Now that it is finally chilly our bodies are re-calibrating themselves to shorter days, cooler temperatures, more moisture in the air. Naturally we desire warmer, more sustaining, dryer, and even spicier foods to counter the qualities that are becoming dominant in the environment.
This is a perfect time to talk about cooked foods and Ayurveda's insistence on cooked food as the basis of human diet.
Think of a quintessential fall dinner: My choice would be a pile of caramel-y cubes of roasted veg: beets, sweet potato, winter squash. Generously glazed with ghee, redolent with rosemary and smokey salt. Roast meat aromatic with garlic. Silky soothing pumpkin soup. A pinch of bright arugula adding it's punchy bite. Fresh baked grainy bread. A perfectly ayurvedic meal.
Raw food has been all the rage for a few years now. Followers of Ayurveda (and Traditional Chinese Medicine amongst others) have been biding our time. We know that thousands of years of experience has verified that cooked foods are best for modern humans. Only time and experience will prove that raw diets are not sustaining long term. We are not surprised to see clients who eat a lot of raw foods showing signs of weak agni (digestive fire) in the short term and weak tissues, lack-luster physical processes and a tendency for parasites in the long term.
Ayurveda offers us a guideline for eating in a way that will support us for a long life. There are many things to take into account, but the first and most important is make sure that your food is ushna (hot).
Why eat food hot? Firstly because it sparks the agni (digestive fire) by its similar qualities. Agni transforms the food we eat through a process often likened to cooking. This process makes chemical nutrients into biologically available nutrients and heat is required to do this.
I once heard that for every degree under body temperature food takes an additional 10 minutes to digest. Cold and uncooked foods can lead us nowhere but to food rotting in our digestive tract. When agni is fiery we can digest just about anything. But sedentary modern lives mean that we all have digestive systems that need a little help. Interestingly this is one of the original challenges of Ayurveda. Ayurveda developed in a time when humans were just beginning to leave the forests and settle in cities. The huge shift to less healthy ‘civilized’ lifestyles necessitated new ways of preserving health. Consequently Ayurveda developed rules for living and eating for newly urban society and the insistence on cooked food starts here.
Secondly, hot food assists the pachan (digestive) process. Cooking begins the process that agni completes in the body. This is obvious in some foods but true of all: imagine eating a handful of raw rice and black beans. Even soaked they will be unpalatable and take a long time to digest (sprouting is another matter to be discussed later). If you were to eat them raw most of the nutrients will be lost in a human body as we are not designed to break down these substances (leave that to those who chew their cud). But when cooked beans and grain form a valuable food source; one which successfully supports the nutritional needs of most of humanity. The samscara (action which changes the qualities of a thing) of cooking adds agni (fire) to the food. Agni makes food lighter and in many cases dryer. Cooked food is therefore easier to digest. Different cooking techniques are different sanskaras and give food different qualities. Cooking beans & rice in liquid adds fire and water element and softens the food making it easier to break down. Roasting veg or meat in a hot oven adds lightness, heat, and dryness; perfect for balancing cool rainy weather or excess dampness or heaviness in the body.
Thirdly hot food sends Vata in the right direction (thereby calming it). Vata is a fantastic force that animates the body and makes everything happen. Vata moves in specific directions related to each of its jobs in the body. When Vata looses it's proper direction everything and anything can go wrong. A few examples of Vata losing it's direction: constipation, hiccups, asthma. Hot food ensures that vata does not lose it's way.
Lastly: Hot food reduces Kapha. Kapha is the physical stuff of the body supplying solidity and mass. It is what composes both healthy and excessive tissues. It can be responsible for blocking Vata when it is in excess. Think of a stuffy head: Kapha-mucous blocks Vata-breath leading to breathlessness or sneezing. Or constipation blocking the flow of vata’s movement and causing bloating and pain. Heat melts kapha and sends it on its way. So hot food will assist in the process of waste products passing out of the body and not hanging around causing problems. For this reason we always start the day with a cup of hot water.
None of this is to say that you should never eat raw foods nor that raw foods don’t have specific uses and benefits. Obviously there are few things better than a handful of freshly picked blueberries. My Mom’s process of healing herself from cancer involved a year of largely raw foods. She needed raw foods to scrape out all sorts of chemical and heat accumulation and other toxic buildup. My personal sense is that when you have been eating a lot of heavy meaty foods for a long time it feels really good to eat raw for a while. But remember that the last time humans ate a diet of mainly raw foods we were living very differently than we do today. Living outside and exercising constantly allowed out ancestors to digest pretty much anything. But as soon as they got the hang of fire they cooked their food. They knew that you can’t rely on raw food for lifelong nourishment.
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