Glad All Over: The Nourishing Diet
by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay
The nourishing diet has a special place in ayurvedic practice. It is usually discussed in the context of cleansing and nourishing, or diet and nutrition. The logic is that there is an alternation between the two. Generally speaking it is wise to cleanse first in order to prepare the body to receive deeper nourishment. You can simplify your diet for two weeks or perform a short juice fast as a preparation. The exception is for someone who is too weak to cleanse, for example when convalescing from an illness. Then the rule is nourish first to gain enough strength to cleanse.
Another name for the nourishing diet is the tonification diet. It tones and builds all the tissues of the body. One aspect of tonification is a specialty of ayurvedic practice - rejuvenation. The idea here is we can actively build our health and restore lost vigour, rather than simply fight illness after it is formed, or prevent illness from forming.
The nourishing diet is referred to as brimhana which comes from the verb root brih - to be thick, grow strong, make heavy and increase. It is known as the gladdening diet. I think of it in terms of “brimming” over with good health and good cheer - glad all over.
The indications are for gaining weight, to build strength, for convalescence, after periods of extended travel, after a period of intense exertion, grief, overwork or other stress, after giving birth, after cleansing or fasting, to counteract a poor diet, and for rejuvenation.
Counter-indications are for over-weight, poor digestion, conditions with stagnation and congestion (termed ama), and many specific illnesses.
Proteins: Proteins make excellent building and strengthening foods. Use high quality dairy, meat, fish and eggs. Meat soup or broth is preferred in ayurveda for building strength, especially during times of convalescence. I guess the idea of chicken soup goes way back! The Charak Samhita (CS), one of the classic textbooks of Ayurveda says: “For all living beings, meat soup is nourishing and refreshing. This is regarded as nectar for the dehydrated, during convalescence, for the emaciated, and for those desirous of strength and lustre. Meat soup prepared accordingly alleviates many diseases. It promotes voice, youth, intelligence, power of sense organs and longevity. The persons indulged in physical exercise, sex and wine do not fall ill or become weak if they take diet with meat soup regularly.” (CS I.28: 312-315). Notice that rather than eating large quantities of meat by itself, the preferred method is to make soup where the meat can be balanced by vegetables, herbs and spices. In a similar way, fresh raw milk can be diluted and boiled with herbs and spices and then cut with raw honey to provide a nourishing easy-to-digest drink.
Grains: Whole grains are preferred, especially wheat, oats, brown rice, and kitcharee (a well-known combination of spices, ghee, basmati rice and split mung beans). Kitcharee is sometimes called the chicken soup of ayurveda and serves as a vegetarian alternative to the meat soup described above. During convalescence gruels are recommended. They range from thick to thin, with thin considered the easiest to digest. They are sometimes combined with digestive spices and/or medicinal herbs and roots. Traditional Chinese Medicine calls them congees.
Beans: Beans are good for their heavy quality if tolerated. They need to be soaked and well-cooked with some oil or oil added after cooking to counteract their dryness. They can also have their husks removed and be split or ground to improve digestability. Good choices include mung beans, bean sprouts, chick peas, tofu, and black gram.
Oils: High quality oils are one of the keys to the nourishing diet. The diet as a whole should emphasize high quality proteins, carbs, and fats which are known as the heavy food groups. They need to be taken according to one’s comfortable digestive capacity and balanced by appropriate veges, fruits, herbs and spices (the light food groups). Essential fatty acids come from fresh fish, fish oil, flax oil, borage oil, and walnuts. Other choices are organic ghee, butter, sesame oil, olive oil, and almond oil. Fresh nuts and seeds of all kinds are excellent in small portions. A classic ayurvedic preparation is to soak ten almonds overnight, then peel them, chew thoroughly, and enjoy! Oil can also be applied topically to bolster the body, lend strength, nourish the skin, and provide lustre. An old saying is “you can pay the oil-man now or the doctor later.”
Veges: Good choices are starchy veges, root veges, and unctuous veges. Organic veges and fruits contain a fuller spectrum of trace minerals which are missing in many diets. Try organic sweet potatoes, yams, potatoes, parsnips, squash, cucumbers, beets, Jerusalem artichokes, artichokes, lotus root, okra, and onions cooked in ghee. Fresh vege juices can be taken between meals for their enzymes and prana. Occasional salads are acceptable especially if well-oiled.
