In Ayurveda’s approach to cooking, digestibility plays an integral role. Stirring together the ingredients based on the season, constitution or imbalance, to support the digestive process. With disease said to begin with indigestion, digestion becomes a vast, multi-layered topic in Ayurveda. One that Laura Plumb understands on a holistic level. A teacher of Ayurveda, Yoga, and Jyotish (astrology), she’s also the author of Ayurveda Cooking for Beginners. A cookbook with ayurvedic recipes inspired from cultures around the world. Here, she shares her knowledge and wisdom about digestion. Chit-chatting with us about the metabolic, digestive fire—feeding, boosting and optimizing fire energy for healthier living and digesting.
Laura also shared a delicious, Sicilian inspired recipe, Fennel & Fava Bean Soup. We cooked up a batch here at Chit.Chaat.Chai and all we can say is ghee + lemon zest + fennel—in love!
Cultivating Digestion & Boosting the Metabolic Digestive Fire, Q & A with Laura Plumb
In your new cookbook, Ayurveda Cooking for Beginners, you talk about how Ayurveda speaks to feeding our fire for optimal digestion. What does it mean to feed our fire?
We take it for granted now, but the discovery of fire was a game-changer. Fire gave warmth, fire gave light and fire gave protection from wild animals. People gathered together around a fire, cultivating the social bonds essential to survival. Fire consumes waste—it can cleanse, as well as destroy. Ancient people considered fire to be a god. Agni, as we call it in Ayurveda, is a force of nurturance, sustenance and, potentially, destruction.
Over time, people came to understand that we have an internal agni. The agni within is also a power that warms, nurtures, consumes, transforms—and when inflamed, can be destructive. Our principle agni is our digestive fire, we also have metabolic fires, synaptic fires, optic fires, and temperature regulating fires. These fires of conversion help us turn food, information, and experiences into nourishment for our bodies, minds, and lives.
When it comes to feeding our fire or agni, we feed all of these fires to feed our inner force. In relation to our diet, eating fresh, seasonal foods, closest to its natural design helps to ignite and sustain our digestive fires. While stabilizing us within in an environment that is constantly varied and dynamic.
What are the benefits of using this perspective in relation to our dietary choices?
First, it means we understand that hunger is not just an ache to quell with any filler, but that it is a call, like bells calling us to prayer. Knowing this inspires us to feed our inner fires intelligently, with greater self-care and self-respect.
Second, we may no longer consider digestion to be a divine being, but given how powerful it is in maintaining and strengthening our life force, we could say it is one of our superpowers. I believe it is worth taking a moment before each meal to quietly thank that inner power. We know through scientific study that our inner fires respond well to acknowledgment. Similar to how we think better when we are calm, our synaptic fires, we digest better when we are in a state of appreciation.
How do we feed our fire to cultivate digestion?
The neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel suggests that the invention of cooking made food yield more metabolic energy. Allowing humans to develop the largest primate brain. While the brain is 2% of the body, it uses 25% of the calories we need to function each day. She says “Cooking is essentially the act of using fire to pre-digest food, and thus to get more energy out of the same amount of food. This is what allowed our brains to get bigger in a relatively short period of time. Cooking also allowed us to support this large cerebral cortex, which in turn supports complex thought.”
When I read Herculano-Houzel’s research, I felt she was offering the western scientific rationale to ayurvedic nutrition. Cooking food is one of the most important ways we can feed our fire to cultivate digestion. It not only predigests our food, releasing energy for brain power, cooking food also releases more macro and micro-nutrients.
Adding small amounts of sour and pungent tastes to each meal is also a great way to cultivate digestion. These two tastes are like lighter fluid for the digestive fire. Sour tasting foods are acidic and include citrus, ferments, vinegar, yogurt, kombucha, etc. Pungent foods tend to be spices and herbs like ginger, onion, garlic, cinnamon, clove, and pepper.
A few more ways to cultivate digestion and boost the metabolic fires:
- Opting for warm water at meals
- Sipping lemon ginger tea throughout the day
- Add a dash of black pepper to meals for more firepower
- Eat with the seasons. As nature changes with each season so do your body’s needs. Locally grown, seasonal foods offer the balancing nourishment the digestive fire seeks.
