“The life of all being is food, and all the world seeks food.”
— Charaka, 1-2 CE
How does one really know how to eat properly? There are so many different diets available. Which one should you choose? Fortunately, we have information based on common sense and a long history of effectiveness. Ayurveda is the earliest form of medicine on our planet, originating in India more than 5,000 years ago, which provides us with nutritional wisdom of the ages.
Ayurveda tells us the tastes in food and herbs stimulate our nervous system through chemical reactions which begin with our tongue. Our nervous systems contain sensory neurons, called nociceptors, that respond to different types of stimuli by sending nerve signals to the spinal cord and/or brain. Different types of stimulation of a nociceptor will lead to different responses, such as the sensation of heat. When we say a food or herb has a “heating” taste, it means the effect of that food or herb is heating. It does not mean the herb actually imparts heat to the body.
Because most people are unaware of the impact of Tastes, we each tend to choose foods according to craving: an emotional choice, known as “crimes against wisdom” in Ayurveda. According to the ancient system of medicine, foods should ideally be chosen for the properties that can help keep us healthy. Most likely, taste is the way ancient herbal medicines were discovered and used. Taste and smell are probably how animals know what herbs to eat when their bodies need some help.
In Ayurveda there are six Tastes which should be consumed daily: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, and Astringent, each of which is dependent on the Five Phases of Ayurveda.
Sweet foods are called “comfort foods” because of their soothing and smoothing qualities. The Sweet Taste is important, as it provides nutrients to maintain our bones and cellular structures. The Sweet Taste also has a cooling property, which is why many prefer to eat more fruit in the summertime. Foods that are considered Sweet do not actually need to have a sugary sweet taste. Animal-based products are especially Sweet due to their excessive protein and high caloric content. Consuming too much of the Sweet Taste can result in weight gain and excessive fat or water weight.
Examples of the Sweet Taste:
The Sour Taste helps to improve metabolism and digestive ability. With increased metabolism comes an increase in energy and heat, which can have a drying effect on mucus or a damp quality in the body. However, consuming too much of the Sour Taste can result in a dry mouth, excessive thirst, and weight gain.
Examples of the Sour Taste:
The Salty Taste helps to transport moisture into the body and has a softening effect on the body’s tissues. It also has a quality of heat that helps digestion. Consuming too much of the Salty Taste can have a laxative effect and make you feel thirsty and dry. Excessive amounts of the Salty Taste may cause nausea or vomiting, wrinkled skin, burning sensations, and loosening of teeth.
Examples of the Salty Taste:
More so than the other Tastes, Pungent conveys the quality of heat and dryness. Think of cayenne pepper and other warming spices such as garlic. The heat imparted by the Pungent Taste improves digestion, burns up mucus, and reduces dampness – this is why we use spices in our foods. However, the heating quality of the Pungent Taste can cause burning sensations, thirst, depletion, and dizziness. The dizziness comes from the uprising of heat, just like you can observe heat radiating from a hot sidewalk in the summer. The same thing happens in the body if there is too much internal heat.
Examples of the Pungent Taste:
The Bitter Taste has significant cooling and moving effects and, therefore, an ability to alleviate heaviness in the body. The cooling effect of the Bitter Taste helps detoxify by reducing heat (infection and inflammation). The moving effect helps digestion by moving food through the system, keeping it from stagnating and accumulating. If too much of the Bitter Taste were to be consumed (which is rare since most diets lack this Taste), one might experience emaciation, weakness, rough and dry skin, and dizziness.
Examples of the Bitter Taste:
The Astringent Taste has a drying effect on the body and can alleviate a runny nose, decrease excessive sweating, and tighten and constrict tissues. Eating too much of the Astringent Taste may cause dry skin, constipation, and thirst.
Examples of the Astringent Taste:
How to Eat for the Different Seasons
Ayurveda instructs us to eat the foods that are opposite to the season we are currently experiencing. For example, during the cooler season that is coming up, one would eat more warming foods (Sour and Pungent Tastes) and avoid the cooling foods (Sweet and Bitter Tastes). If the weather is cool and damp (winter), one would eat more warming and drying foods (Sour, Pungent, and Astringent Tastes). In summer, one would eat more cooling and perhaps moistening but light foods (Bitter, Sweet, Salty, or Astringent)
|Spring||Dry, Cold||Sweet, Sour, Pungent|
|Winter||Cold, Damp, Heavy||Sour, Pungent, Astringent|
|Summer||Dry, Hot||Sweet, Salty, Bitter,|
|Summer||Hot, Damp||Bitter, Astringent|
The idea behind balancing the Six Tastes at every meal is not only to maintain health, but also to inform your taste buds—and, subsequently, your brain—that you have received an adequate amount of nutrition. Balancing the Six Flavors satisfies your physical system making you less likely to overeat. With autumn and the holidays coming up, keep the Six Tastes in mind to help keep you from overeating and gaining weight.