Cissus is a succulent plant with a squarish, nodular stem resembling long bones. This plant is popularly known as hadjod (a Hindi word for bone setting) and is used to heal fractured bones. Its healing property is due to the rich presence of calcium and phosphorus, besides plant oestrogens. Studies have shown that cissus stimulates metabolism and increases the uptake of essential minerals by osteoblasts – cells that synthesise bones. This heals fractures. study suggested that administering cissus to pregnant women can stimulate the development of foetal bones.   
  • Cassia tora leaf and ringworm: The plant, popular as wild senna, is also called the ringworm plant as its leaf resembles a ringworm, which is a fungal infection. In Ayurveda, the plant is used against skin infections. Studies have proven the anti-fungal activity of the cassia tora plant.

How to fast the ayurvedic way: Dos and don’ts

Fasting is commonly believed to be a part of weight-loss regimes. But ayurveda looks at it in a different way. Fasting is not just limited to shedding those extra kilos, it is meant to revitalise the digestive system and detoxify the gut. Unlike the general practice of time-restricted fasting, ayurveda recommends eating only when you are hungry. Our story talks about the dos and don’ts of fasting the ayurvedic way.

Bengaluru-based techie Manjunath K B’s physician who is also an Ayurveda physician planned an interesting fasting schedule for him.

“This was a kind of fasting that involved eating food only if I was hungry. I was also asked not to binge or eat a heavy meal,” said Manjunath. “I shed some unwanted pounds and this helped me develop an etiquette for my food habits.”

Manjunath is only one of many others who are trying to give fasting a shot to lose weight.

Fasting is a core Indian diet tradition and is held in high esteem in Ayurveda as a drugless therapy to maintain one’s health and wellbeing – when done correctly.

“We physicians often see a lot of people coming [to us] with gastritis, for instance, after religious community fasting. Hence, it becomes important for people to understand the classical Ayurveda guidelines of fasting to reap its benefits,” says Dr Zankhana Buch, medical superintendent and senior physician at AyurVAID Hospital, Bengaluru.

Advised for those who have excess kapha

Ayurveda describes fasting (upavasa) as abstaining from foods that are chewed, licked, gulped or even drunk.

Dr Prasanna Kakunje, a professor at Prasanna College of Ayurveda & Hospital, Belthangady, in Dakshina Kannada, says fasting is advised for those who have excess kapha (the  water element) or fluids in the body in the form of excess fat or soft tissues. “Also, fasting is used to treat obesity and conditions such as lethargy, heaviness, indigestion, diarrhoea, and early stages of fever which require detoxification,” he says.

Fasting is not total abstention from food

Dr Kakunje clarifies that one can fast either by not eating anything at all or eating a small portion of light food. One can have any of these: cooked rice with rasam (a traditional South Indian spicy, peppery carminative soup made of lentils, tamarind, and with or without tomatoes); rice with daal (a thick lentil soup); only fruits (phalaahaara) or milk (ideally goat’s milk) or just water (jala upavasa).

What happens when you fast?

During the initial hours of fasting, the body uses up the glucose stored in the form of glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscles. When the body runs out of glycogen, fats get broken down into ketones to provide a new energy molecule. Protein breaks down into glucose (the process is called gluconeogenesis) and fulfils the energy requirement.

Although Ayurveda has a different view of fasting, Dr Zankhana Buch, medical superintendent and senior physician at AyurVAID Hospitals in Bengaluru, explains that as per Ayurveda, fasting purifies the body by digesting the toxins (the process is known as Ama-pachanam) which leads to improved metabolism (Agni deepanam) and helps to balance one’s doshas (predominant body element or constitution) to an optimum level, besides significantly reducing kapha. “If guidelines of fasting are not adhered to then it leads to vata aggravation and pitta elevation,” she says.

When to stop fasting

While espousing the therapeutic effect of fasting, Ayurveda says fasting should be limited to only a few hours. It does not mention a specific duration for it but says it must be followed until the appetite returns. The duration is based on an individual’s body constitution, age, and the underlying health condition. If fasting is continued even after feeling hungry, it might lead to emaciation and loss of muscle mass.

What you should do

  • Right after you break the fast, you should eat light and freshly made food that is easy to digest.
  • Gruel (ganji/kanji) – a liquid preparation of cooked rice, cereals, or pulses – is considered an excellent meal, as per Ayurveda.

And what you should not

  • Do not fast while hungry.
  • Do not binge before or after fasting. The digestive fire will undergo severe disturbances if you overeat or eat heavy food soon after fasting.
  • Do not take up strenuous activities while fasting.
  • People with nutritional deficiencies (anaemia, vitamin, or mineral deficiencies) should avoid fasting.
  • Those who are emaciated, sleep-deprived or pregnant are advised not to fast.
  • A person following a specific diet regimen, for example, while undergoing panchakarma therapies, is advised not to fast.

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