Transitioning into Fall and Winter: The Fall & Winter Vata Diet
by Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.
The long days of summer have passed. The trees have turned color marking the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. The leaves have fallen to create a thick mulch like a blanket to protect the earth against the cold. The plants are going dormant for the long sleep of winter. And everywhere nature is in the process of gathering and storing. It is against this backdrop that we will explore the ayurvedic recommendations for fall and winter. First let’s review the transition from summer to fall.
Summer is known as pitta time, characterized by the combination of fire and water. In early fall, the accumulated fire of summer is released giving rise to the colorful leaf displays. The heat and humidity of summer naturally give way to the cool, drier days of fall. During this transitional time, we want to imitate the natural process and release the build-up of summer heat from our bodies. An excellent way to do this is to eat plenty of apples and pears which are in seasonal abundance. Their soft fiber and mild astringency help clear the bowels and the blood of excess heat. Do this while the days are still warm and the leaves are changing.
When the weather turns cooler and the dried leaves are falling to the ground, we can continue to eat the abundant apples and pears, only then we cook them to guard against the cold weather. At the same time we begin to eat less summer fare like salads and fruits and transition to warmer fare like soups and stews.
Fall is characterized as being cold, dry, light, rough, dispersing, moving and quickly changing. Ayurveda calls this combination of qualities vata or wind. If we continue eating cool and light summer foods into the fall, we can become too cold and too dry. If we don’t take time to slow down we can become worn out and exhausted with excessive movement in the body (think cold shivers). Mentally we are in danger of becoming scattered, unfocused, anxious and fearful (think trembling leaves).
The basic strategy for fall all the way through winter is to apply the opposite qualities of warmth, moisture, nourishment, smoothness, slowness, regularity and focus. Let’s go back to our example of the apples and pears. Apples and pears are naturally astringent, that is cooling, drying, and toning. For the fall and winter, we need to counteract the cooling and drying qualities. So we cook the fruit slowly and add a little cinnamon and organic butter. The cooking and cinnamon provide warmth and the butter provides moisture. Yum!
Every natural quality has its opposite. If we are moving into a cold season or are feeling too cold we apply the opposite quality of warmth to provide balance. An important pair of qualities in our study is expansion and contraction, or dispersing and gathering, which move in a cycle. Let’s take a closer look, then we’ll be ready to understand the diet for fall and winter.
The expanding half of the cycle begins with the spring harvest of shoots and sprouts and culminates with the abundant summer harvest of fruits and vegetables. The fall harvest marks the beginning of the contracting half of the cycle where the food value is concentrated into seeds, nuts, grains and roots before the rest of the plant withers and disperses (the action of vata). The cycle ends with winter which represents dormancy, where the life force is fully contracted before expanding outwards again in the spring. The concentrated forms of plant-life from the fall harvest which are able to withstand the long winter are the key to a healthy fall and winter diet.
In general, the fall/winter diet is called the vata pacifying diet. It features highly nutritious warm cooked foods and drinks. Adequate protein intake and high quality oils are essential. Fall harvest foods like whole grains, seeds, and nuts are known for their concentrated protein and oils. Proteins are building foods that give us the strength to endure the long winter. Oils counteract the dryness of vata and help raise our metabolism to provide more warmth. Well cooked whole grain and bean combos with added high-quaility oils from nuts and seeds, porridges, grain soups, stewed veges and roots, nuts and seeds are the staples.
High quality animal protein is a useful supplement. Organic poultry is one good choice for concentrated protein. Fresh fish is also high in protein and essential fats, but care needs to be taken to avoid environmental toxity and contributing to over-fishing. Beef and pork are considered the most warming, but being highest on the food chain, they are also a potential source of stored environmental toxins. All flesh foods need to be of highest quality and eaten in small portions if at all. Yogi’s will want to avoid eating meat for spiritual reasons. Remember that not just nutrition is concentrated in animal flesh, but also the hormones and emotional primal fear that are released when the animal is killed.
As an alternative to flesh food, an excellent choice is to supplement with organic eggs which are highly concentrated and nutritious. Dairy is another good choice, but is considered neutral to cool in nature. Therefore choose soured and aged varieties or simply use melted cheese or warm milk with spices. Whey protein powder is excellent. If you are deficient in protein you may feel low energy and weak with chronic aches and pains as the winter progresses. (As a special note, vegans must also take care to supplement with B-12. Also, vegan diets and raw food diets are considered too cooling for northern winters. Without animal foods, extra care must be taken to use the seeds, nuts and tonic herbs which are especially warming. Sesame seeds and oil, red ginseng root and ashwagandha root are good choices).
