If you're eating colorful and clean, but still not feeling your best after meals, maybe it’s time to tweak the pairings on your plate. In Ayurveda, good digestion is key to vibrant health — and the concept of food combining is an essential element.
Healthy British foodie, Jasmine Hemsley, has a new cookbook dedicated to Ayurveda called East By West. It includes recipes and tips for incorporating those ancient wisdoms into your daily diet. We asked Jasmine to tell us all about Ayurvedic food combining — a practice rooted in paying attention to what you put into your body and how it responds.
Jasmine wrote up the guide below for us, which is the perfect entry point to this fascinating nutritional topic that proves that even small changes can make a huge impact on how you feel. Let’s dive in to food combining…
About Ayurvedic Food Combining
In Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old holistic health system from India, health starts with proper digestion. Our understanding of digestion in the West is often quite limited — we tend to prioritize what we eat over how and when we eat and prepare our food, whereas Ayurveda focuses on holistic eating and health. So while what we put on our plates is obviously very important, the way we choose our ingredients, prepare our meal and even approach the food all play a role in how well we digest it. This also includes avoiding foods that don’t sit so well together in our bodies.
Fruit is a difficult one: It is almost always a bad idea to eat raw fruit alongside any other foods, because it breaks down more quickly than most. This can lead to fermentation and therefore indigestion. Enjoy seasonal fruit alone or poach, compote or stew it up. Serve it as a topping, ripple, sauce or as the star attraction in dessert or breakfast such as chestnut crêpes with vanilla chai plum compote (page 74 in my book East by West). But be sure to avoid combining with milk or yogurt as much as possible. This is something we love to do in the West — and where indigestion is very much experienced on a daily basis.
As with everything in life, nothing is black and white. Some exceptions to the rule include dates with milk, for example. As for eating fruits together, it’s best to combine those that have similar properties, such as mixed berries, or apples with pears, or various citrus fruits. Vegetables are much easier to work with — enjoy them cooked alongside everything other than milk or fruit.
Dairy certainly has its place in a well balanced and nourishing Ayurvedic diet in small amounts. But when it comes to food, combining dairy can be a repeat offender. However, ghee, the Ayurvedic wonder, works with most foods — especially since it is just the oil rather than the dairy solids and usually eaten in small amounts. Like fruit, milk is generally best enjoyed alone and simmered gently for 10-15 minutes to make it more digestible. Adding spices enhances the digestibility further while making it super tasty, which means you can enjoy milk in chai or as golden milk. You can also use it to make porridge or rice pudding but avoid it with everything else, especially salt, fish and fruit.
Fresh yogurts and cheeses (homemade ricotta and paneer rather than aged smelly salty numbers) are okay, but not together and not with fruit, beans, meat, fish, eggs, milk, hot drinks or nightshades (potato, pepper, tomato, aubergine, cayenne pepper and paprika). That’s why it’s best to use a substitute such as coconut or almond milk while cooking or in your hot drink (if you’re drinking it with other food).
Beans + Lentils
Beans and lentils are notorious for making us feel a tad gassy, but this is not an entirely deserved reputation. Well-cooked beans and lentils, especially when you add digestive spices such as turmeric, black pepper or ginger, are quite kind to your digestion. But be mindful as to what you eat them with. Beans don’t work well with — you might have guessed some of these by now — fruit, milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, meat or fish. They are, however, lovely with grains, vegetables, other beans, nuts and seeds.
Try my favorite Ayurvedic comfort food, which is endlessly adaptable: kitchari. Make it with white basmati rice, split mung beans (mung dal), supportive spices and your choice of vegetables. You can find the recipe on my website or in East by West (on page 184). Lentils (the bean’s smaller cousin) are much easier to digest — you can tell by the shorter cooking time, and especially if you buy the split variety (known as dal in hindi). This version has lost its outer hard shell and is split in the middle making the cook and digest time far quicker. Again, spice up and slow cook this staple of Ayurvedic cooking until absolutely tender — al dente has no place in this philosophy unless you have an incredible Agni or digestive fire, limited stress and plenty of time to chew and savor. Lentils can be enjoyed with milk in a long, slow-simmered pudding or porridge — another reason why lentils are my go-to over beans.
Now, as I mentioned, healthy digestion relies as much on the preparation as it does on the ingredients. As such, favor freshly cooked foods as often as you possibly can rather than reheating or eating fridge-cold leftovers, which have lost a lot of their life force energy (prana) and are prone to making you feel sluggish. On a practical note, if you must have leftovers, it is best to do so within 24 hours and sauté them in ghee and black pepper. Make sure you reheat them thoroughly and avoid adding freshly cooked foods into the mix. Keep it simple!
Similarly, raw foods should generally be avoided as they are very hard to digest. In the summer when we run a little hotter and around noon when our digestion is at its strongest, raw is less of an issue and actually quite welcome from time to time — we all know what it’s like to look for something refreshing and crisp on a hot day. But again, these foods should not be combined with cooked foods, especially not in large quantities. Similar to fruit, this is because our bodies break down raw and cooked foods at very different rates, which can lead to indigestion and reduced energy.
What Does It All Mean?
So, now we’ve heard all the advice — but what does the Ayurvedic philosophy look like as a cuisine? Think delicious soups, stews, hearty food for lunch, light, easy-to-digest comfort food for supper. It’s a warming breakfast to ease you into the day, herbal teas to tickle the tastebuds and boost your immunity, along with deliciously spiced dishes, refreshing herbs and tangy chutneys.
Nurturing a healthy digestion is an ongoing process. When your digestion is strong, you can enjoy an otherwise less-than-ideal combination from time to time because your body is more ready to process it. Don’t make a meal out of a meal, one Ayurvedic doctor told me. This means keep your daily meals simple for your digestion rather than a smorgasbord. This grazing leads you to likely overeat by trying a bit of everything, but it’s also a lot for your digestion to get on board with. But feasts are a part of life.
So when it comes to the occasional social event or if you’re feasting and eating under less-than-ideal conditions, on the move or under stress, employ these tips to limit their negative impact. Adding digestive spices, especially freshly ground black pepper common on our Western tables, to the foods in question can help. Also, having a digestive ginger anise chew (page 103 in East by West) before a big feast to prep your Agni or a little lime and salt — anything to kick start digestion as efficiently as possible — and sip on a digestive infusion (such as fennel tea) after the meal to help it go down.
Remember, Ayurveda doesn’t have hard or fast rules, just a holistic view of health and wellbeing — it’s all about observing how you feel at any given time in the environment you’re in, and acting accordingly, with generosity and patience.