Optimal Digestion and Metabolism with Ayurveda

Vegetarian Indian dish
Vegetarian Indian dish

Gas and bloating? Heartburn after a heavy meal? Constipation when traveling? A few extra pounds that just won’t come off? We all know too well when our digestion and elimination is not working properly, but often, instead of reevaluating our dietary habits, we just grab the next anti-acid or laxative medication that temporarily relieves symptoms but does not get to the root cause of our troubles. Ulli Allmendinger explains how the ancient science of Ayurveda can help regain digestive and metabolic health.

According to Ayurveda, food is one of the main pillars of life. Since we all eat at least three times a day, the quality of our food affects us enormously, and is a key factor in either promoting health and wellness or bringing about imbalance and disease. Rather than focusing on macronutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats, Ayurvedic nutrition emphasizes the taste and energetic quality of food and its effect on each metabolic type or dosha: Vata (ether/air), Pitta (fire/water) and Kapha (earth/water).
The doshas are bio-energies in our body that are responsible for our physiological functioning, such as Vata for movement (beating of the heart, peristalsis), Pitta for transformation (digestion, heat regulation, metabolism) and Kapha for structure and stability (muscle and fat tissue, protective mucous lining of the stomach and sinuses). We all have all three doshas but the unique ratio of them varies from person to person and is determined at conception. This is called constitution or metabolic type. Depending on your metabolic type, certain foods support and balance you or can be counterproductive, causing digestive and metabolic disturbance.
When it comes to digestive health in Ayurveda, eating according to your metabolic type is very important. Secondly, you want to keep the digestive fire strong through healthy heating routines. And lastly, it is also important to pay attention to food combining. If you follow these principles, you will optimize your digestion and your metabolism and weight.


1. Eating According to your Metabolic Type

Balancing Vata

The most important general principle regarding diet during Vata season (fall and early winter) or if you are a Vata dominant constitution is to have warm cooked foods. Since Vata is cold, dry and rough, warm cooked foods made with a little olive oil or ghee (clarified butter) have a wonderfully soothing effect that immediately calms down restless Vata. Warm drinks such as hot milk, miso soup or herbal tea also have a balancing affect. Cold sandwiches, cheese, salads, and dry cereals with cold milk are the types of foods that can create a Vata imbalance and should preferably be avoided.

Try beginning the day with a warm fruit compote, soup, cooked oatmeal or quinoa cereal with cinnamon and warm (almond) milk. Lunch may include lentil or mung bean soup, a vegetable or bean stew, or quinoa with stir-fried vegetables. Suggested snacks include chai, dates, or some soaked almonds. Coffee, black tea and other caffeinated drinks such as coke can be Vata aggravating and should be avoided. Dinner may include a warm hearty soup and whole-wheat bread or some steamed vegetables and rice with ghee. At bedtime, a cup of warm milk with a pinch of ginger, cinnamon and some honey is recommended for sound sleep.

To keep Vata in balance, favor the sweet, sour and salty tastes, and avoid bitter, pungent and astringent foods. In fall and winter, favor sweet, sour, heavy fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, kiwi, bananas, avocados, or grapes. In summer, you can have cherries, peaches, melons, berries, figs and plums. Vegetables should always be eaten cooked and raw salads reduced. Root vegetables such as beets, carrots, celery root and pumpkin as well as okra, leek, zucchini, squash and spinach are excellent choices. In moderate amounts, you can also have green leafy vegetables (chopped small, with thick fibrous parts discarded), broccoli, cauliflower and potatoes, especially when well cooked with ghee and Vata-reducing spices such as cumin, cinnamon and ginger. Favor foods that are liquid rather than dry, and warm rather than cold. Drink lots of warm water and sip 2-3 cups of tea during the day.


Balancing Pitta

Pitta governs metabolism and transformation in the body, including digestion. Pitta is associated with heat, and its effects are especially felt during the hot summer months, from June through September. During this time, it is essential to pay attention to pacifying Pitta, whether you have a lot of Pitta in your constitution or not. Signs and symptoms of aggravated Pitta include excess stomach acid, heartburn, skin eruptions, sunburn, heat, headache, fever, short temper and irritability. Following a Pitta-pacifying diet and lifestyle—cool foods, avoidance of chilies and strong spices and exercise only at the coolest part of the day—can help keep this fiery element in balance.


