In Ayurvedic medicine it is understood that each food has it's own elemental properties, which affect our bodies in different ways. As we are also made of these same elements, in varying proportions, it's great to first establish what imbalance is present in our body, or if we are in good health, what our birth state is (which elements we individually have more of from birth). This will help us understand which elements we personally need more or less of to create or maintain good long term health.
If you would like to have a better understanding of your own unique constitution or the imbalance you may be suffering from I would recommend coming in for a consultation but for now we will look at foods in general and assume we are talking about a generally healthy individual.
What do I mean by balancing foods?
Well as I mentioned, each food has it's own balance of elements and so what we look to do is get a balance of all the elements where ever possible on our plate. This not only ensures that we don't react in any adverse way, as one element inside us becomes too high, but it is also important in order to collect all the necessary nutrients, as each element provides different ones.
We do this already, naturally a lot of the time and that's no surprise as we have been eating since we first existed and so a basic understanding of what our body is asking for runs deep within us. Even if we personally, are not being sent these messages due to a blockage or imbalance, you can see them being passed down in our general food habits. For example, when we eat a heavier carbohydrate such as rice or bread we often have it with a fibrous protein source such as a curry, beans or hummus and lighter food items like leafy vegetables.
These are ways we balance the elements in the carb. Rice for example is high in water and earth qualities (great for grounding and nourishing those with high 'vata' / air in their bodies) so it is usually appropriate to have this with a protein like dal which (depending on the type) is rich in earth and fire qualities, adding vegetables like spinach give us the air and ether qualities creating a completely balanced meal.
Cooling and heating
Foods also have cooling and heating properties which make sense according to the element they contain, for example if something contains a lot of water element (note that is not always the case for foods that look or feel watery) or air element, you can imagine it will usually have a cooling quality, whereas a food containing the fire element will be a heating food. Again within a meal we usually want to balance these effects. If we look at the previous example we can see that rice containing the water element is a cooling food whereas red or yellow dal has more fire quality making it heating. As soon as we start adding spices these have a greater impact on the cooling or heating effect and so these need to be balanced too (most traditional curry mixes will have a range of cooling and heating spices which in the end balance each other). Adding spices to food is a quick, easy way to add more balance as each spice has a strong concentration of elementals providing numerous subtle qualities, which is why they are used as medicines.
It is easier to understand which foods are cooling and heating by thinking about their flavour:
Heating: Sour, pungent (hot spices), salty foods
Cooling: Bitter, astringent and sweet foods
And the appearance could be:
Heating: red, orange, yellow, black, spiked, dry or very oily
Cooling: greens, blues, whites, soft and curvy, wet
Drying and moistening
Dependant on elements, foods also have drying and moistening qualities, again you can imagine that if something has a lot of water element it will be moistening and if something has air or fire qualities or a lot of earth quality it may be more drying. Rice is moistening, whereas most yeasted breads are drying, you only need to experience the food to get a basic understanding. - Bread looks and feels dryer and rice is softer and wetter. Quinoa, oats and buckwheat are all very light, which again shows us they will have a drying effect as they contain air element. Foods with fire element dry things out because heat is drying too.
Tastes that are usually moistening and drying:
Drying: Astringent, bitter, sour, pungent and salty (however small amounts of natural salt can help with water retention)
And the appearance could be:
Moistening: Soft, oily, curvy, dense, heavy
Drying: Rough, light, hard, spiky, bright hot coloured
Here is a clear list of qualities that each element provides:
Light, soft, subtle, cool and abundant.
Provides lightness, energy, inspiration, clarity, creativity, connection, curiosity and insight.
Dry, fast, subtle, cool and light.
Provides, movement, speed, circulation, energy, enthusiasm, initiative, freedom, lightness and communication.
Hot, dry, subtle, rough, sharp, penetrating and light.
Provides ambition, digestion, intelligence, eyesight, drive, focus, efficiency, ego and pleasure.
Moist, cool, dense, soft, oily and sticky.
Provides, flexibility, loyalty, gentleness, kindness, commitment, immunity, fertility, soft skin, protective fat, and relaxation
Heavy, solid, stable, rough and slow.
Provides, stability, calmness, certainty, strength, tolerance and muscle
In ayurvedic medicine we use this knowledge to heal people, each subtle quality and element we put in to our body can have a long term effect on our health and wellbeing and re-connecting with this ancient understanding and knowledge is an empowering way to retain long term health.
Here are some basic tips of how to balance some common food item’s elements and qualities:
- Add nutmeg and black pepper to mashed potato and thyme, rosemary and black pepper to roasted potatoes
- Add cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper or saffron to warm milks
- Cook tofu with warming spices like ginger, cinnamon, allspice, turmeric and black pepper
- Eat green vegetables with high quality fats like olive oil (reducing the drying, rough, qualities)
- Cook apple or pear with cinnamon in order to digest them more easily (water is being balanced by fire)
- Rice with a spiced curry or a rice porridge breakfast made with cinnamon and warming spices
- Avocado with black pepper, salt and lime juice
- Have rough whole grains like bread and pasta with good quality oils
- Have cardamom and coconut milk in your caffeinated beverage to calm the intense heating and penetrating effects
- Have ginger tea with heavy cakes or make the cakes with plenty of spices
- Eat foods that have already been created with a natural balance, such as many Asian dishes including thai green curry and saag aloo