Western vs Ayurvedic perspective on nutrition: 6 points of debate

If you have been following my newsletters you know that this year has been full of studying for me. A year long clinical nutrition mentorship program with Liz Lipski (PhD in Clinical Nutrition and the author of the must read Digestive Wellness) and a year of deepening my Ayurveda knowledge with Vaidya Atreya Smith. While both approaches to healing have a lot in common, they have quite a few differences.

Today let’s look at some differences of biochemical nutrition and ayurvedic perspective on food and diet:

(By sharing the differences I am not judging either of the systems. Both work and can be very powerful. While nutrition based on biochemical approach tends to be numbers and averages based, Ayurveda sees it more from the energetic and highly individualized perspective)

  1. Various understanding of what a balanced meal is: Ayurveda uses the concept of 6 tastes to inspire well-balanced meals. Biochemical understanding is the basis of modern Western nutrition where carb, protein, fat ratios and mineral and vitamin content become the basis of what should go on your plate. According to ayurvedic wisdom each of the 6 tastes has a role and an action. Taking into consideration prakriti (mind/body constitution), season, age, we can create appropriate taste ratios for the person. In biochemical approach there is no agreement among experts on the recommended daily ratios of carb, fat, and protein. Oftentimes the views are contradicting. Thirty years ago fat was bad, now fat is considered good and carbs are the new enemy. Many sources will give different ratios and they are always generalized for the entire population. When the government tries to determine a ‘recommended daily allowance’ it doesn’t take into account varying individual needs.
  2. Nutrients in food vs individual ability to digest food. Biochemical approach breaks food into good and bad. Questions that interest modern western nutritionists are: Does the food have vitamins and minerals in it? How much? Ayurveda says that what is nectar for one can be poison for another based on individual needs, strength of Agni, climate, age, etc. As a result there are very few foods that Ayurveda would name ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for everyone. We would need to know if the person can digest the food, not just the mineral and vitamin content of food to determine if it is appropriate of not. According to Ayurveda Agni “the digestive fire” needs to be in balance to ensure correct digestion. Agni is responsible of the enzyme function in the body. So the ayurvedic practitioner would ask: Given that the food is whole and natural, can a person digest the food and assimilate it properly based on their digestive capacity, age, climate, time of the day, current levels of ama (toxins)?
  3. Consideration of the effect of food on the mind and emotions. In Ayurveda food is broken down into Sattva, Rajas and Tamas with their relative effects on the mind and emotions. I wrote about it in the Happy Belly Book in more detail. In general, according to Ayurveda, various foods will either help to create a clear perception and a stable mood, invoke aggressiveness and ambition, or can lead to depression and a lack of mental sharpness. Biochemical nutrition is only coming to that and it is still not commonly talked about. There is more research coming out about the connection of processed food and depression, anxiety, and brain disorders.
  4. Consideration of food combining or antidoting with spices. Ayurveda talks about balancing or antidoting capacity of spices and cooking methods. There is no concept like this in biochemical nutrition. Food combining is another big tenet in Ayurveda. By avoiding hard to digest combinations we can support optimal digestion and elimination according to Ayurveda. Biochemical approach doesn’t consider poor food combinations or various digestive capacity of people as a result there is no consideration of possible antidoting foods with opposite qualities.
  5. General needs vs individualized needs. While this is changing with genetics and functional medicine, Western medicine and traditionally trained doctors believe in averages vs individualized approach. Therefore recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals that Western medicine relies on according to Ayurveda is not very helpful. According to Ayurveda various dosha types will have various nutritional needs. Climate, age, activity levels, current imbalances will also play a role.
  6. Western nutrition relies on calories to measure the energy of food vs Ayurveda relies on Prana or life-force present in food. Having a low calorie diet should lead to weightloss according to western nutrition which doesn’t respect the potential long term effects of food on metabolism. For example, having a low calorie fruit diet which overtime can lead to Kapha imbalance and slow down the metabolism. Functional medicine is changing the understanding of this but it is not widely accepted by regular Western doctors. A lot of modern diets also rely on low calorie bars, snacks, and frozen meal which according to biochemical understanding should provide nutrients and energy in terms of calories. However, according to Ayurveda food that is prepackaged in bars, powders, or frozen meal is void of Prana. Prana is life energy and it comes from fresh, local, seasonal food. Food rich in Prana creates better quality tissues and nourishes on deeper levels.

What are your thoughts? Do you count calories or prana? Do you believe in the healing and digestion-balancing capacity of spices? Would you rather think of protein and carbs or various tastes?

I would love to hear from you!

As always, I encourage you not to rely on the outside knowledge solely but to check in with your inner scientist. What has served you best in the past? Which meals make you feel your best? Please share in the comments!

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