Some things seem to go together like mittens on cold hands: apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream, peanut butter and jelly, Mac and cheese, rice and beans, and South Indian dosas (vegan crepes) with coconut chutney.
The five senses impact our menu choices. The smell of coffee when we awake stimulates our desire to add flavorful hazelnut creamer. Crunchy tortilla chips dipped into cool, smooth lime green guacamole awakens multiple senses in the tongue, mouth, teeth, and fingers. An exquisitely garnished and decorated plate is food porn. Our tastebuds are ignited by what our eyes capture.
However, my left brain determines many of my food choices and combinations. People who think I follow a rigid diet assume I cannot enjoy my vegan, gluten-free, low-glycemic meals sans sucre, sans sel, sans huile. Wrong. Taste buds adapt. Cravings fade. Habits change. I’m a happy camper with my choices, much of which is advocated or nixed by my Ayurvedic doctor.
For ten years, I’ve been following an Ayurvedic dinacharya (routine). Moreover, as a certified yoga therapist, I create customized protocols for my clients. The lifestyle management approaches I follow and prescribe stimulate well-being and improve underlying issues. As a yoga therapist, balancing one’s food intake is more important (to me) than mastering an arm balance pose. The ancient Indian life science considers diet to be crucial. Not just what — but when and how you consume.
That’s why I recently attended a lecture with Rajashree Deshmukh, BAMS, an Ayurvedic doctor at Govardhan Eco Village north of Mumbai. Dr. Deshmukh focused on food combining principles as taught in Viruddha Ahara (opposing, or incompatible, foods). She said people often think they are eating healthy, yet they ignore the rules of food combination. The incorrect pairing of what one consumes can aggravate emotional states like ADHD, anxiety, and PTSD. Improper choices can also lead to physical issues ranging from autoimmune diseases to skin disorders and irritable bowel syndrome.
When some food sources are mixed, explained Dr. Deshmukh, they can provoke a fatal outcome. “There are certain chemicals that can be released. It’s like a slow poison. It gets deposited in the body [sticking to the cell walls] and doesn’t come out.”
According to the ancient Ayurvedic medical text, the Caraka Samhita, there are 80 incompatible food examples. But things are worse now. Our modern-day fast-food society is rife with toxins such as pesticides, hormones, preservatives, artificial flavorings, and colorants.
Dr. Deshmukh said one of the most common errors people following healthy habits do is mix fruit with milk. Skip the banana milkshakes and mango lassis, she urged. Don’t top your strawberries with cream or yogurt with berries.
I take that rule seriously. I avoid mixing not-easily-digestible fruit with anything. Rarely will I bite into any piece of fruit after 11 a.m. as Ayurveda teaches us that fruits are easiest to digest on an empty stomach, in the morning.
Another no-no said Dr. Deshmukh is chai with milk. The caseins in the milk have a negative interaction with the tea phytochemicals (catechins and polyphenols). Since I follow a plant-based sattvic (pure) diet, I stay clear of all dairy and caffeine.
While many consider honey and ghee healthy products, Dr. Deshmukh noted they must be consumed in equal amounts. For example, if your dessert contains twice as much honey as ghee, that sets off toxic reactions.
The Caraka Samhita notes not everyone will have the same detrimental effects. Daily exercise is like a booster shot to combat the toxins. Young people and those with the pitta dosha (constitution) have better digestive fire (agni) to burn through food incompatibilities.
If you know you’re predominantly pitta, you have more lee-way with what and how you eat. The rest of us need to be cautious. Since my pitta is low, my heaviest meal is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the digestive fire is the strongest. I eat a light dinner, preferably at 5 p.m. Given my lack of fire, I avoid raw foods and indulge in hot, cooked, and spicy foods — even in the summer.
Dr, Deshmukh discussed the importance of modifying diet to the weather. Most of us crave hot soups and hot teas when it’s cold out, whereas I need to stoke my fire year-round. Just as I can’t fathom swimming unless the water is like a hot bathtub, I would never eat ice cream in winter. But Americans have a tendency to enjoy cold food and drink, and fast food joints drizzle soft drinks over a glass jam-packed with ice. Not a good idea unless you are a full-on pitta in the Sahara in the summer. Likewise, if you live in the desert, don’t choose dry, spicy foods. Coconut water is one of the most cooling and hydrating beverages and is far healthier than sodas, dairy, or sports drinks.
Raw foods are best for those with pitta dosha, and in the summertime. A trick for others wanting raw foods any time of year is to eat the uncooked items first. That means if you order soup and salad, start with the salad. Not the soup.
Another tip the Eco Village doctor suggested is not to overconsume. The image she gave is the same one I learned during my Ayurvedic studies. Fill the belly halfway with food. One-quarter with liquid. And the remaining quarter should be empty. Just air. Her analogy is the stomach is like a blender. If there’s no liquid and no empty space, nothing will happen.
As with any lifestyle change, Dr. Deshmukh said it doesn’t have to be hard. “Slowly leave bad habits and adopt good ones.”
Learn more about what you should eat, and other lifestyle tips. Enjoy a vacation at Govardhan Eco Village with affordable one-on-one Ayurvedic counseling and treatments. For simple pointers, check out one of my YouTube videos, or book a two-hour yoga therapy consultation with me.