Why Avoid Onions and Garlic?

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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.

Notes:

  • 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.

References:

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

http://foodallergies.about.com/od/cooking/p/cookingwoonions.htm

Facebook: Campaign Against Garlic

38 replies
  1. Jeanette M Meadows
    Jeanette M Meadows says:

    My Goodness I’ve been eating onions and garlic raw as long as I can remember even as a child.I love them or Loved them..I never knew the details .. Always the good never the bad…until recently I ran across a person who mentioned they are not good for You .. Well actually that Person only spoke about the garlic one of My garlic..Oh well since I stop using both Im much better no more heartburns and My stomach is much happier..I’m learning so much since I’ve made up My mind to educate Myself and stay healthy.. Thanks for this information

    Reply
  2. Jeanette M Meadows
    Jeanette M Meadows says:

    Ooops Typo..I meant to say..That person said garlic is not good for You..One of My favorite………but now I hear avoid Onions too…lol

    Reply
  3. Earnest J. Bolling
    Earnest J. Bolling says:

    I been eating garlic & onions like it’s no tomorrow stomach acid, will back off them go with ginger & turmeric thanks

    Reply
  4. esworth anderson
    esworth anderson says:

    Yes, I eat Garlic and onions as if they are going out of fashion, I wonder why my stomach always burn, Maybe it also caused gas and indigestion, My chest is so heavy and i always feel uncomfortable after eating, I always have this feeling that if I dont eat lots of garlic and onions then i am not eating at all, Now I am going to seriously cut them out to the bear minimum, For all my life all my illness is from my Head and chest and abdomen, Thanks everyone for this Information

    Reply
    • Divya Alter
      Divya Alter says:

      Thank you for sharing. You might want to also consult with an Ayurvedic or other health practitioner, to find the root cause of why you’re feeling that way. Could be more than just eating onions and garlic.

      Reply
  5. Shubha
    Shubha says:

    Very informative. Your blog is a treasure! Thank you!
    What is your opinion on sulfur rich foods like kale, cabbage and cauliflower? Do you think they also have a similar effect on our meditation because of the sulfur content?

    Reply
    • Divya Alter
      Divya Alter says:

      Shubha, this is a really good question that I have wondered about too. No, cruciferous vegetables do not agitate the mind the way onions and garlic do. I will do more research in the future, but my understanding is that cruciferous vegetables contain a different type of sulfur (glucosinolates/sulfur + nitrogen) than alliums (allicin, ajoene). These groups of vegetables also have different energetic effect. Onions and garlic are more rajasic/tamasic, and cruciferous vegetables are more sattvic. Hope we could have more discussion here!

      Reply
  6. Kim Goforth
    Kim Goforth says:

    I suffered from stomach ulcers and acid reflux for a few years! So tired of having endoscopies! until I started eating a raw garlic clove every day it actually healed and stopped both issues!

    Reply
    • Divya Alter
      Divya Alter says:

      Thank you for sharing, Kim. This is a great example of how garlic can be used as medicine–in your case it helped, but it does not help with every stomach issue. The Ayurvedic approach is to determine the cause of the problem, analyze the symptoms, and then recommend the remedy. Not just treat the symptoms. Glad you’re feeling better.

      Reply
  7. The Muse
    The Muse says:

    I notice when I eat onions or garlic my “tinnitus” (actually tinnitus occurs in the brain = oscillations) gets worse and my head is buzzing. My research taught me that the receptors get overstimulated with these foods and so it is extremely interesting that the Ayurvedic interpretation is that the spiritual antenna will be blocked – fascinating! I have given up onions and garlic for possibly a year and then retry them every once in a while – or else forget the effects and there they are – every time. Got to make a mental note to give them up for good. Thank you for such an informative and interesting article.

    Reply
    • Mihaela
      Mihaela says:

      Me too. I eat onions, I like the red ones, then I get the negative effects so I remember why I stopped eating them in the first place. Then after a while I think of eating them and the negative effects appear. I also must stop eating them for good. I have a love/hate relationship with onions. I can’t eat garlic though as it’s too pungent for me.

