Effect of food on health

Let him (the knower of Brahman) never condemn (deprecate) food; that is the vow.

The prana (vital breath or vital energy) is, verily food; the body is the eater of food; for the vital force is lodged in the body. The body rests on the prana; the prana rests on the body. Thus, food rests on food.

He who knows this resting of food on food is established; he becomes a possessor of food. He becomes great in offspring and cattle (prosperity) and in spiritual radiance (luster of holiness) and great in fame.

-Taittiriya Upanishad


Food acts as fuel for the body which, in turn, works as a machine throughout one’s lifetime. Man enters this world to offset his karmas and the body helps him achieve his mission. It is a hoarse that helps him accomplish all his objectives, striving towards attaining moksha or liberation. Hence, it is utmost important that the body should be kept strong, clean and healthy, doing away with all the unhygienic elements leading to various ailments.

The health of the mind and the body are intimately linked to each other. The body works after receiving instructions from the mind; all good and bad attributes are instilled in the mind, affecting the wellbeing of body. However, it should be noted that a healthy body essentially affects the mind and its behavior. Therefore, the foods and materials, which build the mind and the body, should be wholesome, nutritious, and bland.

The nature of food shapes up virtues in man. Different compartments of the brain and mind are affected by the food of various nature and components. Food items like meat, fish, eggs, onion and garlic excite passion. On the contrary, grains, cereals, fruits, etc. render the mind calm and serene.

Effect of Diet

Another characteristic of food is its positive and negative effect on our thought, emotion and consciousness. A meat diet leads to harmful consequences. The Manu Smruti states that one should refrain from eating all kinds of meat because it involves killing and leads to karmic bondage. The terror and pain suffered by animals prior to slaughter leave their effects on the meat. How can cruelty, terror and fear in animals inspire compassion and virtues in its consumer?

If children are raised on a vegetarian diet, they are exposed to the principle of non-violence and inspired towards peace and compassion. They grow up remembering not to kill. The one who does not kill animals or eat meat will then in all probability not be inclined towards violence against human beings and killing of animals. In the Mahabharata, the great Sage Veda Vyasa instructs, “He who desires to increase his own flesh by eating the flesh of other animals lives in misery in whatever species he may take birth.” In the Chandogya Upanishad, Sage Sanatkumar says, “Ahdra shuddhau satva shuddhihi … ” meaning, “If your food is pure, your whole nature will be pure; if your whole nature is pure, your memory will be unfailing; if you have mastered your memory, all the knots (of doubt within your heart) will be loosened.”

Thus, to purify and elevate the mind and soul, a vegetarian diet is essential and beneficial. Some famous vegetarians include, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, John Milton, George Bernard Shaw, Plato, Pythagoras, and Socrates. Other well known names are Leo Tolstoy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, General William Booth, H.G. Wells and Albert Schweitzer.

Quotes from Scriptures

When nourishment is pure, reflection and higher understanding are pure; memory becomes strong. When memory becomes strong, there is release from all the knots of the heart.

-Chandogya Upanishad, I. Vii

Out of Brahman, who is the Self, came akasha (space); from akasha, air; from air, fire; from fire, water; from water, earth; from earth, vegetation; out of vegetation, food; out of food the body of man. The body of man, composed of the essence of food, is the physical sheath of the Self.

-Taittiriya Upanishad, II.i.3

He who knows this resting of food on food is established; he becomes a possessor of food. He becomes great in offspring and cattle (prosperity) and in spiritual radiance (luster of holiness) and great in fame.                                                                                      -Taittiriya Upanishad, III.vii.1

[Note: Comments by Sri Sankaracharya, translated by Swami Gambhirananda: Since Brahman is realized through the portal of food, one should not deprecate food. The inculcation of the vow is meant for the praise of food, and food is worthy of praise since it is an aid to the realization of Brahman (The Supreme Reality).]

