Concept of Food in Ayurveda

‘The hunger of the cells is the craving for nutrition. Hence, only substances containing nutrition can function as food’.

Food in Ayurvedic Samhitas: Charaka Samhita rightly points out that living beings originate from food and diseases too are generated from food (Charaka Samhita Sutra Sthana.28:45). The single cell called zygote, formed by the fusion of the male and female gametes grows into a full term baby and then to a mature individual by receiving food. In the womb it originally receives food by diffusion from the uterine lining till the placenta and umbilical cord is formed. Once they are formed, nutrition reaches the baby from mother through the cord. After delivery the baby gets nutrition from breast milk. As the baby grows, it starts to consume other materials as food and is soon weaned off to them. Throughout life, an individual is receiving the exterior world as nutrition. Hence the concept that living thing is the product of food is not an exaggeration.

But, everything cannot be food. A substance can be food only if it can supply some nutrients to the body. Ayurveda states that satiety is the prime property of food. This satiety is not a feeling of fullness of stomach. We feel hunger when the cells of the body are hungry. The hunger of the cells of the body is to be satisfied to obtain real satisfaction. The hunger of the cells is the craving for nutrition. Hence, only substances containing nutrition can function as food. Sawdust, sand, etc. do not contain any nutrient and hence they are not food materials. All food materials do not contain nutrients in the same proportion or quality. There are also non-nutrients in most food materials. These non-nutrients may be helpful. Fiber is an example. But some non-nutrients may be deleterious to the system. In Lathyrus, a type of pulse, there is a poison which may cause the disease Lathyrism which will handicap the individual by lameness. In cassava (tapioca) there is a poison called hydrogen cyanide which can harm the pancreas. It is fortunate that when boiled and strained, these water soluble poisons are removed. But improper cooking may retain some of the poison in the consumed food.

Food: Wholesome or sattvic: Food may be wholesome or unwholesome. Wholesome food is conducive to health and well being. Unwholesome food will generate diseases. They may even cause food poisoning which may turn fatal. From this perspective it can be concluded that food is life and death. According to Ayurveda, diseases are of two types – caused by over consumption and caused by insufficient consumption (Ashtanga Hridaya Sutra Sthana.14:1). Excess food causes additive diseases and insufficient food causes reductive diseases. Accordingly treatment is also two fold – addition and reduction. We employ reduction in additive diseases and addition in reductive diseases. Malnutrition is a form of reduction causing reductive diseases and here supply of nutrients is the remedy. But the body may not receive the supplied nutrients as the body has its own mechanism of reception of nutrients. If the mechanism regarding a particular nutrient is defective, the nutrient will not be accepted by the body even if there is deficit of the nutrient and there is real want for it. Hence in iron deficiency anemia, just supplying soluble form of iron will not suffice. The mechanism of iron accepting system is to be mended first. Hence Ayurveda conditions the gut first before supplementing iron.

Ayurvedic treatment has three modalities (Ashtanga Hridaya Nidan Sthana 1:6). They are medicine, food and activities. A proper Ayurvedic prescription encompasses all these three modalities to attain cure or relief. Ayurveda has an ingenious method of combining these three modalities. Ayurveda medicates the food and food is also used as medicine. The activities also are medicated. The cot for taking rest may be of medical timber, the water for bathing is medicated with drugs, the place of stay is fumigated with drugs etc. to medicate activities. This is unique to Ayurveda. Ayurveda spares no chances for implementing therapy.

Let thy food be your medicine is a famous proverbial aphorism. But there is a basic difference between food and medicine. All medicines cannot be consumed as food; food alone could not be utilized as medicine too. Medicines are more potent than food. Food materials are of weak potency. They are more amicable. Medicines perform intervention with physiology. Food goes with physiology.

Yet in India we have customarily mixed medicine with food to gain better utilization of food by enhancing digestion and absorption. All the spices that we use in food like black pepper, ginger, cumin and coriander are Ayurvedic medicines. Indian cuisine is a real pharmacy. On the other hand, Ayurvedic pharmacy is a kitchen. All the unit operations like size reduction, heat transfer, water treatment etc. are practiced in the kitchen too. There is even the notion of kitchen medicine. Before running to the doctor, an average Indian housewife checks her drug store in kitchen. This culture is the provision of Ayurveda, the popular medicine.

