With the Ayurvedic diet we can truly take control of our health, often without the need for medication and with minimal supplements. One of the key concepts behind an Ayurvedic diet is the 6 tastes: bitter, pungent, astringent, sweet, salty and sour. By understanding which of the 6 tastes suit our constitution best and what to favour in each season, we can balance our body, mind & emotions, creating a feeling of amazing vitality that just keeps getting better and better. If you’d like to know more about your constitutional type, refer to the link at the bottom of the page.
The bitter taste is made up of the elements of air and ether, so it brings in qualities of lightness, dryness and coolness. It is cleansing, purifies the blood and detoxes the body. It also counteracts cravings for sweets. If the stomach is acidic, bitter tastes are more effective than antacids and are better for the body overall. For these reasons, it is most balancing for Pitta. Kapha is also greatly benefitted, but because it increases cold, they can tolerate less of it. All the types need all the tastes, but in this case, Vata only needs small amounts and will be aggravated by too much of it.
Spring and summer are the best time of year to emphasize bitter tastes in our diet, in keeping with cleansing. Many medicinal herbs have a bitter component, and are needed only in small quantities to be effective. In fact, cleansing supplements should not be taken without medical supervision, even though they are available over the counter, as permanent damage can occur if the dosage isn’t right for you. In most cases, you can do a spring cleanse with diet alone by eating clean and incorporating bitter foods in the springtime and throughout the summer. It’s a good idea to cut back when the weather cools off in the fall.
In order to balance our mind and emotions, we also must do our personal work! All the right foods won’t make any difference if we don’t make an effort to use our energy in a healthy way and to heal old emotional wounds. Of course, food is intricately connected with emotions for almost all of us. We can expedite our work and accomplish much more emotional development by eating right for our type and for the seasons. The bitter taste is reputed to bring mental clarity; if you’ve ever done a spring cleanse, this would likely be your experience – especially as toxins leave the body. If we take too much, though, we may feel emotionally off balance in keeping with our type.
Examples of bitter foods:
• Dark leafy greens, such as kale, collards, arugula, dandelion, chicory, mustard & turnip greens
• Spinach, chard & beet greens contain oxalic acid, which is not harmful in small quantities, but not ideal for daily consumption.
• Bitter greens are often accompanied by a pungent taste, such as mustard, arugula, watercress, turnip greens. These are much better for Kapha & vata (they should be cooked for vata), but not so good for Pitta.
• Turmeric, fenugreek, citrus rind, olives, dark chocolate. Most herbs have a bitter component.
• Swedish bitters
Avoid or watch out for:
- Coffee – too stimulating for Vata & Pitta, plus too acidic for Pitta. Kapha types can have one cup in the morning if it agrees with them.
- Burnt foods are bitter, but denatured. Same with produce that’s on its way to the compost.
The Pungent Taste seems to have the most intense spectrum of all the tastes. Having the elements of fire and air, it is heating, light and drying for the body. It is stimulating in every way, drying out mucous (making them good to help ward off a cold), stimulating digestion and metabolism and increases motivation. Spices help us assimilate foods that can present digestive challenges, such as fats, dairy, beans, eggs & meat. They are most beneficial starting in the fall as the weather gets cooler and is an important addition to the diet throughout the winter and into the early spring until it warms up again.
Kapha types need the most pungent tastes in their diet, as it moves stagnation. In Kapha climates or during Kapha season, you’ll find you can tolerate spicier foods than normal, even if you’re not a strict Kapha type.
Vata types or those with a fair amount of Vata in their constitutional mix should avoid hot spices and stick with the warmer ones because dryness and overstimulation is an issue to begin with. With its drying action on the body, those who live in dry climates should also use moderately warm spices in the right amounts so they don’t dry themselves out too much.
Pitta types need much less altogether, as they tend to run warmer. They’ll do best with small quantities of warm spices in the colder season and very little if any in warmer seasons or climates.
Emotionally, it’s not hard to imagine that pungent spices are also quite warming. Just as a little well-placed anger can be clarifying for the mind, so can a bit of wasabi! But if you have too much for your type, it can bring about excessive anger, aggressiveness, resentment, or even hatred.
Examples of pungent foods:
- chilli peppers, garlic, onions, hot spices like wasabi, mustard, black pepper & cloves
- warm spices – cloves, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, mint
- warm-ish spices – cardamom, fennel, dill
- anything with a peppery taste, such as arugula or mustard greens
The amount of spicy foods we can tolerate varies depending on your constitutional type. Here are some signs that you’ve had too much:
- sweet cravings – especially for Vata & Pitta. Kapha may crave sweets regardless
- burning sensations, eg lips, eyes, stomach – especially for Pitta
- burning stomach and ulcers, even for Kaphas
- Keep in mind that solving one problem while creating others isn’t a balanced solution!
The astringent taste is one of the most confusing ones, mostly because it often occurs in combination with other tastes. Think of the way your mouth puckers when you drink dry wine or eat an unripe banana; that’s the astringent quality in action. It causes contraction and acts on the whole body this way. It slows digestion, stops bleeding and other excess discharges, such as sweating or diarrhea. It’s healing for the skin and other mucous membranes, and maintains firmness of the tissues. For these reasons, it is best for Pitta and very good for Kapha. Too much of it is hard on the colon and digestive tract; it can cause congestion, blockages and constipation. For this reason, Vatas don’t need much of it.
It has the qualities of earth and air, so it’s light, drying and cooling, but not as cooling as the bitter taste. This makes spring & summer the best season to include more astringent foods in your diet, if you’re going to.
•Beans, lentils, cabbage, potatoes and aloe vera.
• Many vegetables have an astringent component to their taste profile, which makes it hard to get too much of it because it’s balanced with other tastes.
