Updated: May 5, 2022
Food, sleep, fear and procreation are said to be basic instincts for all beings.
Humans were given the additional benefit of intellect, a discriminatory ability. That should have made us superior to other living creatures and we have made huge advances in civilization to justify this. At the same time, it appears that we have lost touch with how to deal with the same instincts that keep us alive. We now need diet lectures to tell us what and how much we should eat, we need guided sessions to make us relax and sleep better. Fear has grown to such proportions that we live our entire lives in negativity and the instinct for procreation has gone haywire, leading people by the nose and therefore blinding them to the repercussions of their actions.
If we look around in nature, animals do not seem to share our problems. So, are they coping better than us? Unfortunately it appears to be so! Animals don’t need to be told when and what to eat. They eat only when hungry and eat only as much as they need. A famous illustration is the African Wild where deer graze in peace near lions that have just eaten, knowing very well that the lions will not attack till they are hungry! Domesticated animals however have uncannily followed the eating habits of humans and consequently they too fall sick more often.
So what have we missed? Haven’t we tried to understand food? Indeed we have. There is enough research on diet to fill the shelves of a library. And it is still ongoing. Every day we hear of a new diet which will make us healthier, only to have someone else come in a few years to say ‘You know what? That doesn’t work. Try this.’ One diet says carbohydrates should be more in proportion and another says protein or fat. One research says palm oil is bad for you and another says it’s good. No wonder everyone is confused. “What should I eat?!!”
In comes the dietician with the answer. However, diet lectures today are mostly calorie counts100g of carbohydrates, 30g of fat etc. In response to this, the mind just shuts down as counting calories takes away the joy of eating. How many of us really think of carbohydrates and proteins when we eat? This again adds to the confusion. “When did food become so complicated?” we ask.
The funny thing about this scenario is that our grandmothers would not at all have been confused by all this new research. They would have just said “What does that foolish doctor know?” and continued exactly what they had been eating for generations and ironically they would have been right! What did they follow that we now seem to be searching for? They just followed what tradition told them was right and this tradition has come down from thousands of years of experience, wisdom and experimentation done by our ancient seers. All this information has been recorded in the manuscripts of Ayurveda and Yoga. If we only go through the information that is already available on food in these sciences, there would be no need to reinvent the wheel on diet. They tell us what to eat, when, how and how much to eat. So let’s take each question at a time.
Why should we eat?
This appears to be an easy one. We eat to survive. But there is a small problem associated with this. We don’t just eat. We taste the food and prefer some foods over others. This was an evolutionary mechanism that has helped man survive even in the harshest of conditions. The tongue chooses sweet over bitter because sweet foods contain more calories and even getting small quantities would provide man with a better chance of survival. Also bitter taste may be an indication of toxins or poison, avoiding which was necessary, again for survival. That was then. Now, when every type of food is available freely; and increasingly foods are packed with more and more calories, this evolutionary mechanism has proved to be our nemesis. The food we eat not only nourishes us but also makes us ill and overweight. So this is where we now need the discriminatory ability to come into play by choosing healthy foods which are not very high in caloric value.
What should we eat?
A balanced diet that contains all the three main foods- carbohydrates, proteins and fats, along with a healthy dose of fibre.
Indian food seems to have more or less achieved this balance. If we look at a south Indian breakfast like idly. It contains carbohydrates and proteins and chutney provides the fat content. A north Indian breakfast of roti and daal eaten with ghee/butter provides the same. Same goes for rice and sambar (the fat comes from the seasoning or when, as was the custom, some ghee is added while eating). Fibre and other nutrients come from the vegetables in the curries that are prepared alongside. The only adjustment that is required is to eat different types of daals and vegetables on different days of the week, in order to provide all the essential nutrients. Also eating some nuts like groundnuts, cashew nuts, badam etc. will help.
Yoga advocates a sattvic diet consisting of fresh, sweet predominant, vegetarian food containing some fat content (ghee). This does not mean only sweets, it includes foods like rice, daal and vegetables. This type of food promotes wellbeing and creates a pleasant state of mind. One has to avoid oily, spicy and salty foods which are said to be rajasic and create violent emotions within. Tamasic foods like bottled or canned foods or yesterday’s leftovers are also to be avoided as they induce lethargy and dullness.
The concept of vegetarianism can be a little controversial and Ayurveda as a matter of fact does not advocate it. But if we think about it logically, the present lifestyle does not support non-vegetarianism. We are not as physically active as our ancestors and meat contains more calories than we need for our daily requirements. Most nutrients that are derived from non-vegetarian foods can also be derived from alternate vegetarian sources and it has not yet been shown that vegetarians suffer from more deficiencies than non-vegetarians. Also from an ethical standpoint, as food is now more freely available than in ancient times, we no longer need to kill other animals to provide us food. The inhuman conditions in which animals are raised for slaughter should also make us reconsider eating them. However, the entire population cannot realistically be expected to become vegetarian. So one has to make one’s choices consciously and eat it moderately only if necessary.
