Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Good nutrition can be summed up as eating wholesome and diverse diet with an emphasis on plant-based foods. Ayurveda or the ancient ‘science of life,’ which originated more than 5,000 years ago in the South Asian sub-continent, also places diet and good nutrition at its center.
A fundamental belief of Ayurveda is that healthy and wholesome food nourishes body, mind and spirit. It is this connection that has intrigued and triggered me, a public health nutritionist with a background of modern nutrition science, to write this piece. Ayurveda is a vast discipline in itself with a lot of depths and dimensions and I am focusing only on some of its key nutrition aspects.
Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown periods have made many of us think and rethink. Realisations have dawned on how much we are inevitably a part of the world that we live in. No wonder, our wellbeing inherently depends upon the wellness in our immediate surroundings, the broader environment and what we put in our body. It would actually not be an over statement to say that we are basically made up of food – right from the beginning of our existence as a single cell till each day that we are alive. It is the life creating, sustaining and nurturing properties of food that play a significant role in what we are, how well we are and also till when we are … So naturally, attention given to food throughout the history makes sense.
Ayurveda seems to have figured this out thousands of years ago and modern nutrition science has also been making a lot of parallel discoveries.
Ayurveda believes that everything in this earth, including us, are made up of five basic elements – air (vayu), water (jal), earth (prithvi), fire (agni) and space (aakash.) But the proportions are slightly different, hence our individual differences and preferences as well as various body and personality types (prakriti.)
Some of us, for instance, tolerate cold better than others and have better digestive power – supposedly due to the dominance of the fire element and are the Pitta type. Similarly, some like to be constantly on the move – due to dominance of the air element and are the Vata type while others are more grounded and prefer to be stable – due to dominance of the earth element and are the Kapha type. These Ayurvedic combinations are called Doshas, each of which have particular strengths rendering good effects when balanced. When not in equilibrium, they are believed to cause disturbances in the body and the mind.
While the concept as such remains to be scientifically proven, the idea is that the balance of the Doshas, for which diet plays a crucial role, are important for sound physical, mental and emotional well-being. Nutrition science has also well established that good dietary practice is integral to one’s physical health and there is growing understanding on its importance for mental and emotional well-being as well.
In order to live healthy, we have to live in harmony with our surroundings. Our environment hence might as well be our extended body. Ayurvedic wisdom propels towards a greater sense of awareness and responsibility on how we choose to live our life. The basic tenet of Ayurveda is to align the rhythm of our life with the rhythm of the nature – the five elements, seasons as well as day and night. Overall, we are thought to be a miniature of the entire cosmos and thus should strive to align ourselves with the macrocosm. That is believed to help maintain a balance of the Doshas bringing a harmony of the body and the mind.
Recently, a powerful scientific report by the reputed medical journal Lancet and EAT Foundation also shed light along the same way, i.e., the state of the planetary health equals the state of our health. It strongly recommended that we need to align our eating patterns prioritizing local foods, reflecting the seasonal variety as well as having primarily plant-based diversity in our diet. The advice given in Ayurvedic texts have resonance with the Sustainable Development Goals too as there is now a global urgency to create a sustainable and healthy lifestyle.
Ayurveda looks at health and well-being in a holistic way such that everything is connected and interdependent. Nutrition has also been understood to be impacted by a host of internal and external factors that are inherently inter-connected.
There is commonality in the basic essence and principles of Ayurveda and nutrition. Evidently, both rally behind promotion of good health and prevention of diseases.
Food in itself is considered as medicine. Ayurveda recognises plants and herbs as some of the greatest gifts of nature to the mankind and treats wholesome regular foods, herbs, and spices as medicine. This very much jives with the concept of 'functional foods' in nutrition science which also recognises the health protecting, promoting, and healing benefits of foods.
The art of eating is also emphasized by Ayurveda ranging from the posture, routine, time, meal composition, etc. along with advices such as regular fasting for good health. These insights are now being reinforced and recommended through the scientific findings as well. Such similitudes do make me wonder - have we come a full circle?
Food and eating are profound joys in life embedded with fond memories. Reflecting upon my upbringing in Nepal, I realise that so much of it was infused with the Ayurvedic wisdom.
Be it our daily dietary tradition of what, when and how we eat or my mother’s home remedies for cough and cold or aches and pains, they have invariably been guided by the principles and practices of Ayurveda. The ancient wisdom thus has been kept alive in homes as tradition across the generations and through the millennia.
Built over thousands of years with observation and experience, Ayurveda is bound to have tremendous knowledge. We have the opportunity to reap the benefits of its ancient nutrition wisdom along with the insights and advances of the modern nutrition science. Together, they provide the complementary principles for optimum health, well-being and harmony.
Also published in the The Himalayan Times: https://thehimalayantimes.com/opinion/unity-in-ayurveda-and-nutrition-to-nourish-body-mind-and-spirit