Ayurvedic dietetics

Text : Marie Josèphe Moncorgé. Translator: Bruce Lee


According to Ayurvedic dietetics, digestion implies cooking food by means of body-fire.

Just like Universe, body, too, consists of 5 elements:

Ether Air Water Fire Earth

There are 3 humours or Doshas. The equilibrium between the 3 Doshas determines the temperament of each person: his Prakriti (his constitution).

Doshas main elements
Vata Ether and Air
Pitta Water and Fire
Kapha Earth and Water

The foods are classified according to 5 elements, 3 Doshas as well as according to 3 Gunas and 6 flavours, and according to the fact whether they are hot or cold:

Gunas effects on body and spirit
Sattvic energy - higher consciousness
Rajasic increases the speed of excitement
Tamasic increases ignorance and pessimism

A food can have several flavours. 6 flavours are as follows:

sweet sour salty pungent bitter astringent

According to Ayurvedic dietetics

A balanced diet is the guarantee for good health. For this, one must take into account the value of foods, its temperament and seasons. Some combinations of foods are beneficial amongst them; others are bad because they upset the correct functioning of digestion.

For example, according to Caraka Samhitâ, red lentil is a food that is light, refreshing, sweet-taste and very beneficial for disorders caused by Pitta and Kapha. Raisin, with sweet flavour, is very unctuous and refreshing. It quenches the thirst, burning sensations, fever, weight-loss and disturbances of Vata and Pitta. Fresh ginger is an aperitif and aphrodisiac. It is recommended for disorders of Vata and Kapha as well as against constipation. Onion aggravates Kapha and soothes Vata. It gives force, it is heavy and aphrodisiac whereas garlic (unctuous, heating, heavy and aphrodisiac, with pungent flavour) is considered as a vermifuge (as in Hippocratic dietetics). Garlic is also good for skin-diseases and Vata disorders. Cow-milk "is the best revitaliser and elixir for longevity" whereas yoghurt, that favours strength and digestion of acids and calms Vata, is contra-indicated to persons suffering from Pitta and Kapha problems.

As raw food is more difficult to digest, it is preferable to eat cooked foods.

More about: 1) Introduction --- 2) History --- 3) Principles --- 4) Digestion --- 5) Cuisine

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1 - Introduction

Just like Hippocratic dietetic, Ayurvedic dietetic, too, has originated from a sophisticated medicine and not from a popular know-how. Both are based on a scientific medical doctrine that regards human body as a representation of the universe (a microcosm). This theory is being contested at present, but Ayurvedic physicians have managed to develop an efficient medical practice that was based on experience. This explains why this medical system exists even today.

As Jean Filliozat, a French physician who has studied the origin of Indian medicine, states: Action of remedies was known through use and if a certain medicine cured certain symptom of a disease that was considered being because of air, this medicine was classified amongst those that were antagonist to air, at the risk of inventing an explanation of this fact later. Therefore, it was certainly the experience that guided the choice of medicines and the general theory was only an effort to explain ex post facto the mechanism of normal functioning of the body, that of pathological accidents and that of action of treatment at the same time. Therefore, Ayurveda system is a dogmatism that interprets experience. Classical doctrine of Indian medicine. Its origins and its Greek parallels. 1975.

In fact, Ayurvedic medicine and dietetics constitute, first and foremost, a health-system in which prevention is considered more important than treatment.

-> 2) History --- 3) Principles --- 4) Digestion --- 5) Cuisine

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2 - Some history

The most ancient religious documents from India were reunited under the name of Veda (knowledge). These texts were written slowly (like Bible), between 18th and 8th century before Christ. These are anterior to Hinduism that inspires from these to some extent. According to tradition, Ayurveda, which is much recent, joins these sacred texts through Atharva-Veda or Rig-Veda.


Ayurveda (in Sanskrit: which is translated as knowledge of life or knowledge about longevity) is an art of living, a philosophy and a medicine. The origin of Indian medicine is described in it by means of fables.

The Ayurvedic texts are of two types: treaties of medicines and "dictionaries" of medical subject-matter. These works appear in different eras, between 4th and 14th century.

Ayurvedic medicine

The most ancient treaties of Indian medicine are Carakasamhitâ (Collection of Caraka) and Sushrutasamhitâ (Collection of Sushruta). Caraka and Sushruta were physicians (mythological or historical?) who collected medical texts in Sanskrit between 1st and 3rd century. These texts were rewritten and improved upon in different eras. At present, Carakasamhitâ dates from 9th century and Sushrutasamhitâ from 11th and 12th century. These texts were written in verse (enumeration of therapeutic symptoms or prescriptions to facilitate memorisation) and in prose (theoretical teachings).

Ayurvedic medicine developed in the course of centuries and evolved in terms of researches conducted by physicians. Its expansion in the West was limited because of development of its competitor: Hippocratic medicine. Incidentally, Hippocratic medicine reached India in 12th century under the name of Unani Tibbi medicine. Links between Hippocratic dietetics and Ayurvedic Dietetics.

