Our daily diet — what we eat and how we eat it — plays a principal role in our state of health and well-being. Ayurveda stresses the importance of maintaining a healthy agni, or digestive fire, and an optimally functioning digestive system in determining our overall health: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
The power of food to cause or cure disease is now well accepted by most medical traditions. And yet the number of people struggling and taking medication to deal with gas, indigestion and weight management is greater than ever. With more and more “super diets” coming in and out of fashion, it can be incredibly difficult to make heads or tails of the vast amount of contradictory information available online and in print.
Problems inevitably arise when we try to overcomplicate something that is in fact very simple. In contrast to the complex and often austere dietary regimes that can be found online, Ayurveda’s approach to food is refreshingly straightforward.
Rather than looking at diet in terms of food groups, Ayurveda determines the ideal diet for each individual according to the elements comprising their constitution. Vata, pitta, and kapha are the three doshas that make up everyone’s body type. As each of us has a unique constitution, there is no one-size-fits-all dietary approach in Ayurveda. Instead, Ayurveda believes that a comprehensive understanding of the individual and the strength of their digestive fire (agni) is key to finding a balanced diet.
Ayurvedic Food Combining
Although agni (digestive fire), to a large extent, determines how well one is able to digest food, the way in which we combine food also is of great importance.
Ayurveda teaches that there are three factors that comprise the properties of food:
- Taste (rasa)
- A heating or cooling energy (virya)
- A post-digestive effect (vipaka)
In addition to these three primary factors, some foods will also possess an unexplained effect (prabhava).
When two foods that have a different taste, energy, and post-digestive effect are combined, it can overburden the digestive fire. This inhibits digestive enzyme production and results in the formation of toxins in the body. Even medicine, if taken under the wrong circumstances, can become poison. Similarly, Ayurveda recognises that some foods which ignite agni when eaten in isolation, can become toxic when combined with one another. Combining incompatible foods weakens the digestive system, can cause fermentation in the digestive tract resulting in gas and bloating, and ultimately resulting in a buildup of toxic material (ama).
Agni is not purely responsible for the digestive system. The state of our agni also informs the body’s ability to eliminate waste and the strength of the immune system. Therefore, if incompatible food combinations are consumed regularly or over a long period of time, agni will be compromised, which can lead to toxemia and disease.
Here’s an example:
According to Ayurveda, bananas and milk should not be combined. Although they both have a sweet taste and are cooling in energy, bananas have a sour post-digestive effect, while milk has a sweet post-digestive effect. The result is a confused digestive system and diminished agni. This causes a change in the intestinal flora, produces toxins, and can cause sinus congestion, cold-like symptoms, or allergies.
8 Rules for Combining Foods
1. Eat fruit alone
Fruit should ideally be eaten thirty minutes prior to a meal or two hours after to avoid fermentation in the stomach, resulting in gas and bloating
Exceptions: A small amount of cooked/stewed fruits can be eaten alongside oatmeal or other well cooked grains. If fruit is pulverised it also becomes easier to digest, so smoothies that combine fruits with vegetables and non-dairy milks are an exception to the rule.
2. Avoid mixing raw and cooked foods
Cooked foods are more easily digested than raw foods as the enzymes have become activated in the cooking process. As the rate of digestion between them differs significantly, Ayurveda teaches that raw and cooked foods should be eaten separately.
3. Avoid mixing dairy with acids or rich proteins
Dairy should not be combined with foods that are acidic in nature as the resulting chemical reaction is very disturbing for the gut. This is often a difficult rule for many of us to adapt to. Fruit and yogurt has become a universally accepted “healthy” breakfast choice. However, if you can find the willpower to eat them separately your gut will thank you for it!
4. Eat at regular meal times daily
Eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the same time everyday helps the body to sync into a rhythm and prevents your agni from getting overly taxed. Establishing routine is beneficial for most systems of the body, which thrive on regularity.
5. Eat according to your dosha type
Each body is different. We are each composed of a unique ratio of the five elements, which affects our digestive strength. Ayurveda recommends eating in accordance with your predominant dosha type in order to optimize your personal digestive capacity.
