Meat (and Dairy) According to Ayurveda
A question I’ve been asked time and time again is whether the “Ayurvedic diet” is vegetarian or vegan. And while, I hesitate to give a set answer, as there is no one-size fits all diet or lifestyle, Ayurveda generally recommends fresh, vital foods that are easy to digest and promote mental clarity. This does not describe meat.
Known to be tamasic & deranging, generally, meat is said to breed toxic sludge (ama) due to its difficulty to digest. In fact, saturated fats from animal flesh is known to be one of the most difficult things to digest and one of the top dietary contributors to the formation of ama.
Said to feed infections, fevers and tumors, meat is known to have a dulling effect on the mind and senses and a reduction of one’s sense of love and compassion.
Also known to create bad karma, the more highly evolved the animal is, in Ayurveda, karmically, it is only advisable to consume meat if necessary or to preserve or save a life. (For reference, red meat, (cows in particular) creates the most negative karma, birds like chickens are somewhere in the middle, and fish and shellfish create the least.)
On the flip side, in classical Ayurvedic texts, meat is recommended as treatment for numerous health conditions and is described as one of the most nourishing / strengthening foods, suggesting it’s a solid food choice for those suffering from debility or convalescence or for those with high Vata / in need of tissue rebuilding.
Interestingly enough, meat was also traditionally used for its rajasic / stimulating effects on the mind – specifically by soldiers who would eat meat before battle to stimulate mind and emotions. Something I invite you to consider in your day-to-day life. Is this the type of energy you are looking to show up with?
While, it’s said that animal organs can be strongly nourishing to their respective organs, it’s important to note that they also tend to produce low quality tissue. Additionally, while bones and bone broth can nourish the marrow, they are also heavy and tend to make blood toxic, which is why when looking at any food, it is important to consider the overall goal / impact of our choices, rather than just one dimension.
As the movement towards vegetarian / vegan eating continues to grow, an increasing number of meat / dairy alternative products are showing up on the market. More often than not, these engineered replacements are filled with foreign, unnatural ingredients used to color, flavor, sweeten preserve, bleach, emulsify and bind ingredients into foods that imitate the ones we are trying to avoid.
Unfortunately, usually, testing on the impact of these artificial ingredients to our bodies have not been conducted and our bodies have to work harder to process and eliminate these foreign additives.
While Ayurveda generally avoids blanket statements about food, it does state that it is always best to choose natural, whole foods, over artificially farmed, processed or packaged foods. For this reason, I highly suggest avoiding meat / dairy replacements made with strange ingredients / chemicals. While it can be tempting to indulge, from my experience, more often than not your digestive system pays.
So what about my favorite animal product, eggs?
Sweet, warm with a sweet post-digestive effect eggs are known to decrease Vata, and increase Pitta and Kapha. They are tonic, nutritive, demulcent and aphrodisiac and are said to give vigor, promote fertility and help with sexual debility.
Said to be less tamasic than meat / fish, as they do not require the killing of a live animal, karmically speaking, they are still said to be impure, unless necessary for health / life, with unfertilized eggs said to be better.
For those choosing to include meat or eggs in your diet, it is advisable to choose fresh, free range / locally sourced and humanely treated animals over factory farmed animals or frozen, imported mystery meats, as modern meat farming practices such as hormone / chemical injections are known to compromise healing properties.
It is also recommended to avoid buying meats sold in packaged foam and sealed with plastic wrap, due to potential toxicity. These types of meats are often frozen before they reach our plate, transforming meat into devitalized / tamasic food.
While there is much mention of dairy products in the Ayurvedic diet, particularly cow’s milk, it is important to note that many of these guidelines are rooted in ancient times when it was common for householders to have access to fresh, unprocessed dairy, often from their own livestock that were treated with love.
Unfortunately, in today’s modern world, many of the dairy products we see in stores today are infused with hormones and antibiotics, sourced from animals being fed foods containing dangerous pesticides.
From the lens of Ayurveda, the pasteurization and homogenization of the dairy we find in stores today leaves the food dull or tamasic. Although these practices increase the shelf life and visual appeal of the food, they deplete both vitality, enzymes and beneficial bacteria, making digestion / absorption of nutrients more difficult. Similarly, methods used to create low / non-fat dairy products similarly decrease digestibility / nutrition.
