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Role of Diet in Health and Diseases

Food  is one of the main pillars of health and the Ayurvedic sages devoted a lot of study to this subject. They analysed the qualities of the different kinds of foods and drinks and ascertained from the medical point of view their virtues and harmful effects. This was done to a degree which is unparalleled by any other effort in the same direction. It was realized that what one eats is the basis of good health and so it is at the dining tables that one is made or unmade. And health includes not only physical well being but also mental content and positive feeling of joy. But how is one to judge what is good and what is not so?

The modern scientific approach has been based on three considerations. Firstly, foods have been chemically analysed and certain factors have been found necessary for growth, repair of tissues etc. such as fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, all necessary for the maintenance of the body in good order. A second point of view is the metabolic process which requires a certain amount of heat to take place – hence the enumeration of body  needs in terms of calories. Thus, while a person leading a sedentary life requires only about 2700 calories for 24 hours, one doing very hard muscular work requires as many as 5500. In spite of the hullabaloo raised by a recent book “Calories Do Not Count”, this aspect is necessarily borne in mind. From these two follows the corollary that foods must be looked at only from the point of view of these physical needs and the making up of any deficiency that may exist in the system.

As distinguished from this approach, Ayurveda emphasizes the taste of a food to determine the need it fulfils in the body. Thus it recognizes six tastes or rasas viz.sweet, acid, salt, pungent, bitter and astringent. These are related to the three Doshas, in so far as any one with one of the Doshas predominant in him, will show preference for a particular taste, e.g. one having Vatika physical constitution will like sweet, sour and salty dishes more; while another with Kaphaja constitution will like bitter, etc. This is a natural liking caused by the action of various Rasas on the Doshas.

Therefore, when describing foods or drugs, the main consideration is the principal Rasa present in any of them. The Rasa theory there fore forms the fundamental principle of dietetics and drugs. It may however be added that Ayurveda also recognizes seven Dhatus or body constituents, the building of which is made possible by foods of various kinds.

These points show another of the significant differences from the western approach – the so called scientific one. It is noteworthy that the same food may therefore – however nutritions from the scientific point of view – not agree with all persons – even such simple articles of diet as milk or eggs! Some persons cannot take milk at all – however much they seem to need it; similarly, some persons can easily take 3 – 4 eggs a day whereas others cannot take even one a day without inviting trouble in the form of skin eruptions or may be bleeding from their hemorrhoids. It is these facts which the scientific understanding of today has failed to under stand!

Another equally important aspect of the foods which unfortunately is quite ignored by others, is the relation of various items of diet to mental or psychological aspects. In the seventeenth discourse of the Gita, we have, “The food also which is dear to each is of triple character. The sattvic temperament in the mental and physical body turns naturally to the foods that augment life, vitality, energy, vigour, health, joy and cheerfulness and are delicious, bland, substantial and agreeable. The rajasic desire foods  that are bitter, sour, saline, over – hot, pungent, dry and burning and which produce pain, grief and sickness. That which is stale and flat, putrid and corrupt, leavings also and unclean, is the food dear to the tamasic.” Here, then, we have, in brief, the interrelation between what we are and what we eat. Further, food does not merely serve to make good any deficiencies, but plays a positive part in building up the body and the mind.

Coming now to the choice of foods, apart from its depending on the mental make-up of an individual, it should also be homologous with the season of the year. The ancients divided the year into six seasons and one’s diet has to correspond with the weather that prevails. The three seasons, from the dewy season to the summer represents the sun’s northern course and his period of absorption, while the three seasons from the rains to the winter represent the sun’s southern course and his period of liberation. During the former, the sun and the sinds, giving rise to progressive dryness and promoting the formation of three dry tastes, bitter, astringent and pungent, lead to the gradual waning of strength in man. In the second half, the tastes, sour salt and sweet increase and the strength of man also increases. In the beginning and the end of the sun’s period of liberation and absorption, the bodily vigor of man is at its lowest, in the middle of these periods, it is moderate, while at the end of the former and he beginning of the latter period, it is at its highest. The regimen must vary according to these changes, both seasonal and interseasonal.

Another interesting and distinctive feature of dietetics is the recognition of incompatibility between certain foods; if combined they vitiate the blood or by reason of their hyper liquefacient character, tend to cause obstruction of the channels. Atreya insists, for example, that milk and fish of all kinds are incompatible. Similarly the flesh of domesticated, wetland or of aquatic creatures should not be eaten in conjunction with honey, til, gur, milk, black gram, garden radish, lotus stalks or sprouted grains. The list given  is a long one and one wonders at the development which the culinary art had attained n those days as well as at the keenness and breadth of observation which the medical men of those times show. No modern dietetician has ever troubled to find out scientifically the reasons behind such empirical findings.

Another  principle which may be referred to – just to show ho modern Ayurveda is – is ‘Measure in Eating’.  One must eat in measure and this is determined by the strength of one’s gastric capacity – food so taken is digested in due time without impairing one’s health. Whether heavy or light, all foods must be in accordance with this, although heavy foods like pastry, flesh of aquatic and wetland animals and the like must be more moderately consumed. A long list of foods which can be taken regularly and those which cannot be is also given.

We have thus to choose our foods, in keeping with a number of considerations – the most important of which are country, season, measure, body humors, bowel tendency, state of the patient, things to be generally avoided, compatibility, palatability, and richness of quality.

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