Excerpt from What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen (copyright Rizzoli, 2017)
Imagine putting these people in a room together: an ambitious high achiever, a laid-back pacifist, a quiet daydreamer, a determined activist, and an unflinching pessimist. They may all be great people, but we can’t assemble them and expect a quiet conversation.
It’s the same with food. Every food is good for something, but sometimes eating two good foods together may result in them fighting in your stomach. Who suffers? You! I still remember an unforgettable incident from my days in India. I read in some wellness book that drinking mango milkshakes was good for the skin and for gaining weight. Ever-skinny girly me decided to test this beauty secret. The next day I woke up with such intense diarrhea that I had to cancel my train trip (and lose a ticket I had waited a whole month for!). Lesson learned: never mix mangoes with milk!
To enjoy a healthy relationship with food, you have to learn how to mix and match properly. Great chefs teach us how to match ingredients to layer friendly flavors and create stunning presentation, but if your goal is to make delicious food that you can digest without any problem, there are a few more key points to consider.
Following proper food combinations is especially important for the sick and weak and for those with chronic gut disorders. Mild digestive problems often result from eating conflicting foods and are easily solved by following the suggestions below.
Geographical location. It is important to eat foods appropriate for the climate and altitude you live in. Certain recipes may be good to prepare in some parts of the world but not in others. Countries and cultures include specific foods to support the population in that particular environment, and people from other cultures and climates may not be able to handle the same diet. For example, it would be incompatible to eat traditional South Indian (or any tropical) cuisine during winter in New York City. Or, even in freezing cold New York, it won’t be suitable for us to follow the high-altitude diet of the Afghanistan nomads. The Mediterranean diet has proven to promote longevity locally, but does it work the same in other parts of the world?
Season. It is contradictory to eat dry and cold foods in the winter and sharp and heating foods in the summer. Consult the recipe chapters to select seasonal foods.
Portion (depending on one’s digestive strength). Every person’s digestive strength is unique. Depending on how strong your digestion is, you need to consider the quantity and heaviness of food you consume in one meal. If you have very strong digestion, you may eat big portions of heavy foods, but if your digestion is weak, eating smaller amounts and lighter foods would be best. For a person with weak digestion, it would be incompatible to eat food that is too heavy or oily or too much food in one meal.
Proportions in combining some foods. Specific proportions of certain foods become toxic to the body. For example, equal parts by weight of honey and ghee (e.g., 1 teaspoon honey plus 3 teaspoons ghee) is toxic. So is the combination of equal parts of honey and lotus seed, and drinking very hot water right after eating honey.
Foods incompatible with one’s work. If a person of high metabolism performs heavy manual work or excessive exercise, it is incompatible to eat mostly Airy type foods (dry, cold, rough, light).
Temperature shock. In Ayurveda, we don’t mix very cold and very hot foods, as it’s not good for digestion or the health of your teeth. Your digestion will get confused if you have hot coffee or chocolate with ice cream, drink a glass of ice-cold water at the end of your meal, or drink cold fruit juice with hot tea or coffee.
Method of preparation. Undercooked, overcooked, or in some cases food cooked without spices has a negative effect on digestion; microwaving kills the life in the food; heating honey makes it act as slow poison. These are just some examples.
Palatability. There is no need to force yourself into eating supposedly healthy food while telling yourself “I hate this” with every bite—this alone will cause indigestion. It is much better to enjoy foods that evoke happiness and gratitude.
Good Food Combinations
Based on the concepts of the six tastes, food qualities, and digestion, the following foods commune well in a dish or a meal:
Grains go well with all vegetables, milk, and yogurt.
Legumes go well with grains (especially when cooked with digestive spices), nonstarchy vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, radish, and asparagus), and leafy greens (such as kale, collards, chard, spinach, and lettuce).
Nuts and seeds go well with milk, yogurt, leafy greens, citrus fruits, and sour fruits.
Starchy vegetables (such as winter squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro root) go well with leafy greens and non-starchy vegetables.
Meats go well with light foods, such as non-starchy vegetables, leafy greens, and salads. Most of the common serving methods in Western society (steak and potato, chicken and bean burrito, spaghetti and meatballs, any meat sandwich, fried fish) are not optimal for digestion.
Milk goes well with grains (such as wheat, rice, oats, amaranth, and quinoa), sweet dried fruit (such as dates, soaked raisins), ghee and butter, nuts, spices like turmeric, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, saffron, and vanilla.
Yogurt goes well with grains, nuts and seeds, dried fruit (such as dates, raisins, figs, and apricots), non-leafy vegetables (such as summer squash, cauliflower, broccoli, radish), legumes, honey, and other sweeteners.
Cheese goes well with non-starchy or green leafy vegetables, or eaten alone.