      Reply
  8. Chipo Banda
    Chipo Banda says:

    Thank you for the great information! I am mainly Pitta and have an unbalanced pitta at the moment (way too high). I wondered wether I can still use onion powder for taste though? Since my main herbs are celtic sea salt and union powder. Thank you! 🙂

    Reply
    • Divya Alter
      Divya Alter says:

      Hi Chipo, if your Pitta is too high, you have to stay away from all heating foods, including onion powder, and reduce the salt in your food, as salt is also heating. I’m sorry for my delayed reply. I hope you’re feeling much better by now!

      Reply
  9. Dave Leffler
    Dave Leffler says:

    All my research says you are totally wrong. Dr Berg also says you are completely wrong. Garlic is also a prebiotic, so it does not kill good gut bacteria but actually feeds it. Garlic and onions are very good for you and your gut, and if they bother you it is because you have issues in your gut, as they will not bother a healthy gut.

    Reply
    • Divya Alter
      Divya Alter says:

      Hi Dave,
      It’s OK if you do not agree with this article. I hope you understand that I present the descriptions and conclusions of the ancient Ayurvedic texts. You refer to modern science. I find both sources of knowledge to be valuable, although there has to be a lot more modern research done, to prove all ancient Ayurvedic conclusions.

      I am an Ayurvedic chef and practitioner, not a scientist, and I can only present the Ayurvedic explanations the way I’ve been studying them in the Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda (SVA) tradition. Here is a bit more.
      The ancient sages who wrote the Ayurvedic texts used different tools for understanding the impact that food can have on our physiology. They studied the food properties, not its nutritional content, in these categories:
      1. Therapeutic properties through taste (in Sanskrit, “rasa”)
      2. Effect of the food in the stomach (“guna”)
      3. Impact on the liver (“virya”)
      4. Post-digestive effect after food gets absorbed in the colon (“vipak”)
      5. The ultimate effect (both physical and vibrational) on the body and mind

      The sages divided food ingredients into two main categories, for daily consumption (“ahar dravya”) and for prescribed medicinal use (“aushadhi dravya”). Now, this point is important, as it helps us determine the context in which an ingredient is used. Onions and garlic are listed in the category of medicinal foods recommended for occasional use, when an imbalance has to be treated.

      About garlic, for example, Ayurveda states that where other ingredients fail, even in great quantities, a little bit of garlic works as a highly effective medicine, as in the case of some infectious or cardiovascular conditions. Garlic is very powerful, that’s why it has to be used with caution.

      In the SVA lineage, garlic is considered a “mixed dravya” or ingredient – it has both healthy and unhealthy effects on the physical and the vibrational body. One of the unhealthy effects is diminishing friendly bacteria in the colon.

      From what I’ve seen in modern research, the studies of the prebiotic effects of garlic are inconclusive. Garlic has relatively small amounts of the prebiotics inulin and FOS but is also a high content of sulfur-containing compounds that can harm the friendly bacteria. I look forward to reading more research that explains this contradiction!

      Back to the Ayurveda approach, when using a medicinal food, Ayurvedic doctors take into consideration all of its effects on the particular patient. For example, a patient may present a disorder of the respiratory system, for which garlic can be very useful. However, if that same patient also has an overheated liver, garlic can harm the patient. The Ayurveda approach is to support total healing of the body, not heal one part and harm another.

      Modern holistic doctors inform us about the numerous life-supporting and healing properties of garlic (also described in Ayurveda), but rarely warn us against its many negative actions as well. Why don’t you look into the modern research on that?

      So much more to be said…

      Reply
      • Nicci K
        Nicci K says:

        Dr. Sebi clearly stated that garlic was terrible for because it has an acidity rating of 2. But he ate onions often.
        I think garlic has a place medicinally. Dont eat it unless you’re sick. But onions are a go!

        Reply
      • Mike Gish
        Mike Gish says:

        Dear Divya,
        I’ve found that ancient cultures tend to have a deeper understanding of the underlying complexities, subtleties, and interactions than western medicine which is in its infancy as you mentioned at the beginning of your article. I liked your use of the term “pharmacodynamics”, and I’m convinced your understanding is much deeper and more comprehensive than any western doctors.
        Because of this article, I plan on studying Ayurvedic medicine further in order to enhance my understanding.
        Best,
        Mike

        Reply
        • Divya Alter
          Divya Alter says:

          Thank you for your wise comment, Mike! So true!