However, it is important to remember that Ayurvedic medicine developed in Asia at the same time as Buddhism: Central Asia, Tibet, Burma, and Cambodia. Ayurvedic medicine can be found up to China and Japan.


Western colonisation introduced western medicine only to Indian elites. Some Indians, who resisted westernisation of their culture, have refused this new medicine. The poorest amongst these didn't have access to modern medicine that was too expensive and continued to visit Ayurvedic physician. While western Hippocratic medicine was swept away by the arrival of modern medicine, Ayurvedic medicine survived in India till present times.

Modern period

At present, Ayurvedic medicine has been restructured and modernised in India. It is recognised by government. Hospitals, clinics and medical schools, which practice Ayurvedic medicine, have been developed and are recognised.

Ayurveda is recognised by WHO as: traditional medicine that includes different practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs with regards to health, using plants, animals and/ or minerals based medicines, spiritual therapies, exercises and manual techniques applied alone or in together, in order to maintain the well-being as well as to treat, diagnose or prevent disease.

In quest of holistic medicines that were closer to nature as compared to modern medicine, West recently discovered Ayurvedic dietetics and massages. This discovery is still not really authentic and we consider that it is important to present Ayurvedic dietetics as it really is.

1) Introduction <- To -> 3) Principles --- 4) Digestion --- 5) Cuisine

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3 - Principles of Ayurveda

5 elements

Ayurveda develops theories that are more complex than Hippocratic medicine. While Hippocrates and his followers recognise 4 basic elements to describe the universe and human body (water, air, earth and fire), Ayurveda develops a theory of 5 major elements:

Aakash (Ether or Vacuum), Vayu (Air or Wind), Aapa (Water), Agni (Fire) and Prithvi (Earth). Three of these major elements i.e. Air, Fire and Water give life and motion to body.

In its own way, each human being reconstitutes these elements in its body. The theory of humours in Ayurveda is somewhat different from Hippocratic theory concerning humours:

3 humours or Doshas

There are 3 humours or Doshas:

- Vata in which Wind presents in the form of Breathing (Prâna). Ether and Air dominate. At the level of emotions, Vata corresponds to joy, anxiety, nervousness, freshness, lightness, fear and pain.

- Pitta in which Fire presents itself in the form of Bile. Water and Fire dominate. At the level of emotions, Pitta corresponds to anger, jealousy, hatred and violence.

- Kapha (or Shleshman) in which Water is present in the form of Pituita or Phlegm. Earth and Water dominate. At the level of emotions Kapha corresponds to love, forgiveness, generosity, courage, attachment, calm, desire and miserliness.

The tridosha, or the relative balance of 3 Doshas with each other, determines the exact nature of each individual i.e. his Prakriti or constitution. This constitution varies according to period of life: Kapha dominates during childhood, Pitta during adulthood and Vata in old age.

Doshas main elements emotions periods of life
Vata Ether and Air joy, nervousness, fear, pain childhood
Pitta Water and Fire anger, jealousy, violence adulthood
Kapha Earth and Water love, generosity, calm old age

Just as Galien recognised temperaments related to blood, temper, bile or phlegm, similarly Ayurvedic physicians talk of Vata, Pitta or Kapha temperaments.

One is healthy when the balance between elements and Doshas dominates. Disease is created as a result of unbalance.

1) Introduction --- 2) History <- To -> 4) Digestion --- 5) Cuisine

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4 - The digestion

Digestion implies cooking of foodstuff with the help of body-fire. Dietary functions have been described in a very precise manner and these depend on the role of 3 humours:

- Vata, Air or breathing is divided into 5 elements: Prâna, the vital (organic) air, is the front breathing with its seat in the mouth and ensures respiration and swallowing. Udâna is the breathing that moves upwards and produces speech. Samâna is the concentrated breathing that provides the air required for the internal fire to cook i.e. to digest food. Apâna is the breathing that moves downwards for functions of excretion and childbirth. Lastly, Vyâna implies disseminated breathing that moves around in the limbs and assists in their movement.

- Pitta, Fire is represented by Bile in 5 forms including for digestion: Pâcaka the one that helps in cooking food (i.e. digesting).

- Kapha, Water is the wet and cold element that binds with the body. Its seat is at the centre of the body in the stomach and the chest: it acts as a link between head and arms and supports the heart. It assists in tasting in the throat and on the tongue. In the head, it favours sensory faculties.

The body nourishes itself with these transformed elements and perspiration, faeces and urine are the waste products (mala).

Balance between elements and humours

We have seen that health is the result of a balance between elements and humours whereas diseases are caused by unbalance. Dietary unbalance is one of the causes of disturbances introduced in the functions of "Air", "Bile" and "Phlegm". It can be aggravated because of climate.

Main reasons behind the unbalance of Air include excess of physical exercises, short nights, and a diet that is too rich in pungent, hot, sour or caustic foods, cloudy or rainy season. Bile is disturbed because of fear, anger, oily food and fermented drinks. Phlegm malfunctions because of lack of exercise, laziness, immoderate use of certain cereals, meals that are close after one another and winter season.

