Healthy Eating Guidelines For The New Year

Due to the emphasis on food and diet that comes with New Year's Resolutions, I always like to offer a balanced perspective or new thinking around eating this time of year.

While traditional emphasis is placed on what to eat or not eat, I'd like to share today some possibilities that can powerfully transform your eating and relationship with food - through the WAY you eat.

In yoga and Ayurveda there is a list of guidelines for healthy eating called Upayogasamstha. This is a fairly long list of fifteen different directives. While all of these are powerful steps, I also don’t want you to be overwhelmed by such a hefty catalogue of changes! I advocate for change in small increments, instead. Therefore, I recommend starting with just one of these guidelines at a time to allow yourself to see the effect and adjust to the change into your lifestyle with ease.

Consider picking just one new way of eating to play with for a couple weeks - or even 40 days to make it a new habit.

  • Food should be taken in the proper place: environment affects digestion. For maximum digestion, an ideal environment provides nourishment for the senses with quiet, peaceful sounds of nature; visually pleasing table or space; clean, fragrant, and beautiful. Setting a table with candles, nice dishes, cloth mats and napkins sets the stage for treating the food and your body with reverence and honoring all your senses that take in the food. One should face the east while eating to bring in the power of the sun to enhance Agni or the digestive fires.
  • Eat food prepared by loving hands in a loving way. Food prepared with love is more sattvic or peace inducing. What does it mean to prepare food in a loving way? To be joyful while cooking rather than resentful of having to deal with the food. To pour your heart into what you are creating, knowing that that energy will feed and nourish those who eat your offerings. To keep my heart centered, I play yogic or uplifting music while I cook.
  • Say grace before meals. Grace is an opportunity for meditation, chanting or a blessing before taking food. Taking a moment to connect with the goodness of the food and how you want it to serve you is the beginning of the process of conscious eating. It is opening a door into a sacred experience. It prepares the mind to receive the food and acknowledges that the spirit of the food is sufficient. My simple blessing is "may this food nourish, nurture, and satisfy me."
  • Food should be eaten without distraction. Stay focused when eating. Eating is part of a conversation with your body. When the body needs food, it tells you with hunger. When that need is met, it also tells you by a decrease in hunger. If you are doing other things while eating, you are not paying attention to this conversation and miss the vital cues that guide you to the place of enough. Just eat - no TV, no reading, minimal conversation - and focus on the real food conversation. When the mind is distracted, food is not chewed properly and emotions that disturb the digestion enter the mind.
  • Food should be taken with a proper frame of mind. The mind should be peaceful. This ties in with eating without distraction so the mind is not disturbed. If you have ever eaten when upset, you can attest to the impact that emotions have on digestion – think upset tummy!

  • Food should be chewed until it’s an even consistency. If the food is not chewed well, the taste is not enjoyed and this disrespects the food. Chewing well also slows down your eating so it has time to reach your stomach and you get the cue about being full before you are stuffed. Lastly, since digestion begins in the mouth, if you don't chew enough, this first stage of digestion is not optimized.
  • Food should be warm. Warm food is more easily digested than cold food. One should not linger too long so that the warmth is lost but also not rush. Naturally there are times when cold foods are taken – usually in the hot summer months or when on a cleanse. However, for the most part, food should be cooked and warm for optimal digestion.
  • Food should be taken that is somewhat oily or moist. Again, although Ayurveda stresses eating all six tastes and qualities within a day, for feeding the body and its systems, oily or moist food is more nourishing to the tissues (typically Kapha foods) than dry foods (more Vata in nature) which are difficult to digest and eliminate. Food that is too oily (fried, coated in grease) is also hard to digest due to its heaviness. Foods that are moist and slightly oily are most grains (but go easy on the crackers, dry cereal, popcorn, rice cakes, etc which are drier forms), most fruits (less dried) and vegetables, dairy products, nuts, some meats. Beans overall are drier and harder to digest. Proper preparation can mediate some of this effect – overall smaller beans are easier to digest than the larger ones – cook in soups or moist gravy type way. Also remember that these guidelines were offered at a time when processed food didn’t exist. So they are not referring to moist and oily processed foods like cake, donuts, ice cream or the plethora of other modern foods of today. Aim for the bulk of your food to be whole foods that is moist and unctuous. Lastly, unlike current thought, the right oil is not only NOT bad, it is in fact part of a healthy diet that keeps our bodies lubricated.
  • Food should not have opposite potencies. Food combining affects digestion. Avoid opposing energetic qualities as well as specific combos which weaken the doshas (life forces) and create ama (toxic, undigested food). While I have left this guideline in, it is more advanced eating and I recommend that unless you have been eating Ayurvedically for a while that you do not worry about it much.
  • Only a small amount of liquid should be taken with meals. Too much liquid reduces the strength of the digestive agni, like putting out the fire. Dry meals, meaning without much natural juice or moisture, require about ½ c water with the meal. Most meals like soup do not require any extra. Other liquids should be taken 30 minutes on either side of eating.
  • Avoid cold drinkswhich weaken the digestive agni. The process of digestion uses heat; therefore cold drinks particularly are counter the heat process at meals. Instead, drinks should be at room temp or a little warm when taken with food.
  • Take food with self-confidence. This means you should feel good about what you are consuming. A lack of self-confidence increases anxiety and interferes with digestion.
  • Eat until you are 75% full. Overeating suppresses the digestive fire, increases heaviness and phlegm, and can create toxic undigested food. Knowing what 75% full may take some time to discover. If it's easier, think of it as a 7 or 7 1/2 on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being stuffed. Ideally the body and mind should feel light and awake following a meal.
  • Take some time to rest after meals. Productivity and strong emotions immediately following a meal will interfere with digestion, vitiate the doshas and increase ama. Ideally one hour rest is ideal to allow the first stage of digestion to be completed. The rest can be a mild walk, reading a peaceful book, or a quiet activity to avoid strong exercise and emotional excitement. At the very least, close your eyes and take several slow breaths before rising.
  • Allow 3 hours between meals for digestion. This is the minimum time to completely digest food. If food is taken too soon, your bodies life forces or doshas become weakened which lays the foundation for disease. You will know that your body is ready for more food based on your appetite, which should not become strong until the previous food is digested. Hunger is your cue that the body and digestive system are ready to take in more nourishment. If you eat when you are not hungry, it means your body is still working on digesting your previous meal and you are essentially interrupting and confusing the process. This is a common issue in our society today. You eat for many reasons that do not have to do with hunger. Before you eat, ask if you are hungry. If not, ask why you are wanting to eat - boredom, anxiety, excess emotion, because it's there, wanting a treat - and explore different outlets to meet those needs.

Looking for more ways to expand your lifestyle habits for a healthier New Year? Join my Natural Self Healing with Ayurveda workshop Sun, January 9th, 12:30-4:30 pm. See details and registration information...