Apart from what to eat, how to eat is also important!
(1) Regular habits are helpful.
(2) Do not eat unless you are hungry. If there is no hunger, it is better to skip a meal. Spices like ginger provoke jatharagni (digestive fire) and make one hungry. If liver is clogged, thus killing the appetite, detoxification may be needed. Bitter foods (e.g. bitter melon) cleanse liver. Triphala tea is a great detoxifier for the gastro-intestinal tract and safe for daily use.
(3) When there is hunger, do not suppress it for too long. Your body will be confused and lose its rhythm in long run.
(4) Most importantly, eat slowly and focus on the food when eating. Don’t look at food as an object that gives calories, carbs and proteins etc. It is what *makes* you, at least physically. Have love and reverence for it and pay attention to it while you eat it. The rituals before and after eating were designed to cultivate this attitude. But, they have just become rituals. People say mantras before/after eating, but focus on TV or talking, while eating. Whether or not you say any mantras before/after eating, be aware that the divine has manifested as that food in front of you and will nourish you. Eat each bite with reverence, love and gratitude.
(5) Stop eating when you feel 90% full. There is a delay in the feedback from stomach to brain. If your your brain thinks you are 90% full, you are probably 100% full in reality – you will realize it in a few more minutes.
(6) VERY IMPORTANT: Take time and chew your food perfectly. By the time it is swallowed in, food must be like a smooth and flowing paste. Saliva will turn it into that, if you chew it well. Unfortunately, most people nowadays do not chew their food perfectly, due to time pressure. Any big or small unpasted solid pieces swallowed will not give you strength. Instead, they will rot in your stomach and intestines over a long time and become gas.
(7) Do NOT drink much water with a meal. Take just a few sips to soften the food being swallowed. For ideal digestion, food should stay in stomach for an hour or two, before going down into small intestines via osmosis. If it is over-diluted with a cup or two of water, it will leave stomach before the first stage of digestion finishes. It is like sending a 5 year old child directly to 8th grade – bad idea!
(8) Wait for a couple of hours after a meal and then drink water. Then you can drink plenty of water. Before that, it is ok to take small sips of water, but not too much water that washes food down. About 30-45 minutes before a meal, a lot of water (e.g. a cup) can be taken to flush the system clean and stimulate the production of enzymes for digestion.
(9) Kapha people should eat less and spicy (but they hate spice). Pitta people should a few big meals and not spicy (but they love spice). Vata people should eat several small meals.
(10) Unless you are a pitta person living in hot climates, avoid cold drinks or cold foods. They destabilize your digestive system.
(11) Do not eat dinner just before sleeping. That is a terrible habit many people have. Eat dinner at least 2 hours before sleeping.
Apart from being aware of what is good for you, try to avoid processed foods with artificial ingredients and preservatives. Avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, refined sugars, sugar alternatives etc. The “sugar free” sweets are a fad taking off in India now and avoid this dangerous trend. Instead of eating sugar free sweets, simply avoid sweets or at least avoid “refined sugar” that is simply sucrose. Natural sugarcane juice has several other ingredients that make it effective. If you remove everything else and use only sucrose, it can become problematic. If you leave me with my house, wife, kids, friends, computer etc, I can do what I do now. If you deprive me of all this and take me into an isolation chamber, I cannot produce the same output I do now! So don’t blame sucrose for sugar problems people have, but blame the idoiticity of human race that chose to use sucrose in isolation for sweetness. Consider more wholesome sugars rather than artificial alternatives like sucralose. It is only a matter of time before people realize their dangers!
Instead of using normal white refined salt (“pure” sodium chloride), consider other salt (e.g. natural mineral salt) or unrefined sea salt, which have several other minerals.
As one person put it, refined “white” sugar, refined “white” salt, refined “white” rice are the source of many diseases today. The original brown versions of all three are superior.
Also, in general, food cooked fresh is the best. There is a tamasik quality to old/stale food, even if the ingredients used were saattwik.
A lot of people unknowingly combine incompatible foods and that puts stress on their digestive system. For example, if you mix milk and sour fruits (e.g. strawberries), both become more difficult to digest. One may sometimes not see any external symptom due to this bad practice for a long time, but this overloading of the digestive system creates problems under the surface. By the time, its boils over and shows up as an external symptom, it may be too tough to fix.
A nice list of incompatible foods compiled by Dr Vasant Lad can be found at: http://www.ayurveda.com/pdf/food_combining.pdf
Imagine a workplace where unproductive and undesirable employees are not fired, but retained. They drag everyone down – getting rid of them improves the productivity of others.
Similarly, elimination is as important as assimilation. Without proper elimination, appetite and assimilation will be weaker.
A lot of people now-a-days suffer from various levels of constipation. Please note that constipation is not just complete lack of elimination, but also a lower level of elimination than required.
Not drinking enough water, not drinking water at the right times, drinking too many cold drinks, eating cold food, eating food with many chemicals, drinking too much caffeinated drinks (they dehydrate one), irregular habits, stress & anxiety and toxic build in the digestive system, are some of the reasons.
Drinking one cup of warm/hot Triphala tea before sleeping can improve regular elimination. Triphala is the powder of 3 dried fruits (including amla/gooseberry) and readily available in Indian stores. Between 1/2 to 1 1/2 spoons of powder can be boiled with hot water and filtered like tea. The powder quantity can be fixed by trial and error, as different people need different amounts.
Eating right food, eating regularly, being in good spirits in general and especially when eating, regular exericse (however little) will improve health.
If one has bad habits, one’s body may handle it fine for a long time and external symptoms of illness may not show up, especially in the first 30-40 years of one’s life. As one hits 40s and 50s, problems accumulated under the surface due to bad habits will slowly boil over the surface and start showing external symptoms. By this time, the problems may be too tough to fix with simple lifestyle changes.
As they say, prevention is better than cure!
At least physically, you are what you eat. So eat carefully and wisely. Most importantly, as we live in this dark age of misinformation generated by a cacophony of phony self-interests and agendas, even those who religiously follow what they are told is good for them by pop culture end up suffering. I strongly recommend falling back to the wisdom of rishis!