Ayurveda on non-vegetarianism
By Dr Partap Chauhan
There have been some misconceptions about vegetarian food, and the role of vegetarianism in an Ayurvedic diet. Some authors have even claimed that Ayurveda is based on vegetarianism due to religious reasons, rather than any biological or health grounds.
It is accurate to say that original Ayurvedic principles included eating meat infrequently, and that Sage Charaka mentions that meat is nourishing when prepared and eaten under certain circumstances. However, this was under vastly different conditions. Meat formed a small proportion of the overall diet, and was obtained through traditional hunting methods and the animal lived in its native habitat and natural environment.
Charaka Samhita provides guidelines for eating both vegetable and animal products. It does not state or recommend routine meat eating. Rather, it states that meat is nutritious for the alleviation of certain diseases and when dehydrated, emaciated, weak or convalescing.
The text also mentions that meat is 'unwholesome' when it comes from an animal that has been raised in a habitat that is not its natural environment or in an area that it is not native to. Animal meat is toxic if the animal has eaten food that does not form part of its natural diet or does not come from its normal environment.
It is clear that meat, as it is prepared today, does not meet these guidelines for healthy eating. Besides, biologically humans are also more suited to a predominantly vegetarian diet. Academics from the University of Arkansas and the John Hopkins School of Medicine have conducted extensive research to prove that the teeth and jaws of human ancestors were used for cutting through foods like fruits, nuts, shoots, leaves, flowers and insects-not the flesh of other animals.
Moreover, meat is a not an easily digestible food and the long digestive process often leads to the formation of toxins—and when accumulated in the body, produces kidney stones, gout, gallstones and rheumatism. Dr Jenson, a leading American nutritionist, expresses this concept clearly when he says that, "Animal proteins putrefy very quickly in the intestinal tract, and that is why we should be careful with meats…meat is one of the most putrefactive foods…toxic protein byproducts may find their way into the bloodstream, where they cause a great deal of trouble."
A human can develop from birth with complete nourishment and experiencing total health with a purely vegetarian diet. In fact, various studies have demonstrated vegetarians have a longer lifespan, lower incidence of particular cancers and higher bone density than non-vegetarians. A balanced intake of vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes and seeds provides sufficient quantities of protein, as well as all of the required vitamins and minerals without the need for any supplements in the form of vitamins.
Ayurveda accords paramount importance to food and food habits in maintaining good health. Caraka, a Sage physician of ancient India, says food is life. Ancient texts are replete with examples of the very high status given by ayurveda to food in curing diseases as well as maintaining health. They lay stress on vegetarian food, which is termed sattvic (the most desirable for human consumption among the three categories to which ayurveda assigns all food, the other two being rajasic and tamasic in that order of declining desirability).
Regular consumption of sattvic food items helps prevent disease and maintain good physical, mental and spiritual health. According to Ayurveda, eating sattvic food and practicing a sattvic life style are the best preventive medicine.
Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic food
Sattvic food is fresh, pure and vegetarian. This includes fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, whole grain breads, nuts, seeds and salads. Foods that have a naturally sweet taste are sattvic. This does not include refined sugar products, but refers to anything that has a sweet taste without any additives, such as grains (rice, wheat and barley), breads, honey and fruits. Milk, herbal teas, pure fruit or vegetable juices and water are also included in this group. Organically grown foods are preferred, as fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals and preservatives are tamasic. Mushrooms, onions, garlic and the excessive use of spices should be avoided, as they are rajasic and/or tamasic. Alcohol, products containing caffeine (coffee, chocolate, tea, cola) and meat should eliminated from the diet. (See Chapter 4 of Eternal Health - The Essence of Ayurveda by Dr Partap Chauhan for more details)
Misconceptions about meat intake in ayurveda
Authentic ayurvedic dietary advice is based on a purely vegetarian diet. There have been some misconceptions about vegetarian food, and the role of vegetarianism in ayurveda. Some authors have even advocated the use of meat in their dietary guidelines, or proposed that people with a vata constitution need the proteins that animal foods provide. Others claim that ayurveda is based on vegetarianism for religious reasons, rather than any biological or health grounds.