• These combinations really help certain types: Sweet-astringent, such as apples, pears, raspberries and pomegranates are SO good for Pitta!
• Pomegranates are one of the few tridoshic foods, which means they’re good for all types.
• Sour-astringent foods, such as green grapes, cranberries and crabapples are good in moderate quantities for both Kapha & Vata.
Emotionally, the astringent taste is also contracting. How might this be useful? It brings about detachment and an ascetic, impartial perspective. It can dry up excess emotions, such as grief. Too much astringent can cause fear and a loss of interest in life (because our emotions make life ‘juicy.’).
The sweet taste is overly prevalent in our culture, but one of the least understood of the 6 tastes. Its pure form appears not only as refined, white sugar but also any concentrated sweetener, including honey, syrup and fruit juice. It takes only the smallest amount of it to cause balance in all the types, including the ones that are normally helped by the it. Some argue that natural sugars, such as honey and maple syrup are better because they have nutrients that white sugar doesn’t. While this is true to some degree, any diabetic will tell you that those substances are just as taxing on the body as white sugar. In my experience, limiting sweeteners has opened up my palate to receive many other subtle versions of sweet that are naturally present in almost everything.
In spite of this, sweet is the taste we need the most of. It’s building and strengthening to all the tissues, soothing to the mucous membranes and burning sensations, and has a mildly laxative effect. It has the qualities of earth and water, and is heavy, moist and cooling. Not surprisingly, it’s best for Vata types, good for Pittas and Kaphas need to be eat them in moderation. The best seasons for it are fall and winter, as well as some in the summer.
Eaten in excess, sweets are mucous producing – which is always my first clue that I’ve had enough! It can cause a whole range of issues from sluggish digestion and sleepiness to weight gain, inflammation, hormone imbalances, diabetes and damage to the spleen & pancreas.
Emotionally, the sweet taste increases our sense of love, well-being, comfort and contentment. It is grounding and harmonizing for the mind – in the right amounts. We all know what it’s like to self-medicate with baking or fatty cheeses and we’ve all felt the resulting attachment, complacency, inertia or even depression.
Not surprisingly, Ayurveda considers fruits, grains and starchy vegetables to be sweet, but did you know that milk, oils, meat, beans & lentils are also thought to have a sweet component to their taste profiles? These are the sweet foods that are most nourishing to us, while desserts are meant to be treats that we enjoy once in a while rather than on a daily basis.
The salty taste is a type of guilty pleasure in our culture; on one hand, it’s used excessively in restaurants, junk foods and prepackaged meals – even the healthier versions of them. On the other, we’re told that it’s a villain, the enemy of good health. What is really true?
The Ayurvedic answer is that all the types need all the tastes, in keeping with our own unique constitutional mix. Salt is no exception, but we don’t need very much of it. It’s necessary in small quantities for maintaining our mineral profile and retaining water; it also has a softening, grounding effect on the body. In small amounts, it stimulates digestion, in medium amounts it acts as a laxative and in large amounts it causes vomiting. You’ll know if you’ve had a bit too much at a meal if you’re feeling thirsty afterward. A well-known cure for wrinkles is to cut down on salt intake and too much can cause hair loss. It can also damage the kidneys and overdrive the adrenals.
Mentally and emotionally, the quality associated with salty taste is greed. In the positive, small amounts can make for grounded outspokenness, clearly articulating needs. In the negative, it can cause addiction to sensory satisfaction – think of the potato chip ads!
There seem to be two extremes when it comes to the salty taste. Folks either overindulge in packaged and junk foods, or they do all their own cooking and never use it. The first type need all the admonishing words out there about the pitfalls of salt, but home cooks might need to incorporate it a little more, because its actually possible to end up with deficiencies. Vatas need a little more, Pitta types also need some, and Kapha types need very little. If you find yourself craving salty food in the winter, it could be a sign that you actually need a bit more than you’re getting.
The sour taste seems to be a ‘love it or hate it’ thing. Some find it wonderfully refreshing, while it causes others to make faces. It has the elements of earth and fire; it’s heating, moderately light and wet. It’s ideally suited to Vata types. Kapha types can have moderate amounts of it, and Pittas need the least.
Remember, the constitutional types are also relative to the seasons, so the sour taste is most beneficial during the late fall and winter months. It’s also helpful in moderation in the late winter & early spring (think cleansing time).
It’s stimulating, especially where digestion is concerned, which is why it’s most helpful for Vata. In this case, it combines particularly well with the salty and pungent tastes to even greater advantage. It also reduces gas (another Vata quality), is nourishing, thirst quenching and grounding. As you can imagine, it has helpful aspects for both Kapha and Pitta, but has a few disadvantages as well. These two types do better when it’s combined and balanced with other tastes. In excess it causes digestion to move too quickly, so if you find that’s the case, reducing the amount of sour (also spicy) taste in your diet will help. Its acidity is depleting to the reproductive system, causing a lack of vitality. It can also be damaging to the liver (think of alcohol, the pure version of the sour taste).
Its complex form appears in sour or fermented foods, such as yogurt and sour fruits like citrus and green grapes, vinegar, pickles, kombucha, cheese, tomatoes and plums.
Emotionally, the sour taste can bring a sense of refreshing realism, can awaken consciousness & stimulate digestion on all levels. In Ayurveda, digestion refers not to just the intestinal process but also to emotions and impressions of all kinds. On the flip side, if you think of someone with a ‘sour grapes’ attitude, this usually implies that they are unhappy with about an aspect of their own situation, which leads them to envy and irritation with those who have what they want. If left unchecked, this can lead to a ‘sour’ disposition in general, regardless of what the person eats!
Want to join my list or learn more about your type? Go to Bite-Sized Lifestyle & complete the quiz!