An Ayurvedic Perspective
According to Ayurveda, everything in the universe has one of three gunas (qualities), known as satvic, rajistic, and tamasic. Satvic means “pure”, balanced. Rajistic is energetic, active. Tamasic is dark, inert. People exhibit gunas: we may be enthusiastic about an idea (satvic), but begin to obsessively strive toward the goal (rajistic), and then we may become exhausted and lethargic due to burnout (tamasic). The gunas in foods change as well; the ripening apple is rajistic, the perfectly ripe apple is satvic, and not long after it becomes overripe (tamasic).
Balance is a dance that is always in motion, tipping out of balance one way, returning, and then tipping another way.
Satvic foods are freshly prepared, light, soothing, and easy to digest. They include fresh fruit, land and sea vegetables, pure fruit juices, nut and seed milk and cheese, legumes, nuts, seeds, sprouted seeds and grains, honey, and herb teas. Satvic foods are prepared with love. They are full of “prana” (life energy); eating them helps us avoid disease and heal more quickly when we do get sick.
In Ayurveda, cow’s milk is considered one the most satvic foods; it is the only food that is freely given. However, this assumes that the milk comes from the backyard cow who is cared for like a family member, who grazes on untreated grasses, and whose milk is whole, organic, raw, non-pasturized, and non-homogenized.
Rajistic foods are hot, spicy, sour, or salty. An excess of rajasic food can overstimulate both mind and body. Rajasic foods include pungent spices, strong herbs, and salt. They also include stimulants like coffee, tea, and chocolate. Eating too quickly is considered rajistic and is bad for digestion (inefficient digestion = malabsorption of nutrients).
Tamasic foods include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, mushrooms, root veggies such as onions, and alcohol/drugs. Processed foods and foods that are prepared by an angry chef are also considered tamasic, as is overeating.
These days, tamasic foods would also include foods subjected to pesticides, microwaved food, canned food, and leftovers (especially if they’re frozen). Tamasic food has little, if any, “prana” (life energy).
Ayurveda would say that when a cow eats rancid, pesticide-laced grain and then we eat the cow, we ingest that tamasic grain in addition to the tamasic steak. By the same token, when a cow is slaughtered, the fight or flight hormones have released fully into his body by the time his throat is slit. When we in turn eat the steaks from that cow, we are taking that in, as well.
It may seem to be an oxymoron that Ayurveda allows meat, while at the same time considering it to be tamasic. Ayurveda is a science of guidelines, not hard-and-fast, black-and-white dictates. We each make the choices that work best for us, then notice how we feel and adjust accordingly. Think of it as a ratio. Most of the time, try to eat for your dosha with a focus on more satvic choices, and the rest of the time, eat/drink the other things you enjoy. “Most” of the time can be 51% or 91%–whatever feels comfortable for you. If you’re uncomfortable, you’re not practicing Ayurveda.
Vegetarians come in a variety of profiles. Some don’t eat anything “with a face”. Others eat seafood (pescetarians), or dairy (lacto: milk and/or ovo: egg) or some combination of the above. Some people practice “Meatless Mondays”.
One reason for eating a plant-based diet is the environment; CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) generate an overwhelming amount of greenhouse gases and pollute nearby waterways. As more land is cleared of oxygen-producing trees to make way for raising beef cattle, it’s hard not to question the sustainability of this practice.
Others eat a plant-based diet because more people can be fed with an acre of plants than an acre of cattle. Raising beef cattle does not appear to be sustainable as the world population multiplies. Check out the wonderful documentaries “Cowspiracy” and “Forks Over Knives” (available on Netflix).
Some vegetarians and most vegans take issue with the treatment of animals who are raised for meat and leather. There is no arguing whether these animals’ lives are miserable, or that their deaths are traumatic and terrifying. Many people are afraid to take a hard look at the origin of their food, fearing that it’s horrific and will reduce their enjoyment of eating what they want. I would argue that it’s irresponsible not to consider the true “cost” of your dinner–including where your dinner came from, that animal’s life and death, and the effects on the planet.
My point of view: Remove your blinders, educate yourself, and then make your own best choices, without judging others if their (educated) choices are different.
Strict vegans (also called “ethical vegans”) eliminate all animal products, including milk and eggs and honey and silk. In addition to their food choices, they are likely support their local animal rescue organization, and to choose fabric rather than leather seats for their cars. They wouldn’t abuse their pets, so they don’t support animals being raised for food — even under relatively “humane” conditions (they might say that there is no such thing).
Vegans need to be very careful about their nutrition. B12 comes only from the gut of animals. Plants don’t need B12 so they don’t store much of it. The plants that have B12 pair the B12 with “analogs” called “cobamides”, which actually block absorption of the B12. Vitamin B12 takes up to 7 years to show up as a depletion, which at that point can be challenging to correct.
Other nutrients in which vegans are often deficient are folate, calcium, iron, and zinc, as well as the long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA, and vitamins A and D. These deficiencies are especially prevalent at midlife and beyond, when malabsorption can be an additional factor.
To maintain their health, vegans need to plan carefully, supplement thoroughly, and do everything possible to keep their microbiome efficiently absorbing the nutrients they take in.
I want to reiterate that Ayurveda does not ask us for sweeping changes in any area. It’s worth repeating: if it’s not comfortable physically/mentally/spiritually, it’s not truly in the spirit of Ayurveda. If you’re moved to make changes, make them gently. I have a friend who wanted to make some changes, but he had a freezer full of beef and a brand new leather sofa, so he hesitated. He felt that he must change everything at once, fearing that inconsistencies made him hypocritical.
Changes don’t have to be all-inclusive or all-at-once. Just choose differently as you make new selections, one baby step at a time, and over time, the trajectory will change. Need warm winter boots? Before you automatically buy Uggs (for example), educate yourself about the newborn lambs that supply those soft skins. Consider whether there are other warm options. Consider whether you can wear them with joy. Then follow your heart.
There is no judgement for the choices we each make, once we’ve educated ourselves. We need to allow each other the space to follow our individual paths. We need to be able to sit down for a meal together and celebrate being together, rather than judging what is on another person’s plate (or on their feet). As Maya Angelou says, “When we know better, we do better”. The onus of responsibility is on each of us to learn the facts and then choose what “better” means, for us.