Every religion, culture, cult, and pyramid scheme on the planet makes suggestions about what, how, and how much their followers should consume. The guiding principle behind the move is that, ultimately, we are what we eat. There are strategic reasons behind each diet and meal plan, from keeping practitioners sharp-minded to keeping them fat-adapted. Some guidelines protect from food contamination or inflammation, and others prepare the body for battle.
But diets, like other beliefs and lifestyle choices, are not one size fits all. You will, of course, have your similar stories and basic blueprints, but if there were an official “Care and Feeding of Your Human Body” handbook, which philosophy most satisfactorily fills the stomach?
Ayurveda isn’t South Beach. It’s considered an alternative medicine in the West, and has deep history in subcontinental India, where it has evolved over more than 2,000 years of practice before being adapted in the West in the 1900s. You may not be familiar with Hippocrates’ quote “In food excellent medicine can be found, in food bad medicine can be found; good and bad are relative,” but you’ve probably heard the colloquialism “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” The concepts behind the quotes are related: Eat like crap, feel like crap.
While the science, practice, and philosophy of Ayurveda is about more than what you’re putting into your body, most beliefs acknowledge that our energy is dictated by mindful eating. Before humans were keto, low carb, Whole30, macrobiotic, raw, or Zone, we relied on a more reliable commander of caloric consumption: Our bodies themselves.
The human body is fluent in the language of health, but we have become increasingly clumsy at interpreting the signals we receive. When our body sends us an ache, we send it a Tylenol. When we feel sluggish, we slam a Red Bull. Ayurvedic practices aim to realign the body and mind, and you don’t even need to sit quietly in lotus pose to learn to listen.
Hungry or Craving?
While our cravings serve a purpose of their own, they aren’t to be confused with the actual need for food. When our bodies are deficient in nutrients, minerals, or vitamins, they will send sometimes crazy cravings to get the message to the mouth. How we read those cravings can lead to health or a heart attack. It’s unlikely our body is sending an urgent signal that we are severely Butterfingers-deficient. Nobody ever lost a limb to a lack of Doritos. Ayurvedic practices involve mindfully considering your cravings and learning what your body is asking for.
A craving is also different from the phenomenon of kuchisabishii, the Japanese term for “lonely mouth.” Kuchisabishii is the reason you’re not finished with your day until you’ve had something sweet. It’s the reason you take three more bites from your dinner plate even though you unbuttoned your jeans ten minutes ago.
But with both food cravings and kuchisabishii, the hunger ends at the tastebuds. Eating will do nothing to solve either of these issues, and can lead to fatigue, poor digestion, bloating, irritability, and can drive us from the good that food can do for our bodies.
How to Ayurveda
- Mastication Communication.
The first principle of Ayurveda immediately differentiates it from any diet: Eat every time you’re hungry. Actually hungry, not lonely-mouth nonsense. Keep raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes on hand, but not so easily accessible that you will find yourself mindlessly snacking.
Plan to fill your stomach halfway with solid food, a quarter of the way with liquids, and keep it a quarter empty. Choose whole foods in their most natural state whenever possible, which means you’ll be shopping only the perimeter of the grocery store. Nothing from a box, nothing with ingredients you can’t pronounce.
- Say a little prayer for you.
This isn’t a commentary on religion, rather a moment you take to appreciate your food, to show gratitude for the growers, farmers, producers, nature, the chef. Thank whomever you think is listening for the work that went into the meal that’s about to sustain you, and consider each ingredient and the role it’s about to play in your health and energy. Mindful eating requires gratitude, even if you’re thanking only yourself for taking such good care of your body.
- Stay in season.
Shopping for in-season foods isn’t only good for the environment, cutting down on emissions from long-distance shipping and the impact of over-farming, but our bodies rely on certain nutrients at certain times. The closer to the farm we can bring our fork, the easier it is for our bodies to make the most of the nutrients. And let’s be honest, it just tastes better.
- Eat the Oreo.
The amount of thought that practitioners put into timing their fasts, adjusting to drinking room-temperature water, and eating according to their Dosha can be overwhelming. But just as impactful is the joy they allow themselves when indulging. Since it isn’t a daily occurrence, the cookie tastes infinitely sweeter. Balance and joy are crucial to leading a truly enlightened existence, and if there aren’t Oreos, who even wants it?
While not every part of Ayurveda will be your cup of tea (we aren’t suggesting everyone become vegan or switch to a two-meal-a-day model), it’s less about what you eat and more about how you eat. Taking the time to enjoy local, mindful eating is for everyone. Frequent the farmers market, join community-supported agriculture, and become a regular at any of the incredible farm-to-fork restaurants Omaha has to offer. Keep following The Reader on Instagram @TheReaderOmahaDish for a directory of locally sourced eateries to make your Ayurvedic journey even more palatable.