Of all the restrictive rules, that relating to the taking of Sattwic food in moderate quantities is best; by observing this rule, the sattwic quality of mind will increase, and that will be helpful to Self-inquiry. – Sri Ramana Maharshi

Translation of Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

A Brahmin (priest) should abstain from meat. – The Mahabharata Anusasana Parva, Section XCIII

The sin of eating meat is ascribed to three causes. That sin may attach to the mind, to words, and to acts. It is for this reason that men of wisdom who observe penances refrain from eating meat. – The Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, Section CXIV

Well-dressed, cooked with salt or without salt, meat, in whatever form one may take, it gradually attracts the mind and enslaves it. ‑The Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, Section CXIV

Some Thoughts on Food – Swami Shivananda

Some interesting thoughts on food by Swami Shivananda, (1887–1963), Divine Life Society, Rishikesh

  • Food is of three types – Sattwic, Rajasic and Tamasic. A man’s preference over a particular food can be determined by his gunas i.e. Sattwa, Rajas, Tamas.
  • As per the Hindu Philosophy, everything in this world is threefold. The character of the food, affecting the mind and the body, is also threefold namely Sattwic, Rajasic and Tamasic.
  • The food type also reflects on the temperament of a person. One’s predilection towards particular food is indicative of his Sattwic, Rajasic or Tamasic inclinations. For the betterment of one’s mind and body, one should abandon Rajasic and Tamasic food items and switch over to Sattwic diet.

Sattwic Ahar

There is nothing like pure, unadulterated food in its simplest form. This type of vegetarian diet is called Sattwic food. It brings optimism, harmony and mental clarity into the dieter by simultaneously increasing his energy level. Sattwic diet helps the person attain higher consciousness. It brings in all the attributes required to gain the correct mental poise to enter into deep meditation. Since Sattwic food is easily assimilated and absorbed in the body system, it produces maximum energy for the body.

A Sattwic man enjoys his simple diet which is soft, pleasant and attractive in form. This kind of food is greatly conducive to health and provides maximum nourishment when taken in small bulk at timely intervals. The food items – that develop Sattwa in a person – are milk, milk products (butter, clarified butter i.e. ghee), fresh fruits, dry fruits (almonds, dates), cereals (green dals), grains (wheat barley), tomatoes, green vegetables (Indian names – parwar, torai, karela), plantains, tomatoes etc.

It is also defined in the scriptures that the state of Sattwa and Self-realization can only be attained when a person completely abandons fish, meat, liquors, eggs, etc. As the proverb says, ‘As is the food so is the mind’, the Sattwic food can only help the mind in developing unadulterated thoughts and ideas.

There are seven dhatus in the body which are formed out of food. These are – Plasma or Rasa, Blood or Rakta, Muscle or Mamsa, Fat or Meda, Bone or Asthi, Bone marrow and nerve or Majja, Reproductive fluid or Shukra. The mind generates ideas and thoughts corresponding to these seven dhatus. Hence, the constitution of dhatus determines the constitution of one’s mind. The substance of mind is dependent on the substance present in the food and the seven dhatus in the body.

Rajasic Ahar

Food of passionate nature produces evil thoughts, agitation and unnecessary excitement in the mind. Such food often leads to pain, trouble and various bodily ailments. Generally, a Rajasic man often indulges in a variety of cookeries to satisfy his appetite, especially the hot and pungent items. Important Rajasic items include pungent relishes, sauce and condiments, salt, chilies, cloves mustard etc. Other vegetarian yet Rajasic Indian food items are ladies finger, Puri-Kachori, sweets, fired bread, curd, aubergine, carrots, black gram, lemon, masur dal, betels and many more. Caffeine and tannin, in specific, and items comprising these two elements for instance tea, coffee, tobacco are also extremely Rajasic in nature. Non-vegetarian food items like meat, fish, and eggs should be strictly avoided by those who are striving towards attaining higher consciousness through spiritual practices.

