Philosophy and Principles of food intake for holistic health

Philosophy and Principles of food intake for holistic health

by Sanjay B

Food intake is one of the expressions of seeking fulfillment to the deep felt incompleteness in being. Creating awareness, clarity and sensitivity to body, emotional and spiritual needs, can go a long way in improving our choice of food at all the five kosas, thus paving way for healthful, fulfilled living and being.

Food intake is a fundamental aspect of daily living. In Ayurvedic texts, amongst the eight pillars supporting good health, it is considered the foremost.

As background, we shall look at the basic drive of living creatures, to eat. Next, the purpose of food intake and evolution of organs related to food intake will be looked at from evolutionary perspective and from unicellular organisms to more complex organisms like man.

Taking into account, the special mental attributes in humans, the article will further endeavor to go into a brief discussion on the exercise of choice of food.

Why to Eat?

The requirement of food, as we perceive and appreciate, begins as soon as life energy is evident [plants]. When consciousness becomes evident, there are focused and purposeful instincts that lead the organisms towards their food and help them acquire it.

Let us look at the amoeba, a unicellular organism, in the act of food intake.

As it senses the food, it surrounds the food particle with its pseudopodia, forms a vacuole within and consumes the nutrient aspect which merges with the cell body of the amoeba. The waste is thrown out through the vacuole. Now it is ready for the next meal. Two important points can be noted here

  • The evanescent vacuole seen in such unicellular organism is its gastrointestinal system in the most primitive form
  • The consumed matter has merged into the constitution of the cell
  • Its survival is based on finding food constantly

Further up the ladder of complexity, one can notice greater freedom in body and limb movements and increased amount of energy storage facilities. The digestive tract with the concerned glands of larger organisms may be perceived as a multicell-lined (food) vacuole through which food passes and is assimilated by the organism around it. It takes in, the necessary nutrients and allows the remainder to pass through.

Speculating deeper on these lines, one can appreciate the amount of complex genetic compilation, shuffling and reshuffling that must have gone into making this beautifully coordinated structure possible.

There is a suggestion in the pattern of evolution towards upgrading of subtle and gross energy flowing through, for the purpose of survival. This search for Prana [Prananveshana] or in other words, the survival instincts, may have propagated the required genetic changes.

The gastro-intestinal tract and the process of food intake are evolved steps in alignment with this purpose.

What is food intake?

A fundamental fact may be noted here i.e. food intake is the transfer of the great elements [Panchamahabhuthas] from the macrocosm to the microcosm and vice versa.

Let us try to explain this further.

At the chloroplast level, within the leaf of plants

CO2 +H2O +light energy forms the fruit of the plant and it contains elements [Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Sulphur, Phosphorus] along with energy. The constituents of fruit are derived from earth, water, air and the energy of the Sun combined in various structures.

At the mitochondria level, within the animal cell:

This food is broken down into CO2 + H2O with the release of ATP [Adenosine triphosphate]. ATP holds the energy within it. One molecule of ATP is made of the same elements Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Sulphur and Phosphorus, all of which we noted earlier in the formation of fruit. These elements merge within the body processes. The gross aspects of food, CO2 + H2O are excreted.

Thus food intake and respiration achieve the purpose of transferring the great elements between the macrocosm and the microcosm. In this manner, each cell, during life and on death, participates in this grand cycle of transfer by nature.

We consume varied kinds of food, raw, cooked, vegetarian, non vegetarian etc. With the above illustration, it is reasonably clear that the basic constituent of all food is energy, packaged in tasteful and edible forms with the help of elements of the universe.

Relevance of food intake; how are humans different?

Humans are different from other animals in that in addition to having life energy and being conscious, they are also self-aware.

The purpose of human life goes beyond survival.

No one is satisfied with a life that merely guarantees regular full meals every day. Such a life leads to boredom and restlessness.

Ancient texts talk about the purpose of human life [Purusharthas], they being “Dharma [duty and ethics], artha [creating wealth], kama [seeking happiness] and moksha [enlightenment]” Any activity that does not lead to any one of these is considered worthless. Life is a series of experiences in these pursuits, through the perceptions and performance of the person in the objective world. The human body is there to support these purposes’ and this body is continuously depleting.

What we eat goes into repairing and nourishing this body that has to support and facilitate the higher purposes of human life that go beyond survival to the search for fundamental truth.

  • In humans, the quest changes to search for truth through the primary purposes of life through Dharma, artha, fozma and moksha [Purusharthas]
  • Food intake supports the body for fulfilling these purposes
  • It directly contributes to the constituents of the constantly depleting body [Sharira]
  • Food and breath together brings in Panchamahabhuthas from the macrocosm to within the body.

The purpose of food intake in humans is to support this body to fulfill these purposes in the process of sathyanveshana or enlightenment.

Principles of food intake

When we talk of a healthy human being, we are talking about the health of the person who is constantly transacting with the external world in pursuit of his purpose of life. In this light, a few principles related to the whole process of food intake are brought together.

1. Acquisition of food

  • Foods acquired from plants grown in natural environment tend to be the most wholesome and tasty.
  • Foods that grow locally are ideal. Those brought in from far may not be suitable to the climatic and geographical conditions of the region of consumption. The Sanskrit word Sharira, stands for that which is depleting continuously. The intake of food is for replenishing the constituents of the Sharira.
  • The food is to be carefully chosen, cleaned, prepared and served in vessels made of natural materials like copper, iron, silver, gold, earthenware, crystal or glass. Non stick vessels, aluminum vessels etc are considered unhealthy

2. Attitude

  • Food ought to be prepared and served lovingly
  • Food and the interlinked processes that brought it within our range of consumption are to be noted as beyond our complete comprehension and treated with awe and respect.
  • Food is to be eaten in a relaxed and unhurried manner.
  • Anxiety, depression and worry affect digestion
  • It is good to have a cross-legged posture during eating as the blood is available to the abdominal region to facilitate digestive activities instead of stagnating in the lower extremities.

