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Foods for Thought and Thoughts for Food

by Meggan Brummer(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 141 - November 2007

Think back to the last time you were in a restaurant looking at the menu. What most influenced your decision on what to chose? Chances are it was your tongue! All too often our food choices are based predominantly on the preferences of our taste memory. Food experiences etch themselves indelibly in our minds, where the mental impressions can evoke emotional triggers and even fantasies – a clear indication that our bodies are not the only parts of us interested in, and affected by, what we eat.

So what is the evidence for ‘food to mood?’ For thousands of years different cultures have been aware that the nature of the food we eat affects our mind and our state of being. Herodotus, the Greek historian, reported that grain-eating vegetarian cultures consistently surpassed meat-eating cultures in art, science and spiritual development.

India, acknowledged as the ‘Home of Spirituality’, can be seen to support this premise, that diet directly affects the spiritual consciousness of a group, society or nation.

How Food Affects Your Thoughts and Feelings

It was on a Vedic Breathing course in Africa that I was first introduced to the idea that ‘Food is God’. The Indian teacher introduced to me Ayurveda, the Ancient Science of Life, which led me to a deeper understanding, and more complete awareness, of the ways in which foods effect the mind and emotions. Ayurvedic Physicians and Yogis have understood this for thousands of years. They divided the food types and corresponding states of mind into three categories (gunas): sattvic – peaceful, alert yet calm, rajasic – restless, agitated, and tamasic – dull, lethargic, sleepy.

With warrior-like conviction I swiftly eliminated my rajasic and tamasic intake. As you can imagine, I wasn’t exactly the most popular dinner guest, and my hot dates started to cool noticeably! Friends and family rejoiced when I finally loosened up a bit, and decided to use this knowledge of food in a more harmonious way. Instead of simply eliminating all rajasic and tamasic foods, I started using their inherent characteristics. For instance, when I felt sluggish, including some rajasic food with my meal often achieved the desired result.

What to Eat When You Are Feeling Sad

Now get this – when we’re feeling sad or low, it is often simply because our energy (prana) is low. You will have noticed there are times when we’re feeing down for absolutely no perceptible or logical reason. Well, never underestimate the influence that food can have on us. It is entirely possible, for example, that the food which we ate yesterday is still impacting on our mental and emotional state today. If yesterday we primarily ate foods which were predominantly tamasic, it is probable that today we will be feeling rather dull and sleepy.

Sattvic Foods

Therefore, simply eating foods that are high in prana can support us in regaining a positive state of mind. Which foods would those be? Foods that are high in prana are called ‘Sattvic foods’. Sattvic foods are those which not only nourish the body but have a calming effect on the mind. This calm state of mind is, strangely enough, also accompanied by increased mental clarity and alertness, two states not commonly found to co-exist. Sattvic foods are also traditionally easier to digest than the rajasic or tamasic variety, and do not add to the accumulation of toxins in our systems.

Sattvic foods include: fresh vegetables and fruits that grow above the ground; cereals, wholegrains, and foods made from unrefined grains; legumes, nuts, sprouting seeds, honey, herbs (including herbal teas) and some dairy products.

Rajasic Foods

If you are feeling restless, chances are you have been eating too much rajasic food. A certain amount of ‘restlessness’ in us is important; it can propel us to be more active in the world, but an excessive amount of restlessness typically precedes emotions such as anxiety, anger, violence, lust, ambition, sorrow and pain. This is because rajasic foods tend to over-stimulate the nervous system.

Rajasic foods include: spicy, hot, bitter, sour, gaseous and pungent foods. Examples include slated, chemically processed foods, chillies, onions, garlic, green or black teas, coffee, tobacco, fresh meats, alcohol, carbonated drinks, chocolate and refined sugars.

Tamasic Foods

If you are feeling dull and heavy (physically, mentally or emotionally), chances are you have been eating too much tamasic food. Tamasic food is rarely of nutritional benefit either. Long-term ingestion of predominately tamasic food can contribute to more serious conditions like depression, however, even in small amounts it can leave you unfocused, uninspired, and generally pessimistic and listless about life.

