Ayurveda’s Six Tastes
A Personal Prescription for Your Healthy Body
How many diets have you been on in your life? Do you own a juicer or a “turbo blender”? Do you adhere to a paleo diet? Are you vegan or vegetarian? A grazer or a “three square meals a day” kind of person? Do you get brain fog? Do you poop everyday? The list of questions an ayurvedic practitioner might ask you about your diet and daily habits goes on and on. That’s because the way we eat can directly affect our physical and mental health. This is something most people agree upon, and yet we disagree about which “diet” is the “best.” The “healthiest.” A mostly raw diet may feel great for some, but give others constipation and gas. Your gym buddy might rave that her high-protein diet makes her feel great, but eating like a caveman makes you feel lethargic and grumpy. Why?
According to ayurvedic medicine there are three “body-mind” types: vata, pitta, and kapha, and within these three types there are seven possible combinations: vata-pitta, pitta-kapha, vata-kapha, pitta dominate, vata dominate, kapha dominate, and tri-doshic. So how does an ayurvedic diet support all these different types of people, at different stages of our lives, living in various environments? As the classic ayurvedic texts tell us: “It depends.” But okay, I get it. That answer isn’t terribly satisfying. So let's delve a little more into what the classic texts of ayurveda have to say about healthy eating according to your dosha (body-mind type).
In ayurvedic medicine we look to nourish each element and every tissue in the body by choosing foods that offers us six tastes, or sensations on our tongue, at every meal. Ayurveda encourages three meals a day: lighter meals at breakfast and supper and the largest meal when our digestive fire is at its peak around noontime.
In ayurvedic medicine we look to nourish each element and every tissue in the body by choosing foods that offers us six tastes.
These tastes are often combined in foods, like a honey crisp apple, which can be both sweet and astringent.
Here is your first lesson:
There are three tastes that are considered “building” in ayurvedic medicine; they are more nourishing, build tissues, and are said to have more “soft,” “wet,” and “heavy” qualities.
Arguably, the most popular taste in America is the sweet taste! It is nourishing and makes us feel loved. This explains why we may crave something sweet—like a pint of ice cream with hot fudge—when we have a heartache. Remember Bridget Jones after her big breakups? “Sweet” does not just mean sugary or filled with luscious honey, though.
In ayurveda, milk is considered sweet, along with foods like corn, carrots, watermelon, wheat, rice, and coconut. This taste is associated with the water and earth elements, so according to ayurveda, too much can create a build-up of all things kapha (which is the combination of earth and water in nature), like mucus, fat, and plasma tissues. In excess, it’s also said to slow digestion and increase sluggishness in mood. In the proper amount, however, ayurveda says that sweet helps us sustain our loving nature, our proper balance of building hormones, soft skin, lubrication of our joints, and steadiness in mind and body.
This tastes starts off with intensity, but over time creates moisture in the mouth and tissues. Think of fermented foods like pickles and yogurt that help our digestive juices create heat with moisture. When used in moderation, the sour taste can stimulate our mind and digestion. Sour can support proper evacuation of wastes by adding moisture, and aid in our ability to taste our foods by supporting saliva. But in excess sour taste is said to create excessive desire. What happens if you do not get what you desire? A sour mood!
Examples of foods that have the sour taste are: fermented foods like the aforementioned pickles and yogurt, wine, beer, kombucha, cherries, grapefruit, lemon and lime, tamarind, yeast, cottage cheese, feta, and many other cheeses, and sauerkraut. (If any of these seem surprising, remember that often foods have multiple tastes!)
Want more enthusiasm? Seeking a catalyst to intensify the flavor of your favorite dish? Need some stimulation for digestion? Well, salty is your taste! Ayurveda does not prescribe a “no salt” diet! We say that salt adds enthusiam, makes life “tasty,” and enhances our experience of our favorite foods. But too much can overwhelm more subtle tastes, cause us to retain water, and dull our senses. According to ayurveda, salt’s elemental makeup is pure fire with a little water on the side. It is often used in combination with other tastes to support the rebuilding of fluids.
This taste is easy to identify: think seaweed, mineral salt, rock salt, celery (which has a natural saltiness), and of course foods like soy sauce, tamari, cheese, olives, and miso, which have salt as a primary taste.
There are three “reducing” or restricting tastes yogis would say are langhana (lightening)—they are cleansing, stimulating, and help us to remove wastes.
Elementally, this taste is related to fire and air, so it is intense, sharp, and spreads quickly. Think of biting into a jalapeno pepper—how your whole mouth and maybe even your lips feel the fire! The concept “a little goes along way” is a useful rule for this taste. Pungent taste is like a laser: penetrating, burning, cutting, and quickly stopping action, as in cauterizing. Too much is said to lead to inflammation. When used in appropriate proportion, however, it’s said to soften mucus and increase mental focus and clarity.
What foods and spices contain this taste? Let’s start with the obvious: pepper, vinegar, chilies, mustard, garlic, hard liquor, cinnamon, chipotle (smoked jalapeno peppers), paprika, fresh ginger, curry leaves, and cumin.
Thinking of the drying effect of an astringent helps me better identify the “taste” or sensation of the air and earth qualities of astringency. Think of biting into a pomegranate seed or the feeling of black tea on your tongue. This taste has a drying effect, and it causes the body to contract or become “lighter.” Think about the rose water astringent you use on your face to “tighten” your pores. That is the effect this taste has on your internal system too. When there is excess water, this taste dehydrates and “tightens up” that which is loose or flaccid. This means foods with the astringent taste can also have a constipating effect if not used mindfully. For example: think of making mashed potatoes (potatoes are mostly astringent in taste) and how they stick together until a lot of moisture is added.
This taste can cleanse the mouth, but can cause difficulty swallowing when not balanced with other tastes. So, a great rule is to add astringent-tasting foods to other things (like adding butter to your potatoes, or milk to your black tea) and not take them by themselves, unless you want to increase the drying and binding effect of this taste.
Other foods that are mostly astringent in taste include: aloe vera juice, black-eyed peas, walnuts, turnips, apricots, apples, caraway seeds, basil, plantains, and bean sprouts.
This taste is most often used to balance digestion by stimulating our digestive juices and agni (digestive fire). The qualities of air and ether provide a light, dry, cool, and stimulating effect, which helps when our digestion is “too hot” (think acidic digestive conditions) and when our digestion is “too wet” (think sluggish digestive conditions). Ayurvedic practitioners may also prescribe bitter tastes to help regulate metabolism. In many cultures a post-meal bitter is provided for just this purpose: espresso, dark green salad, dark chocolate, or a “bitters” tincture, for example. Many ayurvedic herbs are bitter in taste as they are working to support digestion either directly or indirectly.
This taste is often found alongside of the astringent taste, or with a pinch of salt to help bring out the flavor of other foods. Foods with bitter tastes include: dark leafy greens, beets, sprouts, and spices such as turmeric and fenugreek.
Explore what you normally eat and see what tastes you feed yourself. If you notice that you are jonesing for a little salt or sweet in the middle of the day, consider adding a little of that taste to your next meal. Chances are that once you can provide yourself with all six tastes at every mealtime you will feel nourished and satisfied in both body and mind!