There is many a person amongst us who thinks twice before partaking in a meal of prawns or some spicy crab curry. “Heaty” food being the general consensus. It works the other way around as well with yet another group rejecting a drink of king coconut or a simple brinjal curry; their argument being these “cooling” food may precipitate or further exacerbate a cold.
The concept of “heaty” and “cooling” food has been with us for generations. With close ties to traditional Ayurveda medicine it has been ingrained in the minds and lifestyles of the people of this country.
Never is the concept of “heaty” and “cooling” food spoken of in these circles. Food can be grouped according to the nutrients they contain and fall in to two broad categories.
1. Macro nutrients
2. Micro nutrients
Protiens, carbohydrates and fats are known as macro nutrients and are required in significant quantities in our meals and following digestion characteristically generate energy.
Vitamins and minerals are only needed in very small amounts, but deficiencies of these micro nutrients may disrupt many biological processes within our body and hence are an important part of our diet.
Every food item we consume contains macro and micro nutrients in variable degrees and all these food play an important role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. On the other hand foods suitable for human consumption is limited and even though they have been categorized according to their nutritional value consumption of all of these foods are encouraged.
The concept of “heaty” and “cooling” food appears to be an integral part of Ayurvedic practice. Mackerel, Brinjal/ Eggplant, Cucumber, Green gram, Watermelon, King Coconut and young coconut (Kurumba) are a handful of the many food categorized as “cooling” in nature. Ayurveda practitioners believe that these food have the ability to trigger colds and catarrh.
The above fare also play a role in the “watha” “pitha” concept of Ayurveda. They are believed to increase both of the above which are thought to play a role in temperature regulation of the body.
“Bala” fish (Skipjack tuna), prawns, cuttle fish, crabs and bread fruit are some food considered to be “heaty”.
Age old advice recommend the intake of cooling food to counteract the “heatiness” of these food items.
Widespread research on the nutritional value of food and their effects on the human body is now being carried out and scientists have gained new insight in to the subject, yet further research is needed to uncover more. The chemical composition of food is an area which has been widely researched.
There is a concept of “good and bad” food with regard to certain disease conditions in Ayurveda practice which is also seen in Western medicine. For example there are food that are contraindicated in a person with chronic kidney disease and foods that are recommended in people with certain nutrient deficiencies.
Additionally certain food items are not suitable for certain people. Intake of these food may result in the appearance of a rash and intense itching in some but can cause severe complications and even death in a few. This scenario is known as an “allergy” but the triggering factor is unique to each individual. A certain food item may cause an allergic reaction in one person and cause no symptoms what so ever in another.
Certain people experience a runny nose and catarrhal symptoms with the intake of Cows’ milk and attribute this to the fact that milk is a “cooling” drink. But the reason for these symptoms can be clearly explained with respect to certain components contained in milk.
Diarrhoea in children following ingestion of formula milk is due to the inability of the child to digest the lactose which is found in it. This has been studied extensively and research has failed to show any proof that it is because of the “cooling” effect of milk.
Most of the food items consumed by our ancestors have been lost to us with the passage of time. Certain grains of rice with medicinal value which were widely eaten by our forefathers are nonexistent today and have been replaced by imported crops like carrot, nookal, leeks, beets, beans and potatoes. Additionally these vegetables come to our plates laden with added poisonous chemicals used as fertilizer and pesticides. These are the most severe nutritional challenges faced by us today.
In this context I am of the opinion that traditional concepts can be tailored to modern times. Especially if traditional ideas about food are used hand in hand with modern scientific knowledge most so called “bad” food can be added to our diets with greater understanding. Also the valuable knowledge which has survived since time immemorial can be justified in a more productive manner to suit the modern world. What has to be done is to introduce these foods to the current generation with the help of this new found knowledge on food and nutrition.
(Our special thanks go to Ayurveda Physician G.L.N. Subasinghe for providing necessary clarifications in this article