This is one of the most commonly asked questions in our cooking classroom.
It is easy to understand why to avoid meat, but giving up onions and garlic—that’s shocking news, even among the healthy eaters!
“I thought they were good for you.”
“I know someone who’s been eating raw garlic every day; he’s in his nineties and in perfect health.”
“My food will be really bland if I skipped those two.”
To make it more confusing, most of the Ayurvedic cookbooks have recipes with onions, garlic, and other members of the allium family, such as scallions, shallots, and leeks.
Yes, it is true that onions and garlic have many healing properties, among them:
- They lower high blood pressure
- They reduce high cholesterol
- They are a blood-cleanser
- It is anti-fungal, antibacterial
- It is a natural antibiotic
- It is an aphrodisiac; increases sperm count
Unfortunately, onions and garlic also have negative effects, and as a health-conscious cook you should be aware of them. You see, Ayurveda helps us understand the pharmacodynamics of ingredients on deeper, more subtle levels than modern neutraceutical logic, which focuses on the ingredient content and immediate chemical composition and effects.
Let us first look at the distinct chemical compounds of these bulbous plants. Any cook knows that chopping an onion stinks and stings. Why is it so? Dr. Eric Block gives the answer in his book “Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science.” Garlic cloves produce a chemical called allicin (2-Propene-1-sulfinothioic acid S-2- propenyl ester), which is responsible for their strong pungency and aroma. Garlic can get into the eyes and mouth even if a clove is just rubbed on the foot, a body length away. Its active ingredient passes right through the skin and into the blood. Prolonged contact with garlic will blister and burn the skin. All alliums produce a sulfur molecule that is small and light enough to launch itself from the cut vegetable, fly through the air, and attack our eyes and nasal passages.
Garlic is a powerful herb and traditional Ayurvedic doctors use it as medicine, but do not recommend it as food for daily consumption. Because it is a broad-spectrum antibiotic, garlic (especially raw) kills not only the bad germs but also the most needed friendly bacteria. Garlic does not discriminate between the “bad guys” and the “good guys” in your gut.
Vaidya Mishra explains that cooked onions and garlic have less of an effect (both therapeutic and harmful), because cooking destroys much of the sulfur. Yet, enough of it remains to still harm the friendly bacteria in your gut, especially if you are among the majority of people who lack a good environment for the bacteria to thrive. If you are one of the few blessed with lots of friendly bacteria and keep a good routine and diet, then whether onions and garlic is good for you depends on how much and how frequently you consume them, and what other foods you eat to buffer and balance the negative properties. For example, if you consume garlic with cooling vegetables, such as loki or zucchini, and if you are not a high Pitta type, maybe your colon can handle the excess sulfur content, and your friendly bacteria will not be harmed.
As any sulfur-rich ingredient, onions and garlic are very heating. They aggravate Pitta on both physical and emotional levels. For someone suffering from acid reflux, ulcers, colitis, heartburn, intestinal inflammation, skin rashes or redness, etc. eating these two substances will make him feel worse. Once a friend of mine who has had ulcers for many years told me, “My relationship with onions and garlic is this: I eat them, and then they start eating me from within.” Other friends with ulcers have told me that it feels like someone’s cutting your stomach with a hot knife.
Aside from their burning effects on the physiology, alliums also heat up our emotions. Emotional outbursts are another indication that your Pitta is out of control. Have you noticed that people living in cultures that use a lot of onions and garlic are exceptionally temperamental and passionate? It looks like they are yelling at each other but they are actually having a normal conversation.
As you can see, Pitta types suffer most from the side effects of these potent ingredients. Kapha types would best tolerate onions and garlic because their intestinal walls tend to be thicker and they also need more heating and stimulating foods. If you are a Vata type, however, you have much thinner, more sensitive intestinal walls and probably like gentler flavoring with less onions and garlic.
On energetic level, onions and garlic constrict the vibrational channels (nadis), thus preventing a person from experiencing mental clarity and higher states of consciousness. Vaidya Mishra once told me that whoever eats garlic and onion will have very strong body but their spiritual antennas will be blocked.
I stopped eating onions and garlic more than 25 years ago because of my yoga practice. Referring to the ancient texts about yoga, my teachers advised me that if I wanted to succeed in meditation, I had to avoid foods that are overly stimulating or clouding to the mind. During my travels in India and Asia, I have seen that brahmins and pandits never eat onions and garlic or serve them in temples. And even Buddhists and Zen masters in China and Japan avoid them in order to maintain their spiritual balance.
Spiritual reasons aside, garlic-free dining has become the center of gastronomic dispute, especially in Italy. The debate started in 2007, in the center of Rome at La Trattoria restaurant, where top chef Filippo La Mantia shunned garlic as the basis of his dishes because it is just a stinky ingredient that overpowers the delicate flavors of a preparation.
Again, whether onions and garlic are good for you depends on your friendly bacteria; how much sulfur your colon can handle; how much cooked or raw garlic you consume with what types of spices and vegetables. I choose to stick to the Ayurvedic perspective: use them medicine and avoid them for daily consumption. If you feel overheated or if you like to do yoga, chant, meditate; if you want mental clarity, or balanced emotions, then a diet without onions and garlic may greatly support your spiritual practice. If you have eaten them your whole life, why not experiment without them for a month and see how you feel?
How to Replace Onions, Garlic and Other Alliums in Your Daily Cooking
Going completely onion- and garlic-free can have many positive effects on your body and mind, but if you are attached to them, try reducing their intake gradually.
- Use less in your cooking.
- Do not eat them every day but every other day or so.
- Use the recipes in this book—they are all free of onions and garlic and very flavorful.
- Significantly reduce them during the summer season, when we need to eat less pungent/heating foods.
- Use the spice asafoetida (also called hing in India) to add more sulfur-like flavor. Please use it very little, though—see the proportions in my recipes.
- Sauté finely minced basil stems in a little ghee or a 50%-50% mixture of ghee and olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. You can use this as a base for many savory dishes.
- Substitute for freshly minced or dry powdered ginger and green chili.
- Use more spices to flavor your food. This book gives you many suggestions how.
- If you eat out, look for garlic-free restaurants, for example Ayurvedic, Buddhist, or Jain Indian Restaurants. There is also a world chain of vegetarian restaurants called Govinda’s that is entirely onions- and garlic-free.
- The Vedic texts urge pregnant mothers to abstain from onion and garlic and other pungent foods because the child’s body is too delicate to tolerate such irritation.
- If you want to avoid onions and garlic but are concerned about getting enough foods with antibacterial properties, use more ginger and turmeric. They can kill bacteria directly on the rasa (taste) level of digestion while indirectly supporting the immune system. By the time turmeric and ginger begin to break down in the stomach and intestine (on the guna, virya, vipak levels), they no longer carry any antibacterial effect. This is why turmeric and ginger are not considered antibiotics, but garlic and onion can be because their antibacterial effect continues further in the digestive tract.
Dr. Eric Block’s book “Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science”
Bob Beck. Is Garlic a Brain Poison? Nexus Magazine, Feb/Mar 2001. Source: From a lecture by Dr. Robert C Beck, DSc, given at the Whole Life Expo, Seattle, WA, USA, in March 1996.]
Harold McGee. The Chemical Weapons of Onions and Garlic. The New York Times, June 8, 2010.
In Italy, is garlic in or out? USA Today, posted 6/22/2007
Facebook: Campaign Against Garlic