A Pitta-Pacifying Diet

General food guidelines for pacifying Pitta include avoiding sour, salty and pungent (spicy) foods and limiting the intake of meat (esp. red meat), eggs, alcohol and salt. Foods that are (naturally) sweet, bitter and astringent are best. Those include rice and whole-grain breads, organic milk, butter, ghee and soft, unsalted cheeses; also fully ripe and juicy fruits like melons, cherries, apricots, peaches and figs as well as vegetables such as cucumber, broccoli, zucchini and asparagus. Minimize yoghurt, salty aged cheeses, citrus fruits and spicy foods like red pepper. Also avoid vegetables with heating properties such as tomatoes, hot peppers, radishes, onions and garlic.
Most nuts and seeds have too much oil and are too heating for Pittas. However, coconut is cooling and sunflower and pumpkin seeds are ok occasionally. Small amounts of coconut, olive and unrefined (!) sunflower oils are also good for Pittas. Ghee is ideal as it cools Pitta, enhances digestion, lubricates the body and is a great immune booster.
Favor foods that are liquid rather than dry, and cool or lukewarm rather than hot. In summer, more raw foods such as salads and fruits can be eaten. Avoid heavy and spicy soups and stews. Also, drinking enough room temperature or cool water (not iced!) helps cool down mind, body and emotions. Fresh diluted fruit juices (try pomegranate or apple juice with sparkling water) are wonderful pick-me ups on hot sunny days. Watermelon, best eaten on its own, is known as a great preventative and antidote for heatstroke.


Balancing Kapha

Kapha people naturally have large bones, round features and soft skin, and reflect the stability of the earth in their steady emotions. To stay healthy, Kaphas need to counterbalance their watery and earthy nature by infusing more of the other three elements—space, air and fire—into their system. Adding these elements can keep them from developing imbalances such as respiratory congestion, oily skin, lethargy, mental dullness, depression and weight gain.

Kapha is associated with a wet, cold climate and its prime season is late winter and early spring. Over the long, cold and dark winter months, our bodies naturally accumulate excess Kapha. Therefore, during Kapha season it is especially important to remain physically active and keep a strong digestive fire and immune system.


A Kapha-Pacifying Diet

The most important general principle regarding diet during Kapha season for everyone is to avoid cold food and drinks as well as overeating (hard to follow especially during the holiday season). The qualities of Kapha are cold, wet and heavy, and thus light, warm and slightly spiced foods can have a wonderfully stimulating effect on Kapha. Rich desserts, ice cream, nuts, cheese, bread and heavy meat-based dishes can all create a Kapha imbalance and should preferably be avoided during this season. In addition, excessive rest and oversleeping, snacks between meals and heavy late-night dinners all contribute to excess Kapha.

Kaphas can skip breakfast completely or begin the day with something light such as an apple or a pear, or some toast. Ginger tea, a spicy watery soup or just plain hot water are a great way to start the day, too. Lunch may include a spicy soup, sautéed greens and other vegetables or lentils. Too many carbohydrates (especially white rice and bread) as well as snacking between meals is best avoided by Kaphas but, occasionally, black tea or coffee can serve as a nice stimulant. Dinner may include a light, vegetable broth-based soup and steamed vegetables. Sipping hot water during the day helps keep the digestive fire strong and counterbalances weight gain and congestion.

To keep Kapha in balance, favor the pungent (spicy), bitter and astringent tastes and avoid sweet, sour and salty foods. Adding a little zing to your diet with spices can invigorate a sluggish metabolism. Pungent spices such as ginger, mustard seeds, chili and black pepper are all Kapha balancing. You can sprinkle these spices in soups and stews, or sauté them in a small amount of ghee or olive oil and add to steamed vegetables.