Fruits: The heavier, more nourishing fruits are organic fresh figs, dates, mangoes, papaya, raisens, bananas and avocadoes. Also good are berries, grapes, and cooked apples.
Spices: Fresh ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, garlic, fennel, and cumin are especially helpful to support digestion and balance the heavy nature of the above foods. They are best added to ghee and cooked with veges, grains, and/or beans. They can also be made into digestive teas or taken in pill form. Also use a good quality rock salt or sea salt.
Sweeteners: The sweet taste is one of the keys to the nourishing diet. This taste is included in all the proteins, grains, beans, oils and sweet fruits and veges listed above. In general, the sweet taste is said to give coolness, moisture, heaviness and satisfaction. For added sweeteners, complex sugars are recommended. Try raw unrefined sugar, sucanat, jaggery, barley malt, maple syrup, honey, molasses and rice syrup. Simple sugars are not recommended.
Supportive recommendations: The nourishing diet is supported by taking time off to rest more, relax, and enjoy. Sleep freely. Spend time in nature. Walk barefoot on the earth, spend time in gardens, green places, and the woods. Take a vacation by the seashore or visit the mountains. Gaze into the starry sky at night and bask in the moonlight. Turn off the computers and the phones. Slow down.
The rejuvenation diet is a special form of the nourishing diet known as rasayana. It is the same as above, only with no meat, garlic or onions. Ayurveda teaches that meat can cloud the mind (tamas) and fuel unrest and excessive desire (rajas). The rasayana approach focuses on building mental clarity and the vital reserves of the body known as ojas.
Ojas comes from the verb root vaj, to be strong. Related words are vigour, august and vitality. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is referred to as ching or jing. It refers to the vital essence of all the bodily tissues and is the product of perfect digestion and assimilation. It is likened to honey which is formed from the essence of all the fruits and flowers. It is the refined form of the water element, and is said to maintain and support the life-force.
Ojas foods: All the foods above can increase ojas if properly prepared, well-chewed, and eaten sitting down in a relaxed atmosphere with gratitude at regular mealtimes. Overeating must be strictly avoided.
Tonic herbs and special foods: Certain foods are considered especially good for building ojas. They include ghee, raw honey, sesame oil, blanched almonds, dates, figs, organic milk, saffron, pumpkin seeds, yams, mung beans and essential fatty acids as in flax seeds and walnuts. Some examples of tonic herbs that build ojas are ashwagandha, shatavari, ginseng, wild yam, tang gui, aloe, amalaki, astragalus, and marshmallow root. Tonic herbs are sometimes added to soups and gruels, made into teas, or taken in tablet form. They are sometimes combined with almonds, seeds, complex sugars and/or aromatic spices into various pastes and confections. A classic rejuvenative combination is Chavyan Prash, an herbal jam made from ghee, honey, spices and tonic herbs.
According to the Charak Samhita, “When the ojas is diminished, the person is fearful, weak, worried, cheerless, rough, emaciated, having disorders of the sense organs with pain and loss of complexion...Excessive exercise, fasting, anxiety, rough food, undernourishment, exposure to wind and sun, fear, grief, ununctuous drinks, vigil, excessive discharge of mucus, blood, sexual fluids, old age, and injury - these are the causes of diminution of ojas.” (CS I.17: 73, 76-77). “One who wants to protect... the ojas should avoid particularly the causes of the affliction of mind...(and) regularly take the measures which are conducive to the heart...serenity of mind, and knowledge.” (CS I.30: 13-14)
Thus, in addition to the foods and herbs, the practice of the eight rungs of yoga - yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, concentration, meditation, and silence - is recommended for rejuvenation of the body, mind and spirit. In what is known as brahma rasayana, a spiritual retreat of at least one month is recommended. The knowledge mentioned above refers to the realization that we are part of the whole, that we have the source of life within us, and that the life of the spirit is immortal. So here is to the constant renewal of good cheer and joy from that well-spring of life within. With the support of nourishing food, fresh air, and loving-kindness may you be glad all over.