It is true that eating meat was included in the original ayurvedic texts, and that Caraka mentions that meat is nourishing when prepared and eaten under certain circumstances. However, this was under vastly different conditions to those of meat production and consumption in modern times. Meat formed a small proportion of the overall diet, was obtained using traditional hunting methods, and the animal lived in its native habitat and natural environment.
Caraka provides guidelines for eating both vegetable and animal products. The characteristics of animals not to be eaten are described. Caraka does not recommend meat be eaten routinely, which is how it has sometimes been interpreted. Rather, Caraka states that meat is nutritious when used for treating certain diseases, those weak or convalescing, and in states of dehydration or emaciation. If the animal has died a natural death, has been killed by other animals or with poisonous means, is very thin, fat, old or young, eating its meat is detrimental to health. (Caraka Sutra Sthana 37:311)
Human anatomy and meat
Biologically, humans are more suited to a predominantly vegetarian diet. The teeth and jaw are not structured for a carnivorous diet. Academics from the University of Arkansas and the John Hopkins School of Medicine have spent years analyzing the design and wear patterns of human teeth, and links to the diets of primates and fossilized remains of our ancestors. Teeth with moderately sharp cusps, like ours, were only used for cutting through foods like fruits, nuts, shoots, leaves and flowers.
Carnivores have biological features that differ from herbivores. Their intestines are short and digestive acids very strong. The length of the human intestine is three to four times that of a typical carnivore, and digestive acids weaker. Meat therefore takes a long time to process, sometimes exceeding several days. In that time, a significant amount of toxicity (ama) is produced. This is a form of self-poisoning.
Dr Jenson, a leading American nutritionist, expresses this concept clearly when he states "Animal proteins putrefy very quickly in the intestinal tract… Fermentation takes place in an under active bowel and favors the multiplication of undesirable toxic bacteria, while the friendly acidophilus bacteria may be almost destroyed."
Will we get proteins from vegetables?
The value of meat in a human diet is usually linked to its protein content. It is a widespread fallacy that this protein is vital for human sustenance and cannot be obtained from any other source. Proteins required for physical strength and health are found in a wide variety of foods. If a "protein quality" rating scale of 1-100 is applied to various foods, poultry is ranked 67 and fish 80. In contrast, milk is ranked 82, grains are 50-70, legumes, nuts and seeds are 40-60 and green vegetables around 80.
The daily requirement for protein is markedly less than many people assume. In modern times, the problem with Western diets is usually excess consumption of protein rather than a deficiency. Many components of protein used by the human body (amino acids) are actually manufactured internally. Of the 22 amino acids that protein provides, the human body produces 13 without any input from dietary sources. The remainder can be obtained from plant foods.
Some people assume that vegetarian diets lack the B group of vitamins B12. This vitamin is essential in the diet, and a deficiency can lead to fatigue, poor concentration or memory and insomnia. Sufficient intake of B12 can be obtained from milk, cheese, and whole grains. A balanced and varied vegetarian diet prevents the need for any supplements of the B group of vitamins.
Importance of balanced intake
Animal protein in the form of flesh is not essential for human growth and development. A human can develop normally from birth, and obtain complete nourishment and experience total health, with a purely vegetarian diet. In fact, various studies have demonstrated vegetarians have a longer lifespan, lower incidence of particular cancers and higher bone density than non-vegetarians.
A balanced intake of vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes and seeds provides sufficient quantities of protein, as well as all the required vitamins and minerals for health, vitality and energy. There is a huge range of tasty and satisfying vegetarian recipes that are easy to prepare and sattvic in nature. Vegetarian food does not mean bland, tasteless or raw vegetables and salads!
Although Ayurveda may be associated with particular spiritual principles, such as not killing living beings, the vegetarian facet of the diet can also be related to a literal interpretation of Sage Charaka as well as biological considerations of human physiology.
For more information on Ayurveda and it benefits please contact:
Kaviraj Partap S. Chauhan (Cyber Vaidya)
Director, Jiva Ayurvedic Research Institute