Favor lighter fruits, such as apples or pears, over juicy heavy fruits such as figs or bananas. Vegetables should be eaten cooked and raw salads reduced. Avoid starchy root vegetables such as beets, carrots, and pumpkin, and instead choose leafy greens. In moderate quantities, the following bitter and astringent vegetables are fine, especially if they are cooked with little ghee or oil and plenty of Kapha-reducing spices: Asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, corn, spinach, kale, leeks, peas, peppers, radish and chard. Favor foods that are dry and light rather than heavy and moist, and warm rather than cold. Drink lots of warm water and sip 2-3 cups of tea during the day.


2. Optimizing Digestion

In addition to eating according to the seasons and your metabolic type, it is also helpful to follow certain routines that enhance digestion. Here are a few examples:

Don’t drink large amounts of (cold) liquids with meals. This dilutes digestive enzymes so your food is not digested properly. You can drink ½ glass of room-temperature water or ginger tea with a meal but wait at least 2 hours after to drink a larger amount.

Eat slowly and chew your food properly. Digestion starts in the mouth and the more thoroughly we chew, the less work the rest of our digestive organs have.

Avoid meat, dairy and raw and fried foods at times when digestion is low.

Don’t eat until the previous meal has been digested and you feel hungry. Constant snacking can easily overload the digestive fire.

Eat fruits by themselves, away from other meals since they digest much faster than anything else. Wait at least 2-3 hours after a meal until you have a piece of fruit.

Sip on ginger tea or hot water throughout the day to boost metabolism and increase digestion.

Use spices such as cumin, fennel, coriander, ginger and turmeric, especially if you are dealing with issues of gas and bloating. If you want to boost metabolism and optimize weight, you can use dry ginger, black pepper and chili or red pepper.

Eat simple, especially when appetite is low. Eating too many different foods in one meal can easily disturb digestion.


3. Food Combining

In addition to eating right for your metabolic type and following certain eating routines, the role of food combining in supporting digestive health cannot be underestimated. According to Ayurveda, there are certain food combinations that are particularly difficult for digestion and can long-term cause imbalance and disease. Some of the most common ones are:

FRUIT: Don’t mix fruit with anything else. Fruit and yoghurt or melon and cheese are very difficult combinations since the milk proteins are heavy and take time to digest whereas fruit digests very fast. This creates confusion and gas/ bloating as well as toxicity.

DAIRY: (Yoghurt, Cheese, Milk): Dairy products should not be mixed with eggs (such as cheese and eggs for breakfast), meat, or fish. Two different animal proteins at the same meal are very hard to digest.

In addition, if you have a weak or compromised digestion, it is also helpful not to eat two carbohydrates at the same meal, such as rice and bread or potatoes and bread. If you eat protein (meat, fish, beans), make sure not to eat too many carbs (bread, rice, pasta) but rather green leafy vegetables such as arugula, chard or spinach that facilitate digestion.
Most importantly, start listening to your body. It has an innate wisdom and if you become sensitive and more balanced, you can easily figure out which foods make you feel good and which ones cause problems. For example, when your energy is low, you tend to crave sugar and caffeine, which temporarily gives you a boost but later you crash. Instead, try green tea or have some protein (nuts) as a pick-me-up and observe whether your energy stays more leveled and stable. And most importantly, enjoy what you are eating and eat mindfully. The occasional treat or even a wrong food combination once in a while is not the end of the world.


Ulli Allmendinger, MSc Ayurveda
Ulli Allmendinger, MSc Ayurveda

Ulli Allmendinger, MSc Ayurveda, is an Ayurvedic consultant, nutritionist and herbalist with a passion for cooking and Ayurvedic nutrition. Based in Istanbul, Ulli consults clients for a variety of health concerns, gives Ayurvedic cooking and nutrition classes, workshops on Ayurveda and guides detox camps. She also has a line of gluten-free cookies and breads that are made-to-order. For more information, please visit www.ulli-ayurveda.com and www.ulliskitchen.sopsy.com, call +90 539 203 0422 or email info@ulli-ayurveda.com.

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