Tamasic foods include: stale, fermented, microwaved, canned, reheated, deep-fried, processed foods, and foods which have a lot of preservatives and colouring in them. Examples of this are flesh foods which have not been freshly killed, (typically the whole of the meat section of most supermarkets), eggs and fast foods/junk foods. Food which has been cooked and then left standing for longer than three or four hours will lose most of its prana and become tamasic in nature.

Some of these foods, especially red meat for example, burn considerable energy reserves in the digestive process, contributing to the dull and sleepy feeling already being experienced as a result of absorbing its tamasic qualities. To compound the problem, these are the foods which most adversely affect the functioning of our mental and physical faculties. We just want to sleep, like after a meaty lunch, and often at times when we would prefer or really need to be awake and alert.

What Else Affects Our Minds?

Apart from the types of food that we eat, there are many other things which also have an affect on our minds when it comes to food:

The Mind of the Chef

Each time we prepare and cook something, a little bit of us, our energy fingerprint, permeates the food. When people say they love the taste of something we have made, although they can’t quite put their finger on what it is they like so much, I’ll bet you the mystery ingredient they are enjoying so much is us! It is said that the energetic state of our minds, whilst preparing and cooking a meal, is transferred during the interaction and is imbibed into the food. This energy, in turn, is released during digestion with subtle but corresponding effects on the minds of those who eat it. Ultimately, what we eat is both the cause and the effect of our awareness.

For this reason, I prefer not to prepare a meal if I am feeling stressed. Ideally, I like to chant or sing, even if it is just in my mind, especially during the food preparation stage, but also during cooking. And I am a bit picky about what I sing… don’t really want to be infusing my food with the energy of some Death Metal track about Morbid Angels, etc! What I most prefer is chanting in Sanskrit. These ancient Indian chants have been used by Brahmin priests for thousands of years, and the vibrations resonate beautifully to create both a soothing environment in which to prepare food and imbue it with highly sattvic energy. And if you can’t sing, humming or whistling is always an option!

Where you Eat

Ideally suited for the whole eating and digesting process is a quiet, peaceful environment, with either no music, or else soothing background music. However, if you find yourself eating in a noisy, turbulent atmosphere and it is simply inconvenient, or not possible, to move, mentally accepting the noise rather than resisting, or desperately wishing it would stop, is probably your best option. Learning to retain our peace of mind, especially in peace-less environments is good training for the rest of our lives! Don’t forget, the lily grows in the swamp!

How to Eat

Food has been described as a ‘love letter from God’. If so, it is a letter enquiring about our health and wellbeing, and is best to read by chewing slowly and mindfully. How we eat can also have an effect on the subsequent state of our mind and our overall sense of wellbeing. There is a beautiful story about a saint in China. He was revered all over the country. One day the king became curious and went to visit the saint. He spent days observing the saint, at the end of which he said to him, “Excuse me, I have been observing you for some days now and I cannot see what you do that makes you any different from the rest of us. You seem to be just eating, walking, sleeping, doing those things that everyone does. How is it then that you have earned the title of sainthood and the respect and reverence of all the people?” The saint looked at him with loving, compassionate eyes and replied, “When I eat I eat, when I walk I walk, when I sleep I sleep. But you, when you eat you are thinking, when you walk you are thinking and when you sleep you are thinking”.

How often do we eat whilst doing something else; whether talking on the phone, watching telly, driving, walking, etc. We tend to extend our multi-tasking skills even to meal times, thinking it is otherwise empty or available time which should be ‘usefully’ spent with other activities than just eating. The truth is that the so-called ‘lost’ time we invest in by simply eating is more than compensated by the increased energy and productivity which follows a relished, sattvic and well-digested meal.

And never be tempted to eat while standing, if there are no chairs, better sit on the floor than stand. Always chew each mouthful thoroughly, probably for a few more seconds than you are doing presently, as it will assist you to eat less yet still feel satisfied. And it is definitely worth training yourself to remember to eat at a slow to moderate pace. These are simple instructions, but eating has become such an automatic function, we bring little awareness to the experience. How many times have you suddenly been aware of how much you are enjoying a meal, only to realize you have nearly finished it and wished you had noticed sooner!