          Many people challenge the ancient Ayurvedic statements by saying, “Where is the scientific proof?” There is a growing scientific research on different Ayurvedic topics and there is still a lot more to be done. So instead of disregarding Ayurveda all together, why not be inquisitive and encourage more modern research?

          I’m so glad that you’re inspired to study Ayurveda in depth. It is transformative.

          Reply
    • Mike Gish
      Mike Gish says:

      If that’s true, why can’t you culture/ferment, with a probiotic, vegetables that have onions and garlic mixed in them?

      Reply
    • Mauree
      Mauree says:

      I recently tried using crushed garlic to treat an acute upper respiratory condition. To my surprise it worked miriaculously and within 24 hours I was feeling so much better. But then 24 hours later I got so much worse I went to Urgent Care to get antibiotics. What I didn’t realize at the time was the garlic almost instantly cured my lung infection but that it was candida growth in my lungs that was causing the worsening of my condition. That’s how strong garlic is! I right away had my doctor call in an antifungal which immediately began to work. But now I see there’s really no benefit to taking garlic vs antibiotics since they both kill the good bacteria which is the cause of candida overgrowth.

      Reply
      • Maureen
        Maureen says:

        So too, I strongly disagree that garlic is an antifungal as stated in this arrival. Quite the opposite it fuels its growth rapidly.

        Reply
      • Divya Alter
        Divya Alter says:

        Thank you for sharing your experience, Mauree. It proves how powerful garlic is. I hope you’re OK now! An effective approach to clearing candida albicans overgrowth is to regrow the friendly bacteria in the gut, and they in turn win over the war on candida.

        Reply
  10. Dev Menon
    Dev Menon says:

    Thank you..Was very informative..One of my Senior colleague who is a kshatriya never used to have garlics and shallots.. Now i understood..but he used to take onions.

    Reply
  11. VIDYA
    VIDYA says:

    I want to become a vegan . The above information was very helpful. How can I determine which ayurvedic category I fall under(pittaor ?)

    Reply
    • Divya Alter
      Divya Alter says:

      Hi Vidya, it is best to consult with an expert Ayurvedic practitioner to determine not only your constitution but also your imbalances.

      Reply
  12. Agnes
    Agnes says:

    Hi everyone,
    I don’t eat onions last 23 years (since I was 15) as I felt I can’t digest them. My skin felt itchy (sometimes I had a rash on my arms) and I had crums in my stomach for days and put me in the bed. I was told every 4th person has a problem like me – some people can have an intolerance. I just call it an onions allergy when I order food from the restaurants. It makes my life easier and better. Also, my spiritual antennas are working well but I didn’t know there was a link between the two and I thought maybe my spirit told my body to reject certain types of food including milk also. Interesting anyway.

    Reply
  13. Imre
    Imre says:

    Thank you for your informative article.
    I’ve been an onion and garlic eater ever since i was a little child. And I love them. Cooked, raw, in any form. But…
    In the last couple of months watching spiritual, and meditational videos it came up more and more that I should stop eating these two amazing things.
    Although I don’t have any physical problem in my guts eating them, or any symptoms anywhere in/on my body.
    But mentally… I can turn into a raging bull in a matter of seconds. That’s why I started meditating, to solve this issue.
    Now it turns out it might be my onion and garlic over-consuption. That’s great news! I simply love it!
    I test this newly acquired knowledge from today.
    Thank you for this information Dyvia! Have a great day!

    Reply
    • Divya Alter
      Divya Alter says:

      You’re welcome, Imre. It’s so important to listen to how your body and mind respond to different foods and then select the ones that serve you best.

      Reply
  14. Mihaela
    Mihaela says:

    Do you think onions can be rather inflammatory than anti-inflammatory as it’s being said? Whenever I eat onions, my pain increases so much – I have hip dysplasia and a fractured arm, and the pain I feel doubles and even more. I also get swollen eyelids, irritated skin, headaches, bloating and gas, a bad breath especially the next day, a foggy mind and I feel dizzy, like I am drunk or on drugs…

    Reply
    • Divya Alter
      Divya Alter says:

      Hi Mihaela, I’m sorry to hear of you getting such strong reactions to onions and garlic! Yes, they can have both effects, depending on the individual. I’ve met a lot of people who experience worsened gut inflammation from eating alliums. Please take good care of yourself.

      Reply

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