Have you ever eaten your way to the bottom of a bag of sour cream-and-onion potato chips, and found yourself feeling oddly empty? Have you then turned to a pint of chocolate chip ice cream, only to find yourself still craving...something? Cookies? Crackers? Candy? Nibbling, nibbling yet unable to find the gratification you're looking for? Welcome to the American diet. "In our country, we use food for comfort, says John Douillard, founder of the Ayurvedic LifeSpa in Boulder, Colo., and author of the 2-Season diet. "We're a stressed-out culture, going 90 miles an hour all the time and feeling exhausted. We then self-medicate with the tastes that calm and stabilize the nervous system, which are sweet, sour, and salty."
But that's only giving the body half of what it needs. Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of well-being, holds that there are six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. For optimum health, we need to taste them all, everyday. Each one has a specific energetic effect on the body. They warm us up or cool us down; rev us up or calm us down; makes us feel complacent or motivated. Taken together, the six tastes can lead to body and mind into a taste of perfect balance and create a sense of satisfaction.
Unfortunately, we too often don't take them together. Consider the prototypical American meal: a burger, fries, and a Coke. The sweetness comes from Coke, the grains in the bun, and the patty itself (whether meat or vegetarian); sour can be found in the pickle on top and the vinegary-sweet ketchup; salty comes from, well, everything. In a way, it's a perfect prescription for calming the vata dosha - the Ayurvedic energy force that has to do with creativity, action, and agility. When we push ourselves to do more, faster, all the time, we become vata-deranged. Sweet, sour, and salty work well to instantly allay the anxiety that comes with 24/7 multitasking. But eating only these tastes—and in poor quality, to boot—has consequences. "The entire American food industry has developed to serve and reinforce our cravings", says Douillard. "They serve up sweet, sour, and salty, and give it to us fast so we can get right back to doing whatever it was that created our imbalance. Then we keep getting stressed and keep eating more sweet, sour, and salty. Such foods calm us, yes, but when we overdose they make us feel heavy, fatigued, and depressed." Just as these three flavors decrease kapha dosha - the lethargic, slow, and steady energy composed of earth and water. Too much bodily kapha leads to buildup of digestive toxins, known as ama, which coat the tongue and dull the senses.
"Our culture is consumed with the disease of over nutrition: high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity," observes Thomas Yarema, MD, integrative physician and author of Eat-Taste-Heal. We keep developing diet plans to deal with these problems, says Yarema, yet our success rats with hearth disease and diabetes have been poor: "And most of the diets we concoct to address the obesity problem -from low-fat to low-carb to grapefruit-only diets - fail in the end. Clearly, we are confused about nutrition in modern times." Yarema offers this easy way to understand dosha dynamics: "The tastes of sweet, sour, and salty convert energy into matter," he says. "Bitter pungent, and astringent turn matter into energy. The diseases in Western culture all have to do with a deficiency in energy, and an excess of matter." The cure, then, for what hails us? Balance the diet with more bitter, pungent, and astringent foods.
Mix It Up
Getting all six tastes doesn't mean creating equality in volume—a little salt goes a long way. And it doesn't mean having a six-course meal at every sitting. "Keep it simple", recommends Patti Garland, a master Ayurvedic chef and owner of Bliss Kitchen in Palm Desert, Calif. "Eat leafy green vegetables every day, and drink a lassi. Play around with spices—turmeric, cumin, coriander, and fennel will expand your palate instantly. Add quick-cooking lentils, split mung beans or red lentils, to your diet. Have a whole grain. Put it all together in a bowl, or laid out as individual dishes in one sitting or over the course of a day.
Try to have your big meal at lunch, when digestion is strongest." Choose whole foods to ensure that the tastes have the proper physiological effects. "Whole foods provide checks and balances," notes Scott Blossom, a Berkeley, Calif. -based Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga therapist. "The sweetness of a pear will be offset by the astringency of the fiber it contains. Most foods offer more than one flavor - a pungent onion, for example, can be cooked down to satisfy a sweet taste". And whatever you're eating, pay attention. If you're craving a food, ask yourself what it is you really want. "Craving can come out of a habit, or it can be telling you about something your body needs - which may not be food," says Garland. "once you find a bit of balance, your own intuition will guide you to the right choices . Food is not entertainment, it's nourishment, and when you pay attention to what makes your body feel good you're likely to be very surprised. Above all else, Ayurveda is about conscious eating, and doing what makes you happy."
6 Tastes 101 The word for taste in Sanskrit is rasa, and it refers both to the physiological experience of the food and to its emotional effects. The two are intertwined, says Blossom. "In Ayurveda, taste is considered the master sense," he explains. "It has the strongest influence and the most immediate effect on emotional disposition." To understand the dynamic of the six tastes, in other words, one must understand their effect on every aspect of being.
1. Astringent is the flavor found in beans, berries, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli. These are anti-inflammatory foods that cool the body and aid the process of detoxification. "Astringent is very unique in the Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia," explains Suhas Kshirsagar, BAMS, MD (Ayu), director of the Kerala Ayurveda Academy. "It creates a drying sensation in the mouth, and has the same effect on the body—it gets rid of stickiness and sliminess in the chanels of the body, the ama, which creates disease." That drawing effect works to inhibit appetite, suppressing kapha dosha and encouraging weight loss. That's a good thing, and experts agree that most of us need to get more of these foods. Overdo it, though, and you'll create a different kind of imbalance. "Astringent pulls the senses inward," explains Blossom . "Its great for fostering meditative states, but too much can encourage an excessive inward focus and a feeling of isolation."
