Why We Eat - Ayurvedic vs. Conventional Nutrition

One of the most profound differences between Ayurvedic and conventional nutrition can be summed up by one basic theory: Why we eat.

This may seem small, but our intention each time we sit down to eat a meal can make a huge shift in our eating patterns, relationship to food and energy levels as well as determining what foods we choose to eat.

Why We Eat
In conventional nutrition and lifestyles, the "why" behind eating can be many, many reasons. We eat what we like (personal preference), out of habit, because we are bored or angry or want to be distracted. We eat because of our body image: I want to portray myself as a skinny/healthy person, so I eat salad.

In Ayurvedic medicine, the reason for eating is simply to take in prana to live.
In Sanskrit, prana means "life force."

All of the foods we choose, therefore, we choose because they give us prana to live.

Choosing Foods
Of course, often we eat simply because we are hungry - but then what are our intentions and reasons behind the foods we choose?

Conventional nutrition puts the majority of emphasis on calories and food groups. "I put in x-number of calories each day and I only eat these food groups." or "I limit my intake from (or totally avoid) that certain food group."

While we may tailor the number of calories suggested per day to an individual (mostly just for weight loss), where those calories come from are not always individualized. Similarly, certain diets will limit or eliminate an entire food group and suggest this approach for everyone.

In Ayurveda, nutrition is measured by the qualities and elements that a food provides. For example, rice cakes and crackers contain a lot of the air and space elements. Fresh, ripe peaches contain plenty of the water element.

We determine how much of a certain food each person should eat by looking at their individual constitution. A person who is already very dry and light should eat more fresh, ripe peaches to hydrate them (and less crackers) to bring balance to their natural body type. Further, some body types should eat far more calories than others. There is never a one-size-fits-all answer to diet in Ayurveda.

Of course, taste is always a consideration in choosing foods. However, it is not the only one, and when our bodies are in balance, we crave what our bodies need to remain in balance. When the body has had too much sugar, it will signal you to stop eating sweet foods. If the body needs bitters to cleanse the blood, it will crave greens. But still, the "why" behind eating is to take in prana to live. Balance supports the flow of prana.

You Are What You....
The saying "You are what you eat" is famous in conventional nutrition. And Ayurveda would agree - mostly. In Ayurveda, we go one step further and say "You are what you are able to digest."

After all - what's the point of eating if we aren't digesting that food into life energy?

What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is the holistic healing science from India.  It is the OLDEST medical science we know of, as the texts that Ayurveda originates from is about 5,000 years old.  These texts, the Vedas, are also where yoga gets its origins from.  Yoga and Ayurveda are sister sciences.  Both are actually much older than their texts, as they were an oral tradition, passed from generation to generation long before they were written down.

The foundation of Ayurveda is the theory of the FIVE ELEMENTS - everything is made from the great elements of space, air, fire, water and earth.  This is true of our bodies, our minds, animals, plants, the seasons.  Everything.

Ayurveda teaches us that we can bring our body and mind into balance by understanding these elements and the combination of these elements that we were born with, which is called our "prakriti" or constitution.  This is one of the most well-known theories of Ayurveda - that of "body types."  When we experience an imbalance, such as skin rashes, heartburn, depression, fatigue or anxiety, we can trace these symptoms back to the elements and bring it back into balance by introducing its opposite quality.  For example, skin rashes and heartburn indicate an excess of the fire element, which is hot and light.  Therefore, we can bring it into balance by introducing foods and activities that are cooling and grounding in nature.  Of course, it isn't quite so cut and dry - an Ayurvedic practitioner would consider your prakriti, the season the imbalance is occurring, and your "vikriti" or where your primary imbalance lies.

Ayurveda's most valuable diagnosis methods are tongue and pulse analysis, but a practitioner will also gather a lot of information through observing a person's physical attributes, their mannerisms and by asking questions.

You Are What You ATE...30 Days Ago

We tend to think of digestion as an "in and out" process that takes a day or two. If I eat this many calories, then do this much exercise, it's even, right?

It's not quite that simple...

According to Ayurveda the entire process of digestion takes about 36 days, ending with the creation of Ojas - the most refined by-product of digestion. Ojas is the prime energy reserve of the body and the seat of our immune system. It protects life, gives us strength, controls our heart beats and maintains the balance of all of our tissues.

What did you eat 30 days ago?
Most of us are unable to remember what we ate yesterday, let alone what we ate last month! However, this concept is valuable in considering how we can improve our energy or mental clarity. Instead of just thinking about what you ate that day or the day before, think about what you were doing one month ago. Could that have something to do with your low energy?

The Deeper Side of Digestion
The process of our food's nourishment goes through each of our seven tissue layers in turn, providing the nutrients each layer needs as follows (in days after ingestion):

Days 1-5: formation of blood plasma, serum and lymphatic fluid
Days 6-10: formation of new red blood cells
Days 11-15: formation of muscle tissue
Days 16-20: formation of fat tissue
Days 21-25: formation of bones
Days 26-30: formation of bone marrow and nerve tissue
Days 31-35: formation of sperm and ovum
Day 36: formation of Ojas

This, even, is a simplified version of what happens - on the days our bones are being formed, so are our teeth, cartilage, nails and hair. Each tissue layer has a set of sub-tissues that are also being nourished and formed.

Keep in mind that the "food" that nourishes us is more than broccoli and salmon. The other inputs that feed our tissues are water, breath and anything we take in through our senses (what we hear, see, touch, etc.)

What is forming YOUR cells today?