By Nancy Lonsdorf, MD
The six-taste ticket to good health You may know the three primary colors, the eight notes in a musical scale, and the nine planets circling our sun, but can you list the six fundamental tastes in food?
According to ayurveda, the healing tradition from ancient India, eating all six tastes can balance your body, eliminate cravings, and help you lose weight—without counting calories, restricting carbs, or feeling deprived. In fact, not eating the full complement of tastes each day can actually cause cravings and may play a role in America’s obesity epidemic.
Westerners already know at least four of the six tastes—sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. We enjoy the sweet taste in grains, legumes, dairy, starchy vegetables (potatoes, yams, and carrots), sweet fruits, and the cookie jar. Sour comes from citrus fruits, curdled foods like cheese and yogurt, and fermented substances like alcohol, vinegar, and pickles. We find salty in the ever-present saltshaker and in prepared foods. For spicy, think salsa. Ginger, chilies, black pepper, clove, garlic, and milder spices like cinnamon, basil, mint, and thyme also count as spicy.
The last two tastes—bitter and astringent—tend to rank low on our list of favorites. We’d do well to include them in our diets, though, because they’re the dominant flavors in the most beneficial phytonutrients, and the foods that contain them may offer the most health benefits of all. Bitter characterizes Popeye’s spinach fix, as well as most green leafy vegetables, tea, coffee, olives, grapefruit, and cocoa. Astringent foods—such as cranberries, walnuts, turmeric, pomegranate, rhubarb, and most unripe fruits—make us want to pucker up, and they leave the mouth feeling dry. Foods often contain many tastes, but ayurveda classifies them by their main flavor.
According to ayurveda, each of the tastes affects us differently, depending on which of the three doshas it’s connected to. Doshas are the fundamental processes that guide the way our bodies function. They include mind and movement (vata dosha), metabolism (pitta dosha), and structure (kapha dosha). To help understand doshas, think of them in terms of your car: Vata controls the electronics and moving parts, pitta controls the burning of fuel, and kapha controls the chassis, lubrication, and all the structural parts.
When our doshas function normally—“in balance”—we enjoy good health. If they’re imbalanced and one dominates the others, symptoms manifest in our bodies and minds, depending on which dosha is out of whack.
Since the six tastes affect our three doshas in predictable ways, we can favor food flavors that will tame a rogue dosha and restore balance to the whole body.
Balancing vata and kapha
Sweet, sour, and salty flavors balance a rampaging vata dosha. Vata controls all activity, breath, and consciousness, but when it predominates, you can suffer from anxiety, dryness, digestive problems, and insomnia, among other things. The popular and ubiquitous tastes of sweet, sour, and salty calm our nerves and soothe our bodies.
Although these flavors balance vata dosha, they also increase the kapha dosha, which controls physical stature. Thus, foods with these tastes help build the body’s tissues, including fat. Kids naturally prefer sweet, sour, and salty tastes, which support their growth, a function of the kapha dosha. For adults, however, eating too many sweet, sour, or salty foods can easily throw kapha out of balance—promoting such common problems as weight gain, high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
To balance vata and kapha, we must “round out” our diets by adding more bitter, astringent, and pungent (spicy) tastes. Eating proportionately more of those foods—and much less sweet, sour, and salty—can help us shed pounds quickly and without cravings.
Another health concern is chronic inflammation, which can underlie heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Temporary, targeted inflammation—a natural occurrence—helps heal acute injuries or infection, but chronic inflammation can lead to irritated, inflamed tissues and, at its extreme, tumors, clogged arteries, and other debilitating diseases.
Ayurveda teaches that chronic inflammation results from an imbalance in the pitta dosha, the biochemical machinery that governs digestion and metabolism. Junk food, saturated and partially hydrogenated (trans) fats, anger, stress, smoking, exposure to toxins, and alcohol in excess can cause pitta imbalance.
If you suffer from chronic inflammation (you can find out with a blood test that measures your level of C-reactive protein) or if you have symptoms of pitta imbalance, adjusting the flavors you eat can help. Favor whole foods with predominantly sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes. Get your “sweet” taste from sweet fruits, whole grains, and vegetables, and limit refined sweets and candies, which can promote inflammation.
Using ayurvedic knowledge of the six tastes to balance your eating habits can enhance your health—and make your meals more interesting. Add each flavor to every meal, strive for balance, and most importantly, enjoy your food!
Balancing Your Doshas
VATA: When imbalanced, vata can cause anxiety, fear, trembling, dryness, gas, bloating, constipation, insomnia, underweight, and lack of stamina or strength.
- To balance vata: Favor sweet, sour, and salty foods. Avoid raw, cold, crunchy, and dry foods and include plenty of warm foods and healthy unsaturated fats.
PITTA: When imbalanced, pitta can cause anger, irritability, rashes, overheating, colitis, sun sensitivity, heartburn, and moles, as well as age spots and early graying or thinning hair.
- To balance pitta: Favor sweet foods (from whole foods, not refined sugar), as well as bitter and astringent foods. Eat foods at a comfortable, not-too-hot temperature and avoid hot drinks.
KAPHA: When imbalanced, kapha can cause weight gain, sluggishness, lethargy, dullness, depression, slow digestion, allergies, sinus and respiratory problems, and a lack of motivation.
- To balance kapha: Favor pungent (spicy hot), bitter, and astringent foods. Reduce heavy, oily, and creamy foods.