Raw fruits are best eaten alone or in combination with other fruits of the same kind and same predominant taste. For example, it is okay to eat different berries together, or stone fruits and berries, or apples and pears. Fruit combined with nut milks is also acceptable. However, always eat melons alone because their high water content requires a very strong and focused fire to digest them. According to Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda, the only two raw fruits that commune with a meal at lunch are pineapple and papaya because of their high enzymatic properties. Cooked and dried fruits are an exception and suitable to mix with other foods.
Bad Food Combinations
The classical Ayurvedic texts give a long list of incompatible foods that could take days to study. Here I will list only the most common ones for us today—I’ve divided them into two groups: foods incompatible for slow (Earthy) digestion and combinations that lead to bad food chemistry and slow poisoning.
Heavy Foods Combinations to Avoid When You Experience Slow (Earthy) Digestion
Milk or heavy cream with nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers) or eggs.
Yogurt with nightshades or eggs.
Cheese with nightshades, meat, bread, crackers, macaroni, beans, or eggs.
Meat, fish, eggs with dairy (milk, cream, yogurt, cheese), as they are very heavy and cause clogging of the circulatory channels in the body. Ayurveda completely supports the kosher concept of separating meat and milk!
Incompatible Food Combinations That Can Lead to Immediate Indigestion
Milk or heavy cream cause negative reactions when mixed with salt or fresh fruit, and foods of predominantly sour taste (such as fresh fruit, yogurt, cheese, citrus, and tomatoes).
Yogurt causes negative reactions when mixed with fresh fruit, milk, or leafy greens.
Cheese causes negative reactions when mixed with raw fruit.
Raw fruit causes negative reactions when mixed with dairy, cooked food, grains, legumes, salads, or leafy greens (see the above exception for pineapple and papaya).
Cucumber does not go well with lemon because their prolonged “fight” in the stomach could lead to slowly accumulating toxins and calcification. Use cucumber with lime instead.
Resolving Cultural Culinary Confusion
There are many traditional recipes in different cultures of the world that call for mutually contradictory foods. If cheese and beans are a bad match, what do you make of Mexican cuisine? One way to resolve cultural culinary confusion is through the concept of homeostasis: our bodies are coded to do their best to maintain internal stability in order to survive, evolve, and thrive. They carry an intelligence that allows them to adjust and adapt in the face of challenging situations. If you repeatedly consume contradictory foods that do not cause an immediate reaction, your body will find ways to accept such a diet. However, it does come at a price. You may not experience discomfort right away, but in due course, depending on your body’s weak points, eating mutually contradictory foods may result in deep imbalance. People in every culture mix incompatible foods, but we also see prominent diseases in every culture.
You can reduce the negative effects of bad food combinations with the help of spices. Spices enhance metabolism and act as connecting links between ingredients. Even in small doses, spices help reawaken our digestive intelligence.
Food choices are very personal, and I understand that it may be difficult to accept the above suggestions at face value, especially after realizing that you may have been eating incompatible foods your whole life. The guidelines I share in this chapter are purely educational, offering an outlook on food from a digestion point of view; they are not meant to threaten or discourage anyone. The best evidence of what works for you is your personal experience. Some people are more sensitive and get an immediate reaction; others can eat anything without apparent discomfort. After years of not paying attention, I ended up with a bunch of allergies and an autoimmune disorder, and changing my habits to eating compatible foods helped me a great deal. I’ve seen too many allergies in adults who’ve eaten the typical American breakfast of processed cereal with cold milk, fruit, and orange juice for years. I’ve also met too many parents who are desperate to find a cure for their children’s allergies, while the children are served school lunches consisting of a big mismatch of foods supposedly balanced in nutrition but incompatible in Ayurveda: processed grains, meat, cheese, vegetables, flavored milk, and fresh fruit all in one meal! When we continuously give the body conflicting foods, at some point the immune system will sound an alert: “I can’t handle this anymore!” and we develop allergies.
If you are open to improving an eating habit or two, I would strongly suggest you go slow. I’ve heard many wise people say that we shouldn’t incorporate sudden, drastic changes if they make us unhappy. Life and eating are all about balance, and balance is the prerequisite to happiness. So, unless you are deadly ill, don’t suddenly deprive yourself of your favorite incompatible dishes. That would reduce happiness, and being unhappy is definitely not balancing. Instead, begin to incorporate healthy changes in your diet by first trying a few of the simple suggestions for food combinations: for example, start eating fruit only by itself.
You can make food your best friend; you just have to get to know each other. Eating meals of compatible foods will help you to gradually restore your physiological balance and open and awaken your body’s natural intelligence to heal itself. The more open and clean your body is, the less it will tolerate diets or routines that counter its innate wisdom and its alignment with nature.