Over a decade of experimenting with different approaches to nourishing my yoga body has taught me that the best way to eat is to forget dietary rules and to devote that energy towards positive relationships that make us feel reconnected with people and nature. This is where Ayurveda is most supportive: as an ancient system, it teaches a natural path linking what we eat to the people and planet we love. It also teaches the art of how to eat: with intention to nourish.
The basic principles of intentional eating can seem incompatible with the current culture of industrialized food, nutritional fads, and emphasis on convenience. This is a good thing. Our current food system is wrecking havoc on our health as well as that of our planet. But regardless of our individual dietary choices, what we all have in common is that we want to enjoy eating and feeling healthy.
Here are the big ideas from Ayurveda’s teachings to inspire intentional eating.
What We Eat: Source the Ingredients you Love
The intention is to get closer to the source of your food. The simpler, the better, which often means searching out a small scale market where people care about the food they sell.
Farmers markets are the best place for this. Often, the farmers themselves are selling what they have grown, and are happy to talk about their passion and practices. Not only will you feel good about knowing how your food was grown, you’ll also feel a connection with the place and people that created the ingredients of your meal. Of course, nothing trumps the joy of harvesting vegetables from your own garden — that is the closest relationship we can create between ourselves, nature, and food.
Eat what is locally available
Organic and in season when possible, but not, if not possible. Ayurveda, like most Western nutritionists, recognizes that it is best to eat foods that have not been grown in pesticides or extensively shipped and handled, but the idea is to eat as best we can given what is available to us. Personally, I find that farmer’s markets and Asian/Indian grocers have high quality produce for reasonable prices, with the added benefit of being able to ask the grocers/farmers about the source and growing methods used. Sometimes produce is not labelled “Organic” because of the expense of obtaining USDA stamp of approval, but the produce was grown using sustainable practices and/or minimal spraying. Always worth asking! Plus you’ll get to know the people who are selling you food.
What We Create: Cooking at Home
Prepared fresh that day
We only need to prepare enough food for the meals we will eat that very day. Ayurveda teaches that food has energy that dissipates over time, so it is best to eat what has been freshly prepared that day. And this is part of why we love eating at a restaurant — the freshness of the cooking.
It takes time to learn how much to prepare! In the beginning, I had lots of leftovers, which Ayurveda recommends eating sooner rather than later.
There are two reasons why leftovers are not celebrated in Ayurveda: one, because the energy is freshest just after preparing the food, and also two, that we minimize waste. You know how leftovers have a bad habit of lounging around the fridge until it’s time for the trash.
Speaking of food waste: check out if you have local composting options. The garden across the street from my East Village apartment accepts community scraps that they turn into compost for their beautiful garden. It’s so gratifying to see the transformation of what you didn’t need, into observable beauty.
Prepared by you or a loved one
Ayurveda teaches that the energy that goes into preparing food is consumed along with the meal itself — Like Water for Chocolate. So if the meal is prepared by you or a loved one, in a calm and caring manner, you will be able to eat love! As opposed to a meal prepared in a hurried kitchen by people who have never seen you, which may carry hectic or even apathetic energies.
It took me a while to get into this, especially after moving to Manhattan, where the restaurants are plentiful and incredible. But once I started to release the belief that their food was better than anything I could make, I was able to see that I wasn’t comparing the taste of food so much as the effect of food. I feel calmer and more comfortable eating at home, where I can arrange the music and lighting, plus I know exactly what ingredients I’ve used, where the vegetables came from, and how much I want to prepare, which leads us to:
Actually Eating! And How.
Digestion is smoothest when we eat in a calm and unhurried manner, taking time to sit and enjoy the meal as well as a few minutes of seated rest afterwards. Rather than considering food as an obligation to be rushed through, or as a point of pleasure, or as a background for socializing, Ayurveda teaches that meal times are a sacred time to step into the art of nourishment.
To create calm conditions, choose to eat in a place where you feel comfortable spending time. Perhaps play calm music, and take a moment before eating to appreciate your self and your surroundings.
Ayurveda recommends sitting cross legged, as opposed to seated with the legs hanging down, which diverts energy away from the digestive organs. And speaking of digestion, the main digestive work happens directly after eating, so take a ten minutes after your meal to stay seated, relaxing mind and body, then take a short walk (even if it’s just back to your desk, take a scenic route!)
When we eat
The time of day is important in Ayurveda. Sunrise and sunset are considered optimal times for meditation, breakfast is meant to happen before 8am, lunch between 12 and 2pm, and dinner before sunset.
Practically speaking, a New York dinner before a December sunset would be lunch. So I modify these rules quite a bit. The general guidelines are this: eat when you feel the time, space, and capacity to digest what you have eaten. Eat in accordance with your daily rhythm, knowing that if you feel tired, then your digestion will be slow and if you eat (perhaps you need to sleep instead!), the meal should be quite light.
And last but not least…
How Much we Eat
Ayurveda doesn’t consider calories. Instead, we consider energy of the food. Dense, heavy foods will increase your Kapha; heating, spicy foods will increase your Pitta; airy, light foods will increase your Vata. Considering when and why you are eating will help guide the kind and quantity of the food you eat, as well as your stomach itself. The golden rule is to fill one quarter of your belly with water, one half with food, and leave one quarter empty.
The biggest adjustment to make is this: learn to let your mind hear and trust your body. There will be ebbs and flows in the clarity of your mind-body communication, but with practice, you will “unlearn” the dietary calculations that take up so much mental space.
The main thing is to stay interested in your holistic health: mind, body, emotion, energy. With that true interest and practice, even your lightest meals will become a fulfilling experience.