Food and Agni: The thirteen agnis of Ayurveda

ayur-foodTo understand the concept of food we will have to understand a bit of Ayurvedic physiology and pharmacology. We may have a bird’s eye view of both of these disciplines. Let us start with the physiology of conversion to body. Biochemical transformations are carried out by a transforming agent called bio-fire (agni). This factor is called fire as a metaphor. Like the fire cooks food the bio-fire makes transformations to the consumed food. Bio-fire is not a single entity. There are factions of it. In the gastrointestinal tract it is called gastric fire (jatharaagni). In the tissues it is called tissue fire(dhaatvagni) and at the existential level it is called existential or elemental fire (bhootaagni). Altogether there are 13 factions for bio-fire – one gastric fire, seven tissue fires and five existential fires. The food is first acted upon by the gastric fire. For the action of gastric fire to be optimal, the food should be promptly soaked and softened. A faction of the humor Kapha, called the soaker kapha (kledaka kapha) does the job. The proper transportation of food, to assist digestion and absorption is carried out by a faction of the humor vaata called equal traveler (samaana). This is responsible for the motility of the gastrointestinal tract and stimulation of secretion of digestive juices. In short samaana executes all the neural and hormonal controls of digestion. It is the wind that assists the fire. Fire itself is pitta humor. Hence all the three humors, vaata, pitta and kapha have their responsible roles in digestion.

Food to Rasa and further levels of transformation and metabolism:

Digestion in the gastrointestinal tract, though continuous as though in a conveyer, is called phased ayur-food1digestion (avasthaa-paaka) as there are three stages in this process. They are the gastric phase, small intestinal phase and large intestinal phase. A crude imagery could be as follows: Stages in a continuous process are like the stoppage of a procession at junctions for added performance. Once digested, the food essence is absorbed and contributes to the body fluid, which constitutes the first tissue termed rasa. The solid residue of the food, the debris, forms the feces and is expelled through anus.

The food essence, though now baptized as tissue, is yet to transform. It is first acted upon by existential fires to be split into existential units. These existential units are taken up by the corresponding tissues and converted into the concerned tissues. This is anabolic process or adding up process. Once in the tissue, according to requirement the material of the tissue is broken down and supplied to other tissues as nutrients or else the broken pieces are burned to provide energy for the functions of the living body. This is catabolic process.

Tissues receive their nutrition either directly from the body fluid or gradationally from the former tissue. There are three hypotheses regarding it. One is the rule of gradational transfer where one tissue is transformed to the next, so on and so forth. It is analogous to milk transforming to curd, curd to butter and butter to ghee and is called milk-curd theory (ksheera-dadhinyaaya). Another theory is that each tissue receives it nutrition directly from body fluid. This is analogous to doves pecking their individual share from the barn of cereal and termed as dove-barn theory (khale-kapota- nyaaya). A third hypothesis is that both these processes could occur. It is like the field being irrigated with the overflow from the field above as well as from the water canal nearby. This is called the irrigation theory (kedaaree-kulyaa-nyaaya).

There are hundreds of thousands of transformations taking place in the living body and in each and every transformation all the three humors are involved. Surely, pitta is the performer, but the other two humors provide the chorus. From this it is clear that converting food to body and body to energy is not a simple task. But this continuous conversion is called life and life either is never simple.

Food: Its pharmacological dimensions:

Coming to the pharmacology of food, it should be remembered that food is a substance (dravya) and in the context of pharmacology, all substances are made up of the five existents (panjca-bhoota). The pharmacological actions of any substance are attributed to certain pharmacological principles. These principles are taste (rasa), property (guna), potency (veerya), metabolic effect (vipaaka) and special potency (prabhaava). It is also to be noted that there are strange substances which do not obey the man made theories of pharmacology. They are termed substances of strange origin (vicitra- prtyayaarabdha-dravya). It is considered that these substances have strange existential configuration and their actions cannot be attributed to the pharmacological principles. Most of the drugs that we use fall under this category but food materials in general obey our pharmacological principles. Such substances are termed regular substances (samaana-pratyayaarabdha- dravya). But there are strange substances in the array of food materials too.

With this much of prior knowledge of Ayurvedic physiology and pharmacology we may proceed further in the concept of food in Ayurveda. Materials may be broadly classified into wholesome substances and unwholesome substances. This is not a categorical cut as wholesomeness and unwholesomeness of substances are highly relative. They depend on many other factors. For example milk is a good food material. But for certain patients it may aggravate the disease. Yet innately substances may be good or bad. The general agreement is that under normal conditions there are wholesome and unwholesome food materials. Even good food material may turn incompatible. Ayurveda has gone into the details of food incompatibility (viruddhaahaara). Let us examine.

Incompatible food is like a toxin or slow poison (Ashtanga Hridaya Sutra Sthana 7:29). Incompatibility of food occurs on combining or processing of food materials. Somesubstances are incompatible by nature. Some are incompatible by region, season and dose (Charaka Samhita Sutra Sthana 26:81). Anything that provokes the humors but does not eliminate them is considered as incompatible (Ashtanga Hridaya Sutra Sthana 8:45).Incompatible substances vitiate physical humors and tissues. Here are some examples

  1. Incompatible by property – fish and milk
  2. Incompatible by combination – Ripe wild jack fruit with black gram
  3. Incompatible by processing – Meat of pigeon fried with mustard oil
  4. Incompatible by place – Eating in a place rich in ashes or dust
  5. Incompatible of body – Consuming honey when the body is hot
  6. Incompatible by time – Eating of black night shade (Solanum nigrum) which is kept overnight (after gathering)
  7. Incompatible by dose – Honey in equal quantity with ghee
  8. Incompatible by nature – Poison

These are classical examples. Now that we have modern food technology, both authentic and illegal, there are chances of incompatibilities because we are adding preservatives, coloring and flavoring agents which are essentially not nutrients. Not to speak of the umpteen number of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and weed killers which are frank poisons. Incompatible food rarely causes sudden death or morbidity. They usually cause diseases in the long run, as they are practiced regularly.

