Two months had passed since my daughter was born, and still I was walking around in a fog. I understand, based on comments from friends and family, that I radiated happiness during this time, but what I remember is struggling with sleeplessness and the constant demands of a newborn—my 8-pound bundle of joy had the clear upper hand. My once-balanced life—the one in which I practiced yoga, wrote, and made healthy meals—was replaced by one in which it took effort and planning to even sneak in a handful of almonds to call lunch. Looking back, it’s no wonder I felt so cruddy. Almonds as lunch? Really?
At some point—I can’t recall when; the days and weeks blend together—I decided that for my health I needed to have at least one balanced and nurturing meal a day. It wasn’t easy to manage, but let me tell you: It helped. It didn’t add any extra hours into my schedule or make the 3 a.m. baby wake-up calls go away, but it did make my days and nights much more manageable—not only because I felt more energized, but also because I felt like I was doing something for myself (a big deal for a mom). I didn’t realize it then, but I had embarked on a new path toward a sattvic diet, a way of eating that proponents say helps promote clarity, calm, and balance.
Balance for a new mom? Sign me up.
According to ayurveda (the ancient Indian system of medicine closely tied to yoga), all living things—food included—possess three qualities in varying degrees: sattva (lightness), rajas (stimulation), and tamas (dullness and heaviness). Foods are categorized according to the feelings and qualities they instill or enhance. Rajasic, or stimulating, foods include peppers (the hotter, the more rajasic) and caffeine. Tamasic foods are heavy and include fast foods, frozen foods, meat, and alcohol—essentially anything that leaves you craving a good, long nap. (Thanksgiving come to mind?)
Sattvic foods epitomize lightness and freshness. The body digests and absorbs them easily, and their readily available nutrients are thought to boost immunity and prevent chronic inflammation, arthritic conditions, and fibrous tissue buildup (think fibrocystic breasts and fibroid tumors). According to ayurvedic medicine, digestion, absorption of nutrients, and waste removal provide the keys to longevity, and a sattvic diet promotes all three. “Sattvic foods have a low probability of forming ama, or toxic buildup in the body,” says Felicia Tomasko, a registered nurse, yoga teacher, and ayurvedic practitioner in Santa Monica, California. On the flip side, excessively rajasic or tamasic foods not only create ama, they may also stress the body and contribute to premature aging, says John Douillard, DC, PhD, director of Dr. John Douillard’s LifeSpa in Boulder, Colorado.
This wisdom aligns with recent research from conventional docs as well. Western scientists have found that nightshade vegetables (including potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers) may aggravate inflammatory conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia. The ayurvedic take: Nightshades are rajasic, or stimulating, which means they aggravate “hot” conditions like those caused by inflammation.
Since sattvic foods mitigate the inflammatory response, experts believe they hold the key to modern-day health problems. Tomasko’s own experience has made her a believer. After battling depression throughout her 20s and 30s, she tried a sattvic diet and became more energetic and happier, and she’s been eating this way ever since. Her new diet also inspired a more conscious relationship with food through a greater understanding of the effects different foods have on her energy and emotions.
Shanon Hoffman, a website publisher in the Washington, DC, area, feels the same way. After experiencing a devastating emotional trauma, Hoffman noticed changes in her body: Her period became irregular, her digestion suffered, and her skin broke out. Not sure whom to see to untangle her emotional mess and address her physical symptoms, Hoffman made an appointment with an ayurvedic doctor in Washington, DC. After their one-hour consultation, the doctor instructed Hoffman to follow a sattvic diet. Within a few months, Hoffman had regained much of her energy, felt more radiant, and was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel; in fact, she felt her entire perspective on life had changed.
The reason for such a shift in energy and mood, proponents argue, is the qualities found in sattvic food. “Fresh, sweet foods and complex carbohydrates are shown to have beneficial effects on neurotransmitter balance and mood,” Tomasko says. “Think sweet potatoes, not Prozac.”
