The food-medicine-health link

By Indra Mohan and Nitya Mohan

The principle of adaptation is of central importance in Ayurvedic Dietetics

Ayurveda is a limb of Yoga. Ayurvedic medicine is made using a combination of natural plant products, such as roots, stems, leaves, flowers or fruits of plants, then transformed through a specific process of cooking. The same basic principles of medicinal preparation are applied in the preparation of food. Both food and medicine are to be taken at the right time and in the right quantity. For example, when you are ill, you cannot reasonably expect to get better immediately simply by drinking a bottle of medicine or taking a couple of pills. Medicine must be taken in the proper doses and must be given time to work. The same is true with food. Whenever any medicine is given to a person for treatment, dietary advice conducive to solving that same problem is also given, and both must be followed for real healing to occur.

Generally speaking, good food is both healthy and desirable in taste. To make sure that food was not only agreeable but also flavourful, various food combinations were developed after taking into consideration the nature of the individual food items involved. The combinations also needed to consider whether they would heat or cool the system. The purpose of a combination was, and is, to utilise the best characteristics of both foods. In such a scheme, it was only sensible that taste would not be the only consideration. It is not a simple matter of, for example, adding sugar to lime juice in order to change its taste, because both sugar and lime can increase the heat in the system and lead to imbalance.

Incidentally, the food combinations found in North India were, and still are, very different from those found in South India or Western India. Both the climate and the food items that grow in these diverse regions aredifferent, and their respective cooking protocols were adapted based on place. In this context, it must be cautioned that not all present-day Indian cooking necessarily conforms to Ayurvedic principles, either in terms of the combination of foods or the methods of cooking. The important point is that Ayurvedic dietetics can be adapted to the Western context, by taking into account the foods that are grown and the type of diet with which the person is familiar. However, the combination of the different products available and the method of cooking must be founded on traditional Ayurvedic principles. For example, during winter in the northern countries of the West, it may be better to have toast and warm porridge rather than cold cereal for morning breakfast, or to take soup or boiled vegetables in the evening rather than salad. Simple changes like these will help to improve both digestion and assimilation.

The plants, fruits and vegetables that we eat have, in a way, already been cooked by the sun. Even so, while fruits can generally be eaten raw, the leaves, stem and so on should be cooked using external fire. During the process of cooking, heat brings about a transformation of the food product. Thus, in addition to the external cooking of the sun, food should be prepared such that it matches the internal fire (metabolism). Food items that are heavy or difficult to digest can be made light or easy to digest through application of heat during the process of cooking. This is exactly analogous to adapting a posture to suit the person. If a person has a history of back pain, then we should strengthen his back by adapting the posture. We cannot simply forbid the person from bending down.

Similarly, we need to adapt a food item to the person and strengthen the digestive fire if needed with the support of herbs. This principle of adaptation is of central importance in Ayurvedic Dietetics. We change the product through cooking to match the condition of the internal fire. For example, the internal fire (Agni) is not very strong in an infant, but it becomes very active during adulthood and finally is of reduced activity in old age. Therefore, we must match the food product to suit the internal fire. The same food item will need to be cooked differently in order to match the person and purpose. If an old person is ill and wants to eat an apple, it may be best to bake the apple and remove the skin before they eat it. In the case of young person who is sick, the apple may be eaten raw without the skin. And for a baby, it may have to be baked, the skin removed, then mashed and finally served with a little honey.

Indeed, changing the final edible product through cooking to match the condition of the internal fire (metabolism) of a person forms one of the most important concepts of Ayurvedic dietetics.

Again, we emphasise: This is similar to adapting the posture for the person in asana or changing the ratio of breathing in Pranayama or changing the method of meditation.

This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.