It’s also important to consider that while naturally, cows secrete milk out of love for the calves, this energy is lacking in most modern day farming operations when animals are artificially grown and fed.
For those choosing to include dairy in their diet, it is suggested to choose fresh, raw (really hard to find) organic and locally sourced whenever possible. To help make milk more digestible, it is recommended to boil the milk and allow to cool before consumption. This breaks down the complex protein molecules and makes the milk lighter and easier to digest, while retaining the important enzymes and beneficial bacteria. Adding a pinch of spice such as cardamom or ginger also helps.
It is also great to remember, it’s most important to feel good about whatever dietary choices you are making, as the emotions we feel which eating play a great role in how we digest and absorb the nutrients of the foods that we consume. It is said that it is no better to be a doubtful vegetarian than it is to be a guilty- meat eater.
And while Ayurveda tends to favor a vegetarian diet, rich in whole grains, beans, fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds with a moderate amount of dairy such as cow or goat milk, ghee, yogurt and soft cheese, it does offer various guidelines for those choosing to include meat in their diet.
To start, it is important to consider your individual constitution when selecting meat. In general, lighter meats are preferred – unless you are using meat for specific medicinal purposes such as building tissues.
Vata types benefit most from meats due to its grounding and nutrient-rich quality. Oils deep water fish such as salmon or other cold-water fish are okay, along with beef, which is recommended for those needing help rebuilding tissues. Pittas benefit most from white meats such as chicken or turkey breast, but should limit their intake of red meat & saltwater fish which are known to be highly aggravating. Kapha types tolerate animal foods the least, but will do better with freshwater fish or white meats, due to their lower salt content and lighter nature.
When it comes to cooking, it is important to thoroughly cook meat, avoiding raw or barely cooked meats, preferably using pungent, digestion boosting spices such as cumin, fennel or garlic. Sea salt is helpful for softening and tenderizing it and stews and soups make it easier to digest.
In terms of food combining, meat does not generally combine well with other foods. Mixed with milk or other dairy products, it is known to be especially toxic. Funny enough, it also does not combine well with bread or potatoes – 2 of the most common side dishes in the North American diet.
Instead, as a side, the toxic effects of meat can be somewhat antidoted by the addition of raw vegetables leafy greens and vegetable juices. Bitter herbs like aloe gel can also help with digestion
Seasonally, it is best to eat meat in the fall / winter and to avoid in the summer and as is best consumed at lunch when agni (digestive fire) is high.
For anyone looking to cut down on their consumption of meat and begin moving more towards a vegetarian diet, it is suggested to begin by eliminating / limiting the heaviest meats such as red meat first, gradually towards the lighter meats like seafood, giving yourself and your digestive system time to adjust as you go.
If you are a daily meat eater, perhaps begin by cutting back your serving size of meat, only having meat with one meal a day (preferably lunch) or by taking days off from eating meat altogether.
It is also important to remember, when making any sort of major dietary adjustments, it is helpful to gradually make changes, remembering to add the necessary foods to make up for the nutrients lost from elimination.
A great way to start is to begin incorporating more protein-rich plants such as tofu, beans, nuts, seeds or tempeh into your diet. For those choosing to consume dairy, soft cheeses, yogurt and milk depending on constitution are advised.
Finally, one of the most important things to consider when looking at diet in Ayurveda is that one person’s medicine can be another’s poison. While meat is generally not advised as a regular food choice, Ayurveda favors personal experience, over dogmatic adherence to strict rules.
In my experience, the guidelines provided by the framework of Ayurveda have been great starting points in reshaping the way I relate with food and through experimentation and getting into the habit of tuning into the subtle effects of the foods I eat, I’ve been able to make choices that best support my unique being.
While I currently refuse to commit to any set label, after experimenting with many – vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian and so on, I find my body responds best to mostly plant-based, whole foods. That being said, I certainly leave room for the occasional splurge of high quality dairy / seafood and with loving awareness allow myself to indulge from time to time.