From a spiritual standpoint too, it is advisable to avoid non-vegetarian food because we need to look at the effect of the food not only on the body but also on the mind and emotions. A terrified, dying animal produces lots of stress chemicals that are then passed on to humans who consume its meat. This can in turn create negative emotions in us, proving detrimental to spiritual growth. All great masters, like Ramana Maharshi have therefore advocated food regulation as part of saadhana.
When should we eat?
Shastras tell us that food should be eaten only twice a day. This can at the most be stretched to thrice daily. But we know that many physicians and dieticians now advise us to eat small meals every 2 hrs or so. This means that the body has to constantly redirect its energies towards the process of digestion. Just as most of the petrol is used to pull the weight of the car, so is most of the energy released during digestion used for the process of digestion itself. By eating only twice or thrice daily, the body can complete the digestion process and concentrate its energies towards other activities. This will also give rest to the system as a whole and to the digestive system in particular. Fasting also helps rest the digestive system. Just like we do all our pending, miscellaneous work on holidays, the body also does the essential repair work that is needed, when we fast. Fasting can be done by skipping a meal once a week or by fasting the whole day (with liquid intake) once in 15 days. It is advisable to rest while fasting.
It is also important to note that one should never eat a meal until the previous meal is completely digested. This also precludes taking small snacks in between. Let’s see why this is so. Imagine that you are cooking rice for 5 people and when the rice is half cooked, you are informed that 3 more people are coming for lunch. Will you add 2 cups of additional rice to the vessel of half cooked rice? You will not, because this will spoil the already cooking rice and also the rice that has been newly added. The same happens in the stomach also. When additional food is added to half digested food, neither will the previous food get digested properly nor will the newly eaten food. Ayurveda says that the end result of such digestion will be aama (toxin). This aama is considered to be an important factor in causing diseases and therefore a word for disease in Samskrita is aamaya! If you ask what about small snacks, then ask yourself if you will add 1 fistful of rice into the cooking pot. If the answer is no, then of course you cannot have small snacks in between.
A question that may arise is “How will I know if the previously eaten food is digested or not?” Ayurveda has a check list for this. The signs to look for are: a clear burp (indicating that the previous food is no longer in the stomach), enthusiasm and lightness in the body, proper evacuation of the bowel and bladder and the appearance of hunger and thirst. Only when these signs are seen should one eat, not just because it is lunchtime.
Yoga says that eating at strictly stipulated times also gives mastery over the mind and tongue. Moving towards higher spiritual ideals necessarily includes overcoming the temptations of the senses, here the tongue. Can we say we are free, if a cup of coffee dictates our routine by giving us a headache or constipation?!
How much should we eat?
Ayurveda and Yoga advise that one should eat solid food to half the capacity of the stomach, 1/4th part is for liquids and the remaining 1/4th should be left empty. All of us have eaten our fill at one time or the other and we therefore know what our capacity is.
If 6 chapatis and sabji is my capacity then I should only take 3 chapatis and sabji. The liquid content comes from daal, rasam etc. Buttermilk which is to be taken at the end of the meal is excellent for digestion. Leaving 1/4th of the stomach empty is essential for movement of food within the stomach during the digestion process. If the stomach is completely filled, then digestion becomes sluggish.
How to follow this practically?
Indian tradition again comes to our aid. Sitting cross legged on the floor compresses our abdomen and thereby prevents overeating!
How should we eat?
One should not eat food either too fast or too slowly. Neither should one talk a lot or laugh while eating. A key point to remember is to not eat in front of the TV. If we watch something while eating, we do not notice how much and what we eat. Emotional changes that occur when we are watching the TV will also influence the digestion negatively. Therefore we have to eat mindfully, with our attention only on the food and enjoying each mouthful. Saying a prayer before we eat helps calm the mind and makes us thankful for the food.
Diet is very important for the maintenance of health and wellbeing. The most important factor in diet as in everything else in life is moderation. Most foods that are naturally available are good for us, if only we take them in moderation. If we live by this rule, we do not have to be worried when someone says ghee or coconut oil is not good for us. The problem mostly occurs due to our excesses. Ghee is good for us. So we should take 1-2 spoonfuls a day not pour half a liter into halwa and eat it up! Similarly we can eat sweets and spices in moderate quantities.
These diet restrictions may seem difficult to follow and you may wonder if it means that you can never eat special foods like masala dosa or chaat items. You can. Just be smart about it. If you have chaat in the evening, avoid the night meal and have a cup of milk before going to bed. But keep in mind that eating such foods should be occasional not as a matter of habit
By eating like this with common sense, we can enjoy the food we eat and eat the things we like, lifelong without worrying about the new diet fads that come out every day. There is enough stress in the world. Let eating food itself not become a source of stress! Happy and Healthy eating.
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Note: This article has been written for healthy people to maintain their health by following a sensible diet. Those with diabetes, hypertension etc. should consult their doctors preferably Yoga or Ayurveda doctors who will guide you regarding the diet to follow.