Seeds have special value in the cold months because of their high oil content and warming nature. Many are considered to be carminatives or digestives. When freshly crushed or ground they release their aromatic essential oils. Try adding fennel, caraway, cumin, coriander, mustard, dill, anise, sesame or celery seeds to your soups and stews. In Indian cooking black mustard seeds, onion seeds (kalonji), wild celery seeds (ajwain) and fenugreek seeds are also used. One combination is called panch phoron which is cumin, black mustard, kalonji, fenugreek and fennel seeds. You can also make wonderful digestive teas with your crushed seeds.
Of course seeds are a great source of vegetable oil as well. Remember a key feature of our strategy is to provide moisture. Therefore fall and winter is the time to apply oil both externally and internally to ward off the dryness of vata. Sesame oil is the classic massage oil of ayurveda. First warm the oil slightly, apply from top to toe, exercise a little if you like and take a hot shower or bath to remove the excess. (Remember to clean the bottom of the tub after use to avoid slipping). Any oil or lotion applied to the skin is absorbed into the body (trans-dermally) so make sure it is of good quality and food grade. Two other choices for massage are sunflower oil which is lighter and mustard seed oil which is even more warming than sesame oil.
Sesame oil is also excellent for cooking, as is sunflower seed oil (it has a more neutral flavor). Flax seed oil is not used for cooking but is especially high in the essential omega-3 fatty acids. Try a spoonful or two every day. Other sources of omega-3’s are fish oils, pumpkin seed oil, hemp seed oil and Canadian rapeseed oil known as Canola. Canola is a hybrid product and may cause allergic reactions in some people. Others avoid Canola for political, scientific, and ecological reasons involving genetic modification. And don’t forget seeds for eating. Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are all delicious.
Nuts are also an excellent source of oil and protein. Walnut oil also contains some omega-3’s, though not as much as flax oil. Almond oil and apricot kernal oil are excellent for massage. All nuts, which are harvested in the fall, are excellent and healthful additions to your fall and winter diet.
The best grains are whole grain or minimally processed rice, spelt, wheat and oatmeal. They can be slowly cooked with water, spices and oil. Millet, corn, rye, and barley can be too drying by themselves, so use them less frequently and balance them with other foods. Buckwheat is also drying but has the special feature of being warming. Add a little organic butter or sesame oil and you’re all set!
Roots are another important part of the fall harvest and are divided into two main classes, bitter and sweet. The bitter roots like dandelion, burdock, gentian, barberry, echinacea, golden seal, rhubarb, yellow dock and Oregon grape root are used early in the fall to clear heat from the body and selectively through the vata season to ward off infections. Sweet roots like carrots, parsnips, turnips and rutabaga are used as food and are excellent additions to soups and stews. Other sweet roots are considered to be tonics, strengtheners and immune boosters. They are sometimes added to soups and stews as well or taken as teas or supplements. Try astragalus, ginseng, winter cherry (ashwagandha), wild asparagus (shatavari), Chinese angelica (dong quai), rehmannia, solomon’s seal and wild yam root.
Other important veges are the tubers including potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams and jerusalem artichokes. Please note that potatoes are drying and gassy for some people so be sure to cook them well and add some butter or oil. Cruciferous veges including brocolli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale are also excellent winter foods. They keep well because of their toughness, but need to be softened and well cooked before eating. All the winter squashes and pumpkins are excellent winter foods. They keep well because of their thick skin and are nutrient dense and unctuous.
Fall is a time of gathering and storing. Fruits can be dried for winter use. Tomatoes can be canned for addition to soups and stews. Apples are cooked into apple butter or made into cider. Grapes can be made into wine which has a warming quality. For fresh fruit, we can enjoy the heavier fruits like banana, avocado, figs and dates. Citrus can also be enjoyed in the winter. Try baked grapefruit or add lemon juice to warm water with raw honey. For sweeteners enjoy the nutrient dense ones like molasses, raw honey, barley malt and rice syrup.
We can also gather and concentrate our own vital forces by slowing down and turning within. Let the body become very quiet and still, practice slow deep diaphragmatic breathing and draw your awareness inwards to a single point. Then slowly repeat a seed phrase over and over again in your mind until you become very quiet and peaceful.
In sanskrit, the word for a seed is bija. It is defined as the seed of plants, the seed-corn or grain, the semen of animals, or a short seed sound or mantra. Bija is also defined as the germ or primary cause, the source, the origin and the truth. This last definition, truth, points to the relationship of the seed to what is known as satyam, the level of existence which is beyond time and space, which is permanent and non-changing, therefore considered true. By contrast, we also study ritam, the aspects of existence which are in time and space, therefore impermanent and subject to the cycles of birth, change, and decay. What is it in the seed which is permanent and provides continuity in life if not life itself?
The cycle of life then is seen in the form of the seed or root sprouting or expanding into formed existence, having its day in the sun, and then withdrawing back to the seed or root. Summer represents the expanding movement outwards and winter represents the contracting inward movement back to the dormant seed state. This on-going pulse or rhythm is the breath of life which is forever creating and dissolving the world.