Maintaining your health and even healing through your diet is a big concept in Ayurveda. We are made of the 5 elements, and we need all of the 5 elements to build and renew our body continuously. This means you want to include all of the elements in your meals.
How to make sure your meal is complete and gives you what you need?
A very practical and accessible tool to use is choosing your foods through the tastes. In Sanskrit, taste is called Rasa. Rasa is the taste that is clearly perceived when placing a substance on the tongue. Although also all foods contain the 5 elements, they usually have one or two elements in abundance. Every taste has a specific effect on the body and mind.
The 6 tastes
Sweet is made up of the elements of Earth & Water. It is the flavor of strength, energy, and stamina. Substances with the sweet taste are anabolic, they build, nourish and heal all the tissues. Sweet foods feed your Ojas, the basic immunity of your being. Sweet substances are pleasing to the body and the senses. The mood of the sweet flavor is love, compassion, and sharing. The qualities often associated with sweet are cold, heavy and wet. Food examples are grains, rice, nuts, seeds, sweet root vegetables, meat, milk, cheese, sweet fruits and dates.
Sour is made up of the elements of Earth & Fire. The sour taste promotes moisture (like saliva and bile secretions) and kindles the digestive fire. Eating something sour can increase your appetite. However, if taken in excess it can create emotional reactions like envy and greediness. Sour is also anabolic, it builds the tissues, but is known to be detrimental to the reproductive tissues. The qualities usually connected to the sour taste are oily, hot and light. Food examples are sour fruits, lemons, vinegar, fermented food, yoghurt, and wine.
Salty consists of the elements of Water & Fire. Like sour, the salty taste creates moisture and heat and aids in digestion. Because of the heavy qualities, the salty taste is known to be grounding: it brings you back on your feet. The salty taste is also anabolic. The qualities associated with the salty taste are wet, hot, heavy and penetrating. Food examples are sea vegetables, natural salts, black olives, tamari, celery.
Pungent is made up of the elements of Fire & Air. The pungent taste kindles the fire and helps digestion and metabolism. It also aggravates your emotional heat, like feelings of anger, frustration and passion. The pungent taste is catabolic, it destroys tissues. The qualities of substances that have the pungent taste are mostly hot, dry, light, and penetrating. Food examples are chilies, garlic, onions, black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon.
Bitter consists of the elements of Air & Ether. It drains and dries fluids from the system and creates space in the body. Bitter is also catabolic, used to take something away from the body. Because of those qualities, bitter is often used to detox the body or as a medicine. Any substances that have abundant fire, air and ether are considered to be toxic to the human body. Think of alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, drugs. Medicines, however, also mainly consist of the catabolic tastes and because of that we usually don’t like the taste of medicines. They are also to be taken in only small amounts and for a specific period of time. Any drug can be a medicine and any medicine can be a toxin.
Mentally and emotionally, the bitter taste can leave you spaced out and ungrounded when taken improperly. The qualities often associated with sweet are dry, light, cold and clear. Food examples are dark leafy greens, turmeric, green and black tea, coffee, chocolate.
Astringent is made up of the elements Earth & Air. When you eat something astringent, you can really feel the dryness of the earth element in your mouth by contraction of the taste buds. The astringent taste reduces and dries, and is catabolic in nature. It holds tissues together and neutralises bacteria. The qualities of astringent substances are usually heavy, cold and dry. Food examples are beans, unripe banana, pomegranates, cranberries, green beans and alfalfa sprouts.
How to work with the tastes?
Ideally, your meals should have all 6 tastes, to nourish all the tissues of the body and to support the digestive process. The body in its solid structure, however, is mostly Kapha. Kapha is Earth & Water which means that to support the bodily structure, the main ingredient of your meals should be of the sweet (neutral) taste. In general, the biggest part of the meal is of the sweet taste, then add smaller parts of sour foods, smaller part of salty foods, etc. until a minimal part of astringent foods.
But in case you want to balance an imbalanced Dosha, your Agni is not optimal or there is a disease, you can modify your diet and focus more on one of the tastes. Also, in the season when a specific Dosha is in a natural high, you can adapt your diet to soothe that particular Dosha. The knowledge of the tastes and related qualities can serve you to make the best choices in a specific condition.
By looking at the elements and the qualities related to the tastes, you can match the tastes and elements to the Doshas. Remember, the general rule is: like increases like and opposites balance. Take control of your health and use the tastes wisely to regain and maintain your balance!
“The life of all living beings is based on food, and all the worlds seeks food. Complexion, clarity, good voice, long life, understanding, happiness, satisfaction, strength and intelligence all comes from food.”Charaka Samhita