6. Eat according to the season
The strength of the digestive system and the foods that we crave will change from season to season. By paying attention to the qualities being expressed by nature and choosing foods with opposing qualities, we help the body remain balanced and healthy through the seasonal shifts.
7. Leave at least two hours between your last meal and going to sleep
Going to sleep with a full belly is a recipe for indigestion. Aim to eat early and allow plenty of time for your food to begin the process of digestion before bed.
8. Avoid overeating
No matter how healthy or compatible your meals are, eating an excessive quantity will over tax the digestive system and result in digestive discomfort and the formation of ama.
Where possible, avoid combining:
- Beans with dairy products, fruit, or animal products
- Cheese with fruit, beans, eggs, yogurt, or hot drinks
- Milk with all other foods (especially bananas). Milk is best enjoyed alone. (Exceptions: rice pudding, oatmeal, dates, and almonds)
- Yogurt with animal products, beans, cheese, fruit, milk, or hot drinks
- Fruit with any other food (exceptions: cooked fruits, and dates)
- Lemons with cucumber, milk, tomatoes, or yogurt
- Melons with ANYTHING. Melons should be eaten alone or avoided entirely
- Grains with fruit
- Vegetables with fruit or milk
- Nightshades (eggplant, potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes) with cheese, cucumbers, milk, or yogurt
Minimizing the Effects of Bad Food Combining
While it is best to avoid incompatible food combinations most of the time, there will undoubtedly be occasions where you are tempted to break the rules. And that’s okay! Ayurveda is all about balance and avoiding rigidity wherever possible. Eating “badly” every now and then shouldn’t overburden a healthy digestive system. Instead of feeling guilty and silently suffering the consequences of choosing a poor food combination, Ayurveda offers a few solutions to lessen the negative effects.
- Stimulate agni. The stronger agni is, the better able we are to digest any food combinations. Chewing on a slice of fresh ginger with a pinch of salt approximately half an hour before a meal can stimulate the digestive fire.
- Cook with ghee. This stimulates agni and improves digestion.
- Adjust quantity. A small amount of poorly combined foods will not have as large an impact on our system as a large amount of the same.
- Incorporate balancing herbs / spices. Selecting the right herbs and spices can help to offset bad food combinations in your meal.
- Use a single pot. When all the ingredients are combined and cooked together, they are better able to “get along” and soften to each other, reducing the harsh effect on the digestive system.
- Drink small sips of warm water with your meal. This will aid your digestion. Avoid ice water or carbonated drinks.
- Chew your food properly. Do not rush while eating.
- Avoid overeating. Ideally the stomach should be ⅓ food, ⅓ liquid, and ⅓ empty
- Drink tea after eating. Taking herbal tea after meals can sooth the stomach.
If there is one particular incompatible food combination that you have grown up on (take apple and cheese for example) you may find that your body has become accustomed to it and won’t experience any clear side-effects.
This doesn’t necessarily suggest you should continue to indulge in this combination, but it does explain why some people experience very noticeable effects and others do not. This can be particularly evident when looking at certain cultural eating habits. For example, a Japanese person may struggle to digest American food, and vice-versa.
Favour Balance Over Rigidity
When it comes to our health, many of us have a tendency to go to extremes. However, Ayurveda encourages “the middle path”. This means that we should favour a path of balance as opposed to viewing our health in black and white terms.
The body is constantly changing and developing. What we need today may be entirely different a week or even an hour from now. Learning to be soft with ourselves is the first step on the path to optimal mental, physical and spiritual wellness. In a similar way, Ayurveda encourages us to implement dietary or lifestyle changes gradually, being sensitive not to put the body under any unnecessary stress.
Having begun this article by claiming Ayurveda has a simple approach to food, this may seem like a long and complicated list of dos and don’ts! But don’t panic. All of this information should simply be seen as an interesting insight into an ideal Ayurvedic diet. None of us are perfect and the dietary rules you adopt should not compromise the enjoyment of a meal.
Embrace balance. Be good when you can but don’t sweat when you break the rules. Ayurvedic food combining is hugely effective when implemented but should be done so in moderation and with flexibility. Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Keep mealtimes joyful and incorporate the wisdom of ayurveda slowly and gradually.