Again, salt is the most hazardous ingredient in the cooked food that excites one’s passion and emotion. Renouncing salt from the diet helps in keeping both the appetite and the mind under control. The will power is also developed in the process. It is quite important to learn that snake bite and scorpion sting do not poison someone who has given up eating salt. Simultaneously, it is also highlighted in the scriptures that onions and garlic are worse than meat. They are the highest level of Rajasic items which distract the mind and excite passion.

Tamasic Ahar

Stale, dry, juicy, unripe, undercooked and overcooked food items are all Tamasic in nature. Stale, putrid, and fermented food types also belong to this category. A Tamasic man is specifically inclined towards taking prohibited food and drinks for instance fermented toddy, liquors, etc. Famous contraband articles also fall into this category e.g. cannabis indica (ganja), bhang, opium, cocaine, charas, chandoo and many more.

Eating such items often lead to the growth of devilish tendencies amongst Tamasic people. Certain conventional food items which fall under conventional food category like onion, garlic, wine, tobacco, and beef certainly instill one’s mind with darkness and inertia. Ancient scriptures also closely link meat eating with liquor, asserting that the craving for liquor naturally vanishes if meat eating is abandoned. Tamasic food, especially meat, leads to loss of mind control. It arouses the body’s carnal desires and leads to overpopulation. In addition to all these, poor and ill mannered food eating styles and habits also makes a Tamasic in nature and instincts.

Purity of Mind

Live a simple, natural life. Take simple food that is wholly agreeable to your system. You should have your own menu to suit your constitution. You are yourself the best judge to select a Sattwic diet (that suits your constitution).

Bhagavad-Gita, Ch.6, Verse 16 & 17

Ancient texts elaborate on how abandoning meat should be the first step on the path of spirituality. Even great spiritual and religious masters like Jesus, Lord Buddha, and Manu have emphasized greatly on refraining from harmful deleterious articles including intoxicants, liquors, drugs etc. Pure food leads to pure mind. Only Sattwic food can help control the palate and all the other senses. A disciplined food habit is a compulsion when it comes to practicing Yogic sadhana and meditation.

Milk and Fruits – Cheru is the purest form of Sattwic diet made up of half a liter of boiled milk, boiled rice, ghee and clarified butter. Cheru is mainly a daytime meal for the Yogis. At night, the yogis are advised to take only half a liter of milk. To benefit from all the milk nutrients, milk should never be boiled more than the boiling point. Excess boiling destroys the nutritive minerals and vitamins, and renders the milk quite useless.

There is nothing healthier and more Sattwic than a milk diet; however, many people are allergic to milk. Hence, one should consume milk as per the suitability of his constitution. It is often advisable to take milk in its derivative form such as curd, cottage cheese, yogurt etc.

Fruit diet is the most natural form of diet and has a benign influence on the constitution. Fruits are the highest level of energy producers and a fruit-milk diet results in exceptional level of concentration and easy mental focusing. For better longevity and strength one should add milk, ghee, barley, and wheat in his daily diet. Fresh fruit juice and water into which sugar-candy is dissolved is a very good beverage. A beverage made up of butter mixed with soaked almonds and sugar candy is very effective in cooling the internal system of the body.

Verily Yoga is not possible for those who eat and sleep too much or too little. Living a moderate lifestyle is the key to successful Yoga practice. Yoga works best for those who are well restrained in eating and recreation, exertion and actions, sleep and wakefulness.

Ayurveda and Food

A sneak peek into Ayurveda -The Science of Life and Health written by Dr. Robert E. Svoboda. Dr. Svoboda gained expertise in Ayurveda at the Tilak Ayurveda Medical College in Pune, India.

In Ayurveda, meat is prescribed for patients with debilitation. Ancient branch of medicines also promotes meat eating amongst warriors (Kshatriyas) as they overexert themselves. Otherwise, it is best to avoid meat eating as it is extremely heavy in digestion and quickly produces Ama (internal toxins). The Vata-affected individuals should better avoid meat as it increases fat, and not flesh, in the body. It promotes speed and not endurances required for growth of the body. Meat is not favorable for people residing in the tropical climate regions as it produces excessive heat that generates too much warmth in mind and body. Today, the meat available in the market is mostly derived from feedlot animals. The meat is derived after giving a lot of antibiotics and drugs to the animals who never exercise and, as a result, their Ama stays in their tissues.

