Cooling the Heat by Cleaning the Digestive Fire

By Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya

In ancient times, the main ingredients of a summer diet were prepared only after observing the qualities of the climate in the local area, the foods that grew naturally in the season, and the person who was eating the meal.

Small adjustments to meals can prepare perfect food for any person. The main qualities to personalize food calculate three main factors, the heating and cooling effect needed in the body, the heavy-to-digest vs. easy-to-digest items, and the moisture produced in the body from certain foods that are drying vs. oleifying.

Vata and Kapha body types and disease situations require heating. Pitta body types and disease situations require cooling. People with low digestive fire, or with inflammatory diseases in which the immune system spends energy creating inflammation instead of digesting food, require easy-to-digest foods. People with deep hunger who typically need large meals require foods that are more difficult to digest to keep their strong digestive fires busy. People with Vata and pitta body types and disease situations do better with oleifying foods, whereas people with Kapha body types and disease situations do better with drying foods.

Foods were prepared in ways that were light to digest, easy for the low digestive fire to still completely digest all that was taken in. Plenty of natural liquid preparations dominated the summer diet both to prevent dehydration and to contribute cooling particles to the body. Paanaka and sharbat (think sherbet) made of natural fruit juices with no heating substances added in fulfilled the needs of the hot season and came as a gift and blessing in summers. These foods prevented disease complications that could occur in our physiology from the dry-rough heat affecting our inner body.

Some general guidelines for people with Vata body types and Vata disorders are to eat a native grain as the first food in the morning, to drink moistening hot liquids and avoid dry, astringent drinks in the morning, and to eat easy-to-digest foods. Instead of black coffee as the first drink, choose hot water with a half teaspoon of ghee, or a mix of digestive herbs boiled in water, known as kwath or decoction.

Native grains are the whole grain that a person grew up with, what they ate as their biochemical factory developed during their first 6 years of life. Grains are the building blocks of the tissues of the body, such as corn if one grew up near Mexico, quinoa if one grew up near South America, wheat if one grew up near northern Europe, buckwheat if one grew up near Russia, China, or northern Japan, oats if one grew up in Europe or northwest Africa, and rice if one grew up near most parts of the world that have rice. Native grains align with and determine our digestive machinery early in life, and if you observe closely you may find that when you are tired or ill, you will love those foods that you had in childhood, partly because they are easy for You to digest. This is part of the equation of personalized nutrition, known as oka-satmya in Ayurveda.

Pitta body types and those with pitta disorders need foods that are cooling, fresh, and sweet, such as whole grains, coconut, cucumbers, apples, grapes, pears, melons, and gourd-based vegetables. Food that is cool in temperature is not always cooling once they get into the body, so the ayurvedic list of foods that list specific properties of heating, oleifying, and digestibility is the list to use as reference, not just listing Vata, pitta, Kapha.

Kapha body types and those with Kapha disorders need foods that are easy to digest, warming and drying the body when they get inside. Drying grains because they have been roasted such as whole flattened rice (poha) or dried then soaked to make them digestible such as millets are great for Kapha types. Drying fluids such as hot black coffee melt and dry the mucous out of the body. The key is to understand which processing of foods changes which qualities. Roasting, baking, and toasting add dry heat. Frying, sauté, and poaching add moisture and oiliness, and moist heat.

These nuances were understood by ancient ayurvedic physician-chef-chemists who created recipes that have been passed down largely unaltered as culture-based foods. Yet they have a profound understanding of human physiology and underlie the unparalleled wisdom of food-as-medicine.

Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya

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