Carakasamhitâ seems very modern as far as its dietary prescriptions are concerned: One who binges on (eats too much) oily, sweet, heavy, fatty food items or on cereals, wine, animals from marshy areas or aquatic animals, on milk and milk products, on sugar and preparations made of flour, and who, at the same time, abstains from physical exercise... will suffer with sicknesses caused due to satiation.

For Ayurveda, dietary excesses cause urinary infections, hives, itching, fever, leprosy, stomach aches, anorexia, fatigue, impotency, obesity, and feeling of heaviness in body...

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5 - Cuisine as described in Ayurvedic dietetics

In order to simplify, we can say that to begin with there are 3 Doshas: 3 temperaments responsible for functioning of the body. The balance between these temperaments is the sign of good health, the disturbance of temperaments causes disease.

3 categories or Gunas

Depending on their effects on body and spirit, foods are classified into three categories or Gunas:

- they are Sattvic (from Sattva, the essence) i.e. they provide the energy that is necessary for body and favour a superior state of consciousness. Sattvic foods are fresh, juicy, light, nourishing, sweet and flavourful.

Sattvic foods include juicy foods, green vegetables, milk and fresh butter, cereals (wheat, rice, barley...), dry-fruits (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts...), sprouted grains (sprouts of soya, wheat...), many aromatic herbs and spices when they are used along with the good foods.

- they are Rajasic (from Rajas, activity) i.e. they increase speed and excitement of human body and favour activity, movement and pain. Rajasic foods are bitter, sour, salty, pungent, hot and dry.

Rajasic foods include fried or over-cooked Sattvic foods, foods that contain lots of chillies, exciting products (tea, coffee, tobacco).

- they are Tamasic (from Tamas, inertia) i.e. they require a lot of energy for digestion and favour ignorance, doubt and pessimism. Tamasic foods are dry, not fresh; they can feel bad and have bad taste or be tasteless.

Tamsic foods include foods that are cooked in advance or kept for too long in fridge, canned food as well as meat, fish, eggs, wine and alcohol.

Gunas effects on body and spirit aliments
Sattvic energy juicy foods, green vegetables, milk, fresh butter, cereals, dry-fruits, sprouted grains
Rajasic speed of excitement fried or over-cooked Sattvic foods, foods with chillies, exciting products
Tamasic ignorance and pessimism foods that are cooked in advance, canned food, meat, fish, eggs, wine, alcohol

According to Ayurveda, the sages live exclusively by eating Sattvic foods, others also need the energy produced by Rajasic products but must reduce, as far as possible, Tamasic foods.

6 flavours

Indian physicians of yore wanted to explain the effects of food on body. They envisioned a theory of flavours in addition to the theory of temperaments: therefore, foods are also classified in 6 flavours: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. These flavours are not only stimulators of taste buds but according to Ayurveda, they also modify the biochemistry of food before its digestion. From these basic 6 flavours, a combination of several flavours can be used to describe a food-item.

These flavours act on temperaments. For example, sweet, sour or salty foods calm down "Air" but irritate "Phlegm". On the contrary, pungent, bitter or astringent flavours fight ill-effects of "Phlegm" but excite "Air". Sweet foods enrich blood and sperm, sour foods stimulate digestion and bitter foods increase appetite.

Foodstuffs classification

Foodstuffs are also classified into hot (pungent, salty or sour flavour that one finds in ginger, pepper, onion, garlic or mustard) and cold (sweet, bitter or astringent flavour that can be found in legumes, marrows and fruits).

Thus, each foodstuff is classified according to 5 elements, 3 Doshas, 6 flavours, 3 Gunas, and depending on wether it is hot or cold.

Ether Air Water Fire Earth

Vata Pitta Kapha

sweet sour salty pungent bitter astringent

Sattvic Rajasic Tamasic

hot cold

Dietary advices given by modern Ayurvedic practitioners recommend one to eat food-items that is adapted to one's temperament or that helps in correcting an unbalance.

For example, green vegetables, raw vegetables, leguminous plants and beef meat stimulate Vata whereas milk-products, walnuts, chicken, fishes and seafood calm it.

As in Hippocratic dietetics, a balanced diet is a diet that takes the value of foods, temperament of person and seasons into account.

However, if the combination of some food-items is beneficial, other combinations are seen as bad because they risk disturbing the good functioning of digestion. Then this may create an unbalance of temperaments that can result in disease.

As in the case of Hippocratic dietetics, it is preferable to eat cooked food-items: there is a mistrust of raw that is more difficult to digest. It is also advised that one eat different things according to seasons. On the other hand, though ancient Ayurvedic texts did not recommend it but following the blossoming of the cult of Vishnu, Ayurvedic dietetics is mostly vegetarian (meat is Tamasic).

1) Introduction --- 2) History --- 3) Principles <- To

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La diététique ayurvedique