Flesh eating is prohibited for those who are seeking a spiritual recline. The fear felt by the animal just before slaughter and the hatred it had garnered for the man slaughtering him, infuse the flesh eater’s mind with fear and anger. The food that involves so much violence in its collection can never bring peace unto those who intake it. Again, the meat eater excretes in his sweat the same fear and hatred promoting chemicals, spreading it out to others at the same time.

Heavy and indigestible food items are also needed to be avoided; such as molasses, cheese, un-churned yogurt, dried meat and vegetables, beef, pork, mutton etc. Extremely hot or cold and extremely tasty or tasteless food should better be avoided. Onion and garlic, which are both Tamasic and Rajasic in nature, root the consciousness more firmly in the body and hence should be avoided.

The Ritual of Eating

Dos of Eating – Cleanse your body before the meal as it is quite important. Bath or just wash your hands, feet and face thoroughly before having the meal. East is the direction of the Sun that supplies us heat and fire; while eating, sit facing the east as it’s favorable for the digestion of food. Choose a clean and hygienic place for eating. Only eat with closely trusted people otherwise eating alone is far more advisable. In addition to satisfying your stomach, satisfying the sense organs by gracing pleasant music, fresh flowers etc in the dining area.

Only eat the food prepared by those who know you and care for you. The feelings and vibration of the cook get transmitted into the food changing the composition of the food. Hence, cooks in India are often selected from the priestly class so that the spiritually uplifting vibrations may get transferred into the meal. Again, cooking during menstruation is also prohibited as it is believed that women should better take rest during their internal cleansing period.

While eating, it is best if the right nostril is functioning as it leads to an increased level of digestive fire inside the body. There are various methods of opening up your right nostril before eating; these are –

  • by lying on the left side a few minutes before a meal;
  • by plugging the left nostril, especially with the right middle finger, and breathing rhythmically through the right nostril for some time;
  • by spreading over the left arm and hooking it at the backside of the chair

Once all is in readiness, one should pay his heartfelt obeisance to Nature (for providing food) and to God (for giving him a life). Remember, the food carries harmonizing power of the prayers, chanted before eating, and works wonders for the body. Neglecting simple yet pious and Sattwic food items, served with love, is regarded as inauspicious.

As per the Indian tradition a five-fold offering is made before eating. As per the ritual, one should offer his food first: to the sacred fire, a cow, a crow, a dog and another human being (might be a child, a beggar, or any outsider). This way one feeds the children of Mother Nature first before feeding oneself. There is a symbolic interpretation behind this food giving ritual which manifests the total control over one’s Ahamkara (egoism) intended towards raising the image of food from self-gratifying to self-sacrificing. Feed anyone a pet, a plant, a neighbor, a stranger, to experience feelings of Mother Nature when she feeds her children and watches them grow in consequence.

Don’ts of Eating – Eating during the negative moods should be avoided. Pessimist moods like anger, depression, and boredom fail to convert food energies for one’s benefits.

Ayurveda persistently stresses on eating homemade pure food. Outside delicacies, though mouthwatering and irresistible, are mostly Rajasic or Tamasic in nature. These food articles can only satisfy one’s belly, without ever satisfying one’s mind and spirit. Both health and hygiene are also greatly compromised as the major focus of the person selling the food always remains his own profit rather than your digestion.

In the fast paced life, many people sort out other activities along with their meals, for instance, watching television or attaining any other recreation, discussing important personal or professional issues with friends or family member across the table or over the phone etc. Ancient eating ritual is against such practices. For best results, one should chew each morsel slowly and attentively many times. Observe complete silence while eating and whenever possible switch over to eating with hands. In this process, the skin sends the temperature and texture cues to the brain easily. A proper growth of acid and enzyme inside the stomach can only lead to the formation of the digestive fire needed for converting food into energy.