Sattva at home
Want to try a sattvic diet for yourself? Certain principles are easy to apply (cut fried foods to avoid that heavy feeling, for instance), but others take a little more commitment to change. As you might imagine, the typical high-paced American lifestyle and the sattvic diet don’t always mesh. It’s hard to eat light and fresh when you rely on convenience meals like energy bars and frozen foods. Moreover, it’s not just the what, but also the how and when that make a difference in eating for energy and balance. When you go sattvic, you need to take the time to savor your meals, and you need to schedule your largest meal of the day when your agni (or digestive fire) is strongest—around midday, not at 9 p.m. while watching the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy. (Note to self: dinner with Dr. McDreamy cancelled until further notice.)
Ready to get started? Below are the basic principles of a sattvic diet, as well as some tips on how to implement them.
Think fresh. The principle quality of sattvic foods is freshness. Fresh foods contain more prana, or essential life force, which in Western terms generally translates to more
vitamins and minerals. Choose fresh fruits and veggies instead of canned or frozen, fresh meals instead of leftovers, and seasonal and local food instead of stuff that crossed the globe to get to your supermarket. Most whole grains, including amaranth, barley, buckwheat, millet, basmati rice, oats, quinoa, and wheat, classify as sattvic because they are sweet and easy to digest. Beans and fruits (including dried fruit) also fall into this category. Beans, easily digestible? According to ayurveda, the body digests beans more easily than other proteins (meats are considered rajasic). Veggies may seem like the obvious go-to food for freshness, but think twice before you chop: The “spicy” vegetables (onions and garlic, for instance) stimulate the senses, making them rajasic, while mushrooms are considered tamasic, causing indigestion and gas. For me, cutting these flavorful staples was the hardest part of adhering to a sattvic diet.
Spice it right. Spices play a big role in a sattvic diet, but in moderation. Use them to enhance the flavor of fresh foods; don’t go for sensory overload. Some sattvic recipes may call for five or more spices, but in small quantities. Certain spices, such as fennel, cinnamon, and ginger, appear prominently in sattvic recipes because they keep digestion running smoothly and help balance out otherwise un-sattvic foods. Use black pepper sparingly, as some consider it to be both sattvic and rajasic.
Set a sattvic scene. Here we come back to the how and when of the meal—and meal prep. Cook in a nurturing and loving environment—maybe light a candle and play some soothing music as you chop and bake. When it comes time to eat, create a calm, happy space. “Choosing the environment in which we cook and eat provides the sattvic container for the experience,” Tomasko explains. Eating with friends and family, with natural or soft light, provides the soothing setting that enhances sattva, which in turn will enhance your digestion. Food should be savored while sitting down—and not in front of the television or computer—so you take the time to truly nourish your body and mind.
Making a sattvic diet work
I know what you’re thinking: Lovely in principle, but remember that typical American lifestyle you talked about? Well, I’m living it. Here’s the thing: It’s not all or nothing, and no one benefits if you add more stress to your day by scrambling to make all these changes. (My deal-breaker? Giving up leftovers.) Fortunately, the practitioners I spoke with cautioned me against beating myself up over the details. “You need to understand that everything is on a continuum,” Tomasko cautions. “It is better to eat homemade leftovers than frozen dinners.”
Amadea Morningstar, founder of the Ayurveda Polarity and Yoga Therapy Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, agrees: Self-judgment undermines the principles of sattvic living. “Finding sattva means letting go—being present, calm, and grateful for what we have and what we’re able to do, instead of berating ourselves for our ‘mistakes,’?” she says.
For me, learning to practice non-judgment was key to finding more sattva—both in my meals and in my life. With all I was juggling as a new mom, making everything fresh and organic was about as realistic as scheduling in a date with Johnny Depp. I struggled to find time to shower every day, let alone chop, cook, and prepare three fresh meals. I did have time to imbue more sattva into my food, though—even leftovers. I could sit down with my family and enjoy the meal. I could pause and say a prayer, feel gratitude. Sattvic eating doesn’t hinge on deprivation or laboring in the kitchen, but on listening closely to what will make you feel good—not just now, but tomorrow as well.