Changing these habits are like changing the way we walk – they require a strong commitment to even remember to do them, but perseverance will soon pay off with the increasing sense of wellbeing during and after eating that become increasingly tangible the more we bring such awareness to the table.

Engaging all your senses – remembering to observe all the aromas, flavours, colours and textures – will enhance the experience. The sense of smell is said to contribute to over 80% of the ability to taste! You will observe that people who lose their sense of smell will inevitable lose much of their sense of taste too. However, people who damage their tongues or throats, (the back of which also contains clusters of taste buds,) are unlikely to lose any of their sense of smell.

How Much to Eat

To maintain a peaceful state of mind, it is best to stop eating before we start to receive sensations of being full. Leaving some room in the stomach area is known to aid the process of digestion. The ideal Ayurvedic portion is described as that which we can hold in two cupped hands joined together.

When to Eat

A sattvic state of mind will also support our awareness of when to eat. Eating when we are not particularly hungry, eating at irregular times, or eating when our agni (digestive fire) is weak, will all contribute to negative consequences for mind and body. Here are a few simple guidelines:
•    Only eat when you are conscious of your hunger, rather than conscious of the time;
•    Finish eating your last meal of the day at least three hours before you go to sleep;
•    Eat the main meal of your day when your digestive fire is at its highest – somewhere between mid-morning and early afternoon (preferably no later than 2pm;
•    Be as regular as possible with meal times: hunger tends to arise on a fairly regular cycle, so adjusting our meal times to fall in step with our hunger cycles will soon create a regular pattern.

Healing Properties of Spices

When I first started eating vegetarian food, the first two ingredients I would toss into the pan were always onions and garlic. Both of these are considered more medicinal than nutritional by Ayurvedic dieticians. Learning about their rajasic effect left me feeling pretty gloomy about a lifetime of tasteless food. It wasn’t long before I discovered the wonderful aromas, delightful tastes, colourful expressions and precise qualities of Indian spices. Learning to flavour with skilful blends of Indian spices was not only a feast for the senses, but also a boost for my physical and mental health. And I am still learning about the amazing healing properties inherent in the various and numerous spice families.

Meggan’s Pumpkin and Spinach Dish

This recipe is not just deliciously tasty and easy to digest, but it is also highly sattvic, offering positive effects on both our bodies and our minds.
Ingredients:
Olive oil or ghee (clarified butter)
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp mustard seeds
Pinch of turmeric (yellow powdered Indian spice)
Chopped ginger
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
5 curry leaves
1/4 Japanese Pumpkin
Handful of English Spinach Leaves
2 tsp dark brown sugar
Chopped Coriander
Freshly squeezed lemon juice, just a bit!
Dessicated Coconut
Pecan nuts

Start singing! Then pour 11/2 tablespoons of olive oil or ghee (clarified butter) into a heated pot and lovingly add the spices. Allow them to cook together just a little to enhance each others flavour. Drop in small squares of gently chopped pumpkin and stir until it has fried enough to darken the outside of the pumpkin. Add a cup of hot water; cover the pot with a lid and leave to cook for around ten minutes. Check the pumpkin every few minutes to see how it is behaving. Once it has surrendered to the heat and softened nicely, sprinkle in the dark brown sugar, coconut, and last of all, the spinach. Cook for just another minute or two more and then add freshly squeezed lemon juice, pecan nuts and chopped coriander.

Introduce it to your basmati rice, which you have cooked together with three bay leaves and sea salt to taste. Finish your song and serve.

Satisfies two hungry people!

Acknowledgement

An altered version of this article published was published in the Australian Wellbeing Magazine in 2007.

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About Meggan Brummer

Meggan Brummer (BA Hons) is a health writer, Hatha Yoga and Meditation Teacher, teacher of The Art of Living courses for the International Art of Living Foundation ( www.artofliving.org), singer and traveller. Having taught yoga in Africa and Asia, Meggan now lives and teaches in Sydney, Australia. Although she specializes in Yoga and Ayurveda, Meggan is dedicated to exploring and sharing the myriad of alternative ways in which we can live happier and healthier lives through her writing. She can be contacted on meggan.brummer@gmail.com

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