3. Atmosphere

  • The surroundings are to be clean, well ventilated and quiet. A sense of insecurity or oppression in the air is unsuitable to assimilation.
  • The time of intake is to be chosen, to coincide with the highest digestive capacity of the body i.e. 9 am-1 pm in the day and 5 pm-7 pm in the evening. These are the times when the Samana Prana is most active.

4. Awareness

  • One should sit down to eat after assuring that all the guests and dependents have been fed.
  • The mind, body and environment should be centered in the activity.
  • Appetite : Hunger and appetite are necessary prerequisites before eating. This will make sure that the amount and the tastes chosen are suitable to the body.


  • A consequence of awareness is knowing when to stop. Both appetite and satiety have centres in the nervous system. Their toning from childhood helps towards controlling obesity
  • Chanting the chosen mantra just prior to eating grounds awareness in the act of eating. Eating with the hand, chewing, feeling the food, picking out each rasa [taste] separately and concentrating on the movement of the food down the gullet, all of these help in maintaining awareness.

5. Meal Composition

  • Wholesome, natural, seasonal, easily available fruits, vegetables, sprouts and whole grains are nourishing. A slight predominance of carbohydrates is recommended in the meals.
  • The meals should have representations of all six tastes to ensure wholesomeness.
  • One third to less than half the stomach may be filled with food, one third with water and the remaining space left empty to allow for mixing and digestion
  • Water intake should be in sips along with the food. Too much water dilutes the digestive juices. Warm water aids digestion. Sugary drinks along with meals hamper taste, appetite and digestion.
  • As we usually tend to overeat, regular fasting helps to clear away the incompletely digested matter. The end points of a fast are a sense of lightness, relaxation and vitality to the system.
  • Although food does influence mind set, it would be advisable not to become neurotic about each meal content
  • Next meal should come after the previous meal is digested fully. The number of meals for a person depends on the type of activity. On an average, two meals are sufficient in a day. The evening meal is to be kept light.

Spirituality, Psyche and food
Indian philosophy states that each mind has its own vasanas or flavour that compels it to seek a particular style of living. There is this concept of three gunas [qualities] at the core of the vasanas. They are as follows:

Sattvic: That state of mind which is peaceful, intelligent and seeking truth

Rajasic: That state of mind which is restless, dynamic and passionate

Tamasic: That state of mind which is resistant, despondent and ignorant

Each individual has a unique constitution of these gunas. It is also said that these gunas can be modified through awareness, self control and discipline in food and other activities. It may be prudent to mention the aspect of food relevant in this context.

  • Sattvic food is that which increases spiritual and physical vitality [fresh vegetables and fruits]
  • Rajasic food is that which increases physical vitality much more than the spiritual vitality [spicy, tasty, rich, cooked / fried food]
  • Tamasic food is that which decreases spiritual and physical vitality [old, stored, fermented food]

Non- vegetarian foods are not healthy foods

Structurally, the teeth, intestines and secretions of human digestive system are not designed to handle raw non-vegetarian food. They can only be consumed cooked. Even though these supply all the first class proteins necessary for the body, the subtle energy content is low or nil. They are low residue foods and hinder digestive processes. There have been correlations of number of cancers with the consumption of red meats. In modern times, there is also the load of hormones, antibiotics and vaccines in most of the meat available. Stored non-vegetarian food is considered Tamasic.

Emotional influence on digestion and health

The Upanishads conceptualize human existence at five levels, each subtler and more expansive than the previous. The grossest is the body level [Annamaya kosa], followed by life energy [Pranamaya kosa], mind[Manomaya kosa], intelligence [Vijnanamaya kosa] and bliss levels [Anandamaya kosa] of existence.

Yoga Vasishta postulates that disease begins at the mind level. It gives the term Adhija Vyadhi [disease born out of stress] to those manifestations. Manomaya kosa [psyche] is said to be the source of many unhealthy beginnings. A mind that is restless, craving, and stressful affects the functioning of the Pranayama kosa [energy flow] i.e. the digestive processes in this context. This leads to ajirnathvam, athijirnatvam or kujirnathvam i.e. under/over/disturbed digestion. When repeated or prolonged over long periods of time, these ultimately affect Annamaya kosa and become evident as disease

Some of the diseases directly/ indirectly related to Diet

1. Those related to satiety/appetite

  • Obesity
  • Hypercholesterolemia
  • Hyperhpedemia
  • Anorexia/Bulimia

2. Those caused by disturbed digestive functionality

3. Nourishment related

  • Under nutrition
  • malnutrition

4. Multi factorial

If the disturbances can be recognized early, its progression to disease formation may be arrested. Even in evident disease, bringing stability at mind through education, Sadhana [discipline] and meditation, goes a long way towards improving health.


The World Health Organisation has identified health as wellbeing at physical, mental, social and spiritual levels. This concept is highly congruent with the Indian philosophical concept of human existence beyond the physical body.

Taking suitable food of moderate quantity [hithahara, mithahara] is a useful rule to follow. Moderate exercises, Yogasanas, kriyas, exposure to Sun and winds, intermittent fasting are all recommended physical disciplines to have smooth digestive function.

Food intake is one of the expressions of seeking fulfillment to the deep felt incompleteness in being. Creating awareness, clarity and sensitivity to body, emotional and spiritual needs, can go a long way in improving our choice of food at all the five kosas, thus paving way for healthful, fulfilled living and being.

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