Last week, I found myself driving to the store out of a hankering for a chocolate chip cookie. I did buy the cookie, but I didn’t scarf it down in the car like usual. Instead, I came home, made some tea, took a moment to pause and express my gratitude, and then enjoyed every bite. I didn’t judge myself; instead, I actually felt nurtured. It felt good to savor my treat, to sip a cup of warm tea, and just to be still. For at that one moment, I had nothing else to do but enjoy. Is this sattva? I’d say so. n
Melissa b. Williams is a freelance writer and editor based in Louisville, Colorado.
Dal With Winter Vegetables
3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or vegetable oil
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup peeled and cubed
4 cups water
1 tablespoon freshly
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon iodized salt (must be iodized on a sattvic diet)
1 1/2 cups dried yellow lentils
2 cups broccoli florets
1 teaspoon brown
2 teaspoons cumin seed
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1. Add 2 tablespoons ghee (or oil), carrots, and squash to a large saucepan. Sauté for 8 minutes.
2. Add water, ginger, turmeric, coriander, salt, and lentils. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for one hour.
3. Add chopped broccoli and an additional cup of water (omit the water if you prefer a thick dal), and simmer for 10 minutes.
4. While broccoli is cooking, toast brown mustard, cumin, and fennel in a skillet over high heat for 1 minute, or until spices become fragrant.
5. Add remaining ghee or oil to the skillet, and sauté 1 minute. Combine with the broccoli and lentil mixture, and serve with basmati rice.
nutrition info per serving: 158 calories; 7.8 g fat; 1.1 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 6.2 g protein; 18.6 g carbohydrates; 7.1 g fiber; 417 mg sodium
6 large pears
1 1/2 cups unsweetened pear juice or nectar
1/4 cup raw honey
1/2 teaspoon each ground ginger, cardamom, cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons ghee
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and butter an 11-by-18-inch baking dish.
2. Cut each pear lengthwise into quarters, remove the core, and place skin side up in baking dish.
3. In a separate bowl, mix juice, honey, and spices. Pour mixture over pears, and dot with ghee. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
4. Remove foil, and bake for 5 to 10 minutes until pears are soft. Transfer pears to serving platter, and pour reserved liquid into a saucepan.
5. Add vanilla, and heat mixture over high heat until syrupy, about 10 minutes.
6. While syrup is reducing, toast almonds.
7. Pour syrup over pears, and top with almonds.
nutrition info per serving: 262 calories; 5 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 4 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 57 g carbohydrates; 8 g fiber; 7 mg sodium
Sweet Potato & Apple Casserole
Serves 8 to 10
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 cups fresh apple juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger
(or ¼ teaspoon freshly grated ginger)
4 apples, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/3 cup raisins
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 13-by-9-inch baking pan, and add sweet potatoes.
2. In a small bowl, combine apple juice, vanilla, and spices. Pour mixture over sweet potatoes, cover, and bake for 50 minutes.
3. Add apples and raisins; cover, and bake for 30 minutes or until tender. Uncover, and bake for 5 minutes to brown the top. Serve warm.
nutrition info per serving (8): 124 calories; 0 g fat; 0 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 31 g carbohydrates; 3 g fiber; 22 mg sodium
3 cups water
1 tablespoon cardamom pods and seeds (about 15)
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced (or more to taste)
2 cinnamon sticks
1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
4 teaspoons Assam black
1 1/2 cups milk
1. In a saucepan, bring water and spices to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes.
2. Remove from heat, add tea, and steep for 8 minutes.
3. Strain the tea, discarding the leaves and spices, and return tea to the saucepan. Add milk and heat through. Serve with raw honey to taste.
Note: If you’re caffeine-sensitive, opt for decaf rooibos tea leaves, or omit the tea altogether and have spiced milk.
nutrition info per serving (using 2% milk): 50 calories; 1.9 g fat; 1.2 g saturated fat; 7.3 mg cholesterol; 3.1 g protein; 5.3 g carbohydrates; 0.2 g fiber; 37.8 mg sodium