Food & Types of diets:

There are three types of diet which are unwholesome. They are mixed food (samasana), excessive food (addhysana) and uneven food (vishamaasana). These three unwholesome food patterns causemorbidity or even death. Mixed food is the admixture of whole some and unwholesome food materials. Excessive food here means dining before the former food is digested. Eating untimely, in excess or little, is termed as uneven food.

Impairment of bio-fire and indigestion are the immediate effects of unwholesome food. According to the nature, bio-fire is of four types. They are dull fire, augmented fire, inconsistent fire and optimal fire. They are prompted by kapha, pitta, vaata and equipoise of humors respectively. What we always want is the optimal bio-fire. Dull bio-fire will cause indigestion. Augmented fire also will cause indigestion due to improper digestion. It is like charring the food when overheated. In case of inconsistent bio-fire the person will have occasional good digestion and occasional indigestion. This is due to the inconsistency of vaata.

The harmful undigested & untransformed or partially transformed: Ama visha

Indigestion (ajeerna) is of three types. They are unripe indigestion (aama) due to kapha, stagnated (vishthabdha) due to vaata and charred (vidagdha) due to pitta. Food poisoning is termed as aama- visha by Ayurveda.

The term aama means immature, unripe or raw. Any substance which is not converted properly to be utilized as substrate for further transformation is called raw-filth (aamadosha). This is considered as a toxin and is the cause of diseases. There are two types of raw filth – generated from improperly digested food as defective body fluid and produced by the interaction of highly vitiated humors (Ashtanga Hridaya Sutra Sthana 13:26). Diseases caused by raw filth are called raw diseases (saama-roga) and humors, tissues and wastes polluted with raw filth are also considered as saama (Ashtanga Hridaya Sutra Sthana 13:27) . The treatment line when there is involvement of raw filth is different from usual. Here the raw filth is to be first addressed before attempting elimination therapy. Raw-filth is usually in intense conjugation with tissues and to eliminate it detoxification therapies are needed to cut the conjugation (Ashtanga Hridaya Sutra Sthana 13.28:29).

Habituation (saatmya) is another important consideration. Even unwholesome substances may not cause diseases if it is habituated. Anything may be considered as habituated if it does goes well with the physiology of the person (Charaka Samhita Viman Sthana 7:118). Usually substances which are not habituated (asaatmya) pose problems in conversion to the body. Hence Ayurveda pays due importance to the habituation of the patients.

Food and dietetic norms as prescribed in Ayurveda:

In view of all these factors, Ayurveda has laid down various norms of consuming food. Some important points are listed below (Ashtanga Hridaya Sutra Sthana 8:35-39): –

  1. Take food in time
  2. Consume only habituated food
  3. The food should be clean (unpolluted) and hygienic
  4. Consume wholesome food
  5. The food should be unctuous, warm and light
  6. While eating food be attentive to it
  7. The food should contain all the six tastes, but sweet taste (carbohydrates) should be in excess
  8. Do not eat fast
  9. Do not eat very slowly
  10. Before the meals wash the feet, hands and face. It is preferable to have a bath.
  11. First serve to all the dependents and elders. Remember the ancestors too,
  12. Think of the suitability of thefood served. Eat only if it is acceptable
  13. Do not despise the food
  14. Do not talk or laugh while eating
  15. Do not consume very dry. Have some drinks too
  16. Have fond food in a good ambience with lovely friends
  17. Do not eat reheated food
  18. Do not eat contaminated food with grass, hair etc
  19. Reject very hot and very cold food
  20. Food with excess of vegetables is not ideal.

Caraka-samhitaa (Charaka Saṃhitā Viman Sthana 1:21) has mentioned eight special factors for the consideration of dietetic norms. They are: –

    1. 1. Nature (Prakruti) = source of the material 2. Processing (karana) 3. Combination (samyoga) 4. Dose (raasi) 5. Place (desa) 6. Time (kaala) 7. Rule of use (upayoga-samsthaa) 8. User (upayoktr)

From the above descriptions it is clear that Ayurvedic stipulations of dietary norms are based on the basic principles of Ayurveda and are not haphazard random dictums. Man has varying tastes. Variety is the spice of life. But fancying food and following new trends irrespective of considerations of health may be risky. It is always better to cling on to accustomed traditional food that suits you and your environment. Also keep it in mind that man lives not only with bread.

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