Adjust your diet to your individual needs. Each one of us is uniquely designed. There is no one superfood or super diet that is perfect for all. It is worth exploring what is best for you. This can get complex, but your intuition is a terrific guide. If it feels overwhelming, or you would like some guidance, seek out an experienced Ayurveda Professional to help you develop a personal plan.
Be a sunchaser, love this term! How does adjusting meal size according to the sun, cultivate digestion?
The geniuses who gave us Ayurveda looked at the world around us and saw parallels. They realized that we can see ourselves in the dynamics of our natural world. In that, they noticed that our own digestive “fire,” the fire at the center of our bellies, follows the rhythms of the fire around which we travel, the fire at the center of our solar system.
The sun is strongest when it is overhead at midday. Generally, this is the time when our inner fire is the strongest. A good time to eat the largest meal of the day, heavier foods or foods that are harder to digest like raw or bitter foods. At sunrise and sunset, the sun and our digestive fire tends to be weaker. Meals around this time are generally recommended to be lighter, gently cooked, and appropriately spiced. For example, breakfast could be cooked grains with toasted seeds and coconut, lunch could be dal, rice, cooked vegetables and a salad, and dinner might be a soup or steamed vegetables.
To be a sunchaser is to be one who remembers that we are alive because of the sun. It gives us our food, it keeps our temperature exact, it gives us the light to see, and color to delight. We are designed to live in rhythm with the earth’s rotations. When we remember this relationship we not only improve digestion, but we restore health, boost vitality and feel our lives more creative, purposeful and joy-filled.
For me, Ayurveda is a reminder that we are always in relationship with food and the internal fires, with breath, the trees that give us the oxygen, with the sun, the moon, and all of nature. It is a relationship of belonging and a relationship that reunites us with our source.
We hear a lot about intermittent fasting lately, what is it and how does it benefit the digestive process?
In the same way, that too many large logs can impair a fire, our own digestion can get overwhelmed with too much food or food that is too heavy or hard to digest. Just as a fire can restore itself if you leave it for a time to burn away at that load, our own digestive fire can restore itself with time. Intermittent fasting is like that. It gives your digestion a chance to digest excess food or to reset itself.
Ayurveda has always suggested we eat breakfast at sunrise, lunch at midday and a light dinner at sunset. This alone would give a 12-hour fast each night. For someone with sluggish or impaired appetite, digestion or metabolism, skipping dinner the same day once a week can also be helpful.
What are some obstacles you’ve had to overcome or overcoming when it comes to food and eating?
Breakfast! I like breakfast on a weekend, with family or friends. But day-to-day, it is more of a challenge—to enjoy it and to sit down to it. I am usually not hungry in the morning, and there is so much to do! Brush my teeth, scrape tongue, oil pull, abhyanga, yoga, pranayam, meditation, morning walk, and often a stop at the gym. All that before prepping breakfast for my son and getting him off for his day. Then my workday is off and running—articles are due, clients are scheduled, events need to be planned…
I find toast is often a good solution, with a smear of avocado, almond butter and cinnamon, rose petal jam or chyvanprash. In summer, it’s a handful of berries. But really, the ideal for me is to eat my main meal at 10:30 am or 11 am and dinner between 5 and 6 pm.
There’s a saying, a rogi has three meals a day, a bhogi has two meals a day, and a yogi has one. Reminding us, we are each different. Ayurveda is brilliant at showing us how to live well for maximum health, energy, clarity, and contentment. While informing us that we have to apply it’s principles individually. My constitution, age, and lifestyle make two meals a day best for me. Even while I fully understand and appreciate the rules for eating breakfast at a regular time each day!
Ginger is said to be a wonderful spice to ignite the digestive fire, are there any alternative spices you recommend, for people who are not ginger fans?
Ginger has so many benefits it is something of a one-stop spice. But for the anti-inflammatory benefits, there is turmeric, cinnamon and black pepper are good to boost digestion, mint is also wonderful for an upset tummy. While cardamom helps balance blood sugar. Those are just a few suggestions off the top of my head. The Ayurveda spice pantry is vast and potent.
Laura Plumb is an international teacher of Ayurveda, Yoga, and Jyotish. She is the creator of the popular Ayurvedic food blog Food: A Love Story and the co-founder of the Deep Yoga School of Healing Arts. With a 53-part television show called VedaCleanse and a 12-part series called Divine Yoga, Laura is regarded as a leader on mind-body medicine and the power of the Vedic sciences to promote sacred and sumptuous living.