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  • Writer's pictureValerie Hwang

How you eat vs. What you eat

Ayurvedic Guidelines for healthy eating & optimal digestion

In his book Healing Your Life: Lessons on the Path of Ayurveda, Dr. Halpern, the founder of the California College of Ayurveda boldly admits that he would rather see people "eat a fast food hamburger properly than healthy foods like rice and vegetables improperly." Often, we are far more preoccupied with the nutritional value of the food and much less often consider whether we are digesting it properly. However, in Ayurveda we know that how we eat is equally important, and just like the man pictured above, we will benefit most from our food when we develop mindfulness practices around its consumption.

How often do you find yourself scarfing down a dinner in front of the TV, or hastily eating breakfast in your car while on the way to work? Are you able to focus on your food, making sure that it is properly chewed before you swallow? Taking in food while rushed or distracted can lead to overeating, bloating, and other forms of indigestion. Below are some practices or guidelines for healthy eating according to Ayurveda. Even implementing just one or two of these practices can go a long way - try them out for yourself and let me know!

Eat until 75% full

We might know that it doesn't feel good to eat until we're absolutely stuffed, but how often do we continue to eat anyway? It doesn't help that we're often pressured to clean our plates rather than listen to our bodies. However, constantly overeating can lead to long-term health problems such as obesity and associated complications. In the short-term, eating up to or beyond our stomach's capacity stifles our metabolic efficiency. Why? We need a little bit of space in our stomach for the food to churn around and incorporate the enzymatic juices that help break down the food (letting pitta do its work!). Overeating can also cause us to feel heavy, sleepy, and even nauseous. These are all signs of impaired digestion.

Ayurveda is not alone in this philosophy. In Japan, there is a saying "hara hachibu" - one should only eat until 80% full.

Eat in a peaceful environment without distractions

All too often we see in the movies a depiction of a busy family, with the kids running and grabbing breakfast amidst a chaotic kitchen. Such is our American culture - we are always on the go, trying to cram in as much as we can into our jam-packed day. Another habit we tend to have as a society is to sit in front of the TV to eat dinner (or perhaps these days our phones). When we eat with these distractions around us, we lower our capacities to pay attention to how much we eat, how we are chewing, and what exactly we are putting in our bodies.

To put a little more intention into your meals, pick a peaceful spot like a park for your lunch, or if you are at home, set the dining table so that it calms and inspires you. Not only will you feel more at ease, but your stomach will thank you too!

Chew your food (well!)

“Drink your food, chew your drink.”

Digestion actually begins in the mouth, and some may even say before we even put the food to our lips. We smell the food, and if it's appetizing, we will start to salivate in anticipation. Saliva contains amylase, which starts to break down carbohydrates into simple sugars in the mouth even before we swallow. Many of us who eat quickly or while distracted forget to chew thoroughly. When we haven't properly chewed our food, it makes it harder for the body to break it down efficiently deeper down the digestive tract. Yes, enzymes and acids will help with the breakdown, but if the pieces are too large, it will end up in the colon where gas-forming bacteria will attempt to finish the job instead. Ideally, you'll want to chew your drink until it is a liquid consistency - hence, drink your food, chew your drink.

Take a moment to breathe & give thanks

Before starting a meal, it helps to take a few moments to express gratitude for the food. This does not have to be religious ritual, but even a simple few deep breaths or meditation before eating will do. In Japan, grace is said in one simple phrase, "Itadakimasu" or "I humbly receive you." These acts of gratitude help us connect with ourselves and everything and everyone who contributed to our meal. On a more practical level, taking a moment to pause and breathe before eating also helps to calm our nervous system and bring our bodies back into "rest and digest" mode.

Allow time in between meals to digest

It is ideal to allow 3-4 hours in between meals for the food we have eaten to completely digest, minimizing snacking in between. When it comes to snacking, so many of the snacks we eat tend to be empty calorie fillers rather than nutritious foods. However, even when we are taking snacks like dried fruits or nuts between meals, it tends to lower our metabolism by dampening the digestive fire, like adding too much wood to a low-burning flame. Do your best to eat a nutrient-dense, satisfying meal so that your body doesn't signal to you that it needs more fuel before the next meal.

These are just some of the guidelines for healthy eating recommended in Ayurveda, but they are very important ones and can be easily implemented if we put a little more intention into our everyday routines. If it seems difficult to adopt them all at once, that's because it is! It is difficult to shift our habits, so it is always best to choose one habit and practice it before adding on another.

As always, if you have any questions or thoughts, I am here to help! Thanks for reading :)


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