Now that you appreciate the importance of digestion and metabolism for healthy tissues and growth of consciousness, let’s apply that knowledge to the challenge of keeping warm in winter.
The Principle of Similars and Opposites
Remember that Ayurveda works with observable qualities according to the Principle of Similars and Opposites. Substances with similar qualities produce an increase; those with opposite qualities produce reduction. Throughout late fall and winter, the words bitter cold, dry, rough, barren and windy may often come to mind. If you suffer from dry skin, your problem is most likely worse in this season. These qualities aren’t random. They reflect a deep property of the phenomenal world connected with Movement. Later, we’ll see that Movement, Structure and Transformation (metabolism, work, etc.) are the most fundamental properties in creation.
In applying the Principle of Similars and Opposites to the seasons, the obvious thought is to dress for the weather. When it’s cold out, wear warm clothes. While this may seem ridiculously simple, why is it so difficult to teach to children? Even adult thinking is subject to corruption: don’t let fashion trends lead you to reject the old adage, if your feet are cold, put on a hat. Indeed, socks will help too. And remember to protect yourself from the wind.
All this is necessary but not sufficient. If you really want to be comfortable, also pay attention to your diet so you can warm yourself from the inside out.
The Magic of Comfort Foods
In winter, many gravitate toward “comfort foods”. Some do this naturally and others under the influence of cultural traditions. Comfort food is hearty, filling and deeply satisfying. It actually does a good job of counteracting the chill of winter. What makes it that way?
When we deconstruct recipes, we find liberal use of heavy foods (e.g., animal flesh, eggs, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, root vegetables, avocado and nuts), oil and salt along with sour accents and the sweetness of grains like wheat, rice and oats. This combination brings qualities opposite to the season to help maintain balance in our physiology. Salt and sour stimulate our digestive fire. Oil and fats lubricate the body and counteract dryness.
The Six Tastes
It turns out that there are six “tastes” that categorize the primary qualities of food and herbal remedies. In addition to sweet, sour and salty, Ayurveda identifies pungent, bitter and astringent (see table). We can easily know taste from the initial contact with our senses.
|Sweet||Sugar, honey, cereal grains, sweet fruits, carrots, beets|
|Sour||Lemon, tamarind, amchur, sumac, yogurt|
|Salty||Mineral salt, black salt, condiments|
|Pungent||Hot spices, peppers, radish|
|Bitter||Most green vegetables|
|Astringent||Legumes, walnuts, honey, turmeric|
That’s not the end of the story. Food also has an “after-taste” that reflects the final effect on the body. In addition, it has a quality termed “potency” that is known from what happens in between the initial taste and the after-taste. Finally, substances may have a special property that can’t be predicted from these qualities which may give unique value. For example, some poisons are antidotes to other poisons.
Interestingly enough, Ayurveda values delicious food, but does not consider what scientists now call umami as a taste. Conversely, western science has not identified a taste bud receptor specific for astringent or pungent. Looking at the broad scope of foods with umami (http://www.umamiinfo.com/), I’m struck that the category is not particularly helpful in terms of nutritional choices. In other words, we shouldn’t confuse the Ayurvedic concept of taste and its associated role in physiological balance with the underlying biochemistry.
For now, it’s enough to appreciate that it is important to have all six Ayurvedic tastes in the diet on a daily basis, particularly at the main meal. By including all six tastes, we get better nutrition and thereby prevent cravings. The modern American diet commonly lacks the astringent taste.
In practice, we vary the proportion of the six tastes in order to maintain balance given the influence of the seasons. Since winter is so dry and cold, most of us need to moderate the amount of pungent, bitter and astringent foods that we consume at this time. With legumes, select the smaller varieties such as lentils and mung beans over chick peas, black beans, pinto beans, etc.
Dietary Secrets to Staying Warm in Winter
- Choose unctuous, warm, freshly-prepared food and warm beverages
- Favor sweet, sour and salty tastes
- Make lunch your main meal
- Moderate your intake of hot chilies, bitter vegetables, and legumes
- Dial down raw foods and iced drinks
Having explained the value of comfort foods in winter, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the problems that they may create for those who are struggling with weight control. So we’ll look at that together next time.
Coming Next: Sustainable Weight Control
Marc Edwards, MD