2. Pungent can also be thought of as "spicy"—garlic, onion, chiles, cayenne, ginger, and other foods that are hot on the tongue. The pungent taste is heating and stimulating to the body, stoking metabolism, circulation, and digestion. "We think of these foods as kick-starters," says Theresa Long, who teaches nutrition at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, Calif. "They help energize the body, and just like astringent and bitter, they help detoxify. Pungent also draws fat and fluid out of the body—it's primary flavor for treating kapha imbalance." Emotionally, pungent fires us up. "It makes us feel energetic and sassy," says Blossom. However, an overdose can aggravate pitta dosha, the fiery energy that governs ambition, drive, and passion—but also anger,irritability, and hatred. Heat things up too much, and you risk burnout.
3. Bitter, the flavor most lacking in the American diet, is found in leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and mustard greens, as well as in turmeric, coffee, and aloe vera. It's another detoxifier with particular benefit to the liver, notes Yarema. Bitter is cooling, and anti-inflammatory, and catabolic, which means that it helps reduce overall body fat. "Bitter has a sobering effect and creates a sense of dissatisfaction, which can be very motivating," notes Blossom. "It gives you the edge you need to get out there and get things done, which is part of the reason we get up and drink coffee every morning. But too much can lead to a profound sense of dissatisfaction. It can make you feel bitter."
4. Salty is found in rock and sea salts, seaweed, and kelp. It's warming to the body, stimulating to the appetite, and anabolic—which means it promotes tissue development, Salty helps the body retain things—calories, fluids, and information—and motivates us to seek more form life. "The salty taste gives you confidence, a zest for life - it adds flavor to your foods," notes Kshirsagar. "When you eat too much, you become overambitious, and possessive. You retain fluid and gain weight." Most of us get too much of this taste: whereas 1 teaspoon of salt a day is the perfect prescription, according to Kshirsagar most of us eat somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 to 3 tablespoons—up to nine tomes more than we need.
5. Sour, the predominant flavor in lemons, limes, vinegar, yogurt, and fermented foods, is a warming paradox—it promotes digestion and weight gaining equal measure. "Sour enkindles digestion, and makes one ready to consume," Blossom says "It has to do with the mind shifting into not only wanting to accumulate experiences, but holding on to them as well. It's related to emotions like envy and greed."
6. Sweet, says Blossom, "imparts satisfaction—it's the most important taste in Ayurveda."Its essence is cooling and soothing. "Eating too much of it promotes complacency, dullness, and inertia, along with weight gain," he adds. The sources of the sweet taste are many: most fruits, many vegetables, nearly every grain, as well as eggs, dairy, meat products, and, of course, sugar and honey. It's important to choose foods that have sweetness built in, not added. "I find that the majority of foods people consume are not naturally sweet, but are processed and sweetened with artificial or extremely concentrated sweeteners," says Yarema. "Consuming foods sweetened in these ways creates a physiological paradox-instead of being naturally cooling, they incite inflammation." What's more, these hypersweet foods change our perception of what sweet should be. "We didn't evolve eating foods in processed forms—it's an experiment at best, a disaster at worst," says Blossom. "When you eat a candy bar or drink a soda, you're getting a superconcentrated hit-it gets you high. If you get used to the sledgehammer of sweet taste, you become numbed to the subtle sweetness in natural foods—and in your life." You literally become addicted to hyperflavored foods—whether sweet, sour, or salty. The only way to break out of the cycle is to enjoy a broader palate of tastes.
Eat for Fulfillment In Ayurveda, the hows, whens, and wheres of eating count for nearly as much as the whats. Pay attention to the environment that surrounds your food, and you'll be less likely to make poor choices, or eat unconsciously. Here are some expert tips for eating in balance:
Focus on the Food. "If you feel stressed, you might decide getting things done is more important than taking time for meals," says Scott Blossom, yoga therapist and Ayurvedic practitioner. "But eating while multitasking only aggravates stress and imbalance."
Say Grace. "For your body to taste the food, it has to know it's going to eat," says Suhas Kshirsagar, director of the Kerala Ayurveda Academy. "Sit down; close your eyes before your meal; give thanks for your food. It's not just a religious tradition—it's a physiological tradition."
Adjust for Weather. "If it's unusually cold, focus on warming foods. If it's a cloudy day, you may need to choose drying, diuretic (astringent) foods," advises Mary Roberson, PhD, founder of the Ayurvedic Center for Healthcare in Oak Ridge, Tenn. "You can use common sense, as informed by Ayurvedic theory, to bring yourself into harmony with your environment."
Pause and Digest. "Ayurveda suggests eating a larger meal with all six tastes between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., taking a walk, and then having a short rest," says Jennifer Workman, RD, author of Stop Your Cravings. "A gentle walk after your meal and a five- to 15-minute rest give the body a chance to digest. You won't be scrounging around in 30 minutes."
For Ayurvedically inspired recipes, see Eat-Taste-Heal, vegetariantimes.com/ayurveda.