Ghee’s role in the Ayurvedic Diet
January 16, 2009
Beyond being ideal for the yogi (see previous article in this series), ghee is considered nectar-like for all wishing to live according to Ayurvedic principals and maintain positive health. The final article in this series will look at contemporary scientific evidence in support of ghee in promoting health and healing. In this age of ‘fatism’, Ayurveda’s views on the wondrous benefits of ghee may appear contradictory. We must assess ghee through the Ayurvedic lens to provide rationale for it being recommended for all from cradle to grave. For example, just after birth the new baby is given both honey and ghee impregnated with mantras prescribed for this purpose in the Vedas (Ch Sa: 8/46). Charaka, an Ayurvedic master physician in ancient India, summarises:
“Cow ghee promotes memory, intellect, power of digestion, semen, ojas, kapha and fat. It alleviates vata, pitta, toxic conditions, insanity, consumption and fever. It is the best of all the unctuous substances” (Ch Su: 27/232).
The importance of food
Firstly, it’s worth outlining the thematic importance of food in the ancient Vedic texts and Ayurvedic Samhitas in general. Wholesome food was viewed as being the main cause of the growth of living beings, with unwholesome food causing the growth of disease. In this way diet is considered the most important of the three Ayurvedic Pillars of Life (Upastambhas), ahead of sleep and proper use of sexual energy. Charaka writes:
‘a self-controlled man, blessed by noble-man lives for hundred years free from diseases, by the intake of wholesome food’ (Ch Su: 27/ 348).
Ayurveda describes one should regularly consume a diet of rice, barley, honey, milk, wheat, mung beans, meat, ghee, salt, amalaki and rainwater according to one’s digestive capacity. Such foods are considered conducive to a healthy state due to being consumed since time immemorial; not causing ill effects even if consumed regularly; and promoting good qualities in the body and mind. The last factor highlights the importance of focusing on sattvic foods which maintain equilibrium of both body and mind. This bias towards sattvic foods is the guiding principal behind diet planning in the Indian tradition. Indeed ghee was considered as one of the most sattvic foods, as outlined in the last article on Yogis.
Ayurvedic composition of Ghee
Ghee is seen as being more potent than milk due to being transformed by heat. It is also much more stable, and can be kept for long periods. It is sweet in taste, cold in nature and has sweet aftertaste (the Ayurvedic concept of vipaka). It is considered soothing, soft, and oily. Due to varying predominance of the 5 Ayurvedic elements (ether, air, fire, water and earth) in different types of milk, ghee from cow, sheep and buffalo milk has different properties. For example, buffalo milk is colder in nature, more oily and heavier. It is more effective at inducing sleep, and satisfying excess appetite due to these qualities, but is also channel blocking whereas cow’s milk is not. Sheep’s milk is considered hotter in nature and hence its ghee can aggravate Pitta types who already have a predominance of the fire element. Both cow’s milk and its ghee are viewed as “best among wholesome articles” by Charaka (Ch. Su 27/9). But why are cow’s milk and its derivatives seen as the best tonics and rejuvenators? The answer lies in the fact that its composition of the 5 elements is very similar to that of ojas, the body’s life force, without which we would die. The benefits of eating ghee can be summarised as follows:
Ghee pacifies Vata and Pitta doshas in the body
Cow ghee’s properties (sweet taste, cold nature, sweet aftertaste with oily, soft, heavy qualities) mean it is an excellent pacifier of aggravated Vata and Pitta doshas in the body. As these doshas are responsible for causing most diseases, ghee is a valuable dietary aid in bringing them back into balance. For example, ghee aids in the elimination of waste products due to it having both a laxative and diuretic effect on the body (due to its sweet taste). Its oily nature is also helpful in ensuring Vata dosha moves in a downward motion as it is supposed to. Ghee’s properties act to keep the digestive tract lubricated, alleviate hardness in bowels and reduce flatulence and bloating- all symptoms of aggravated Vata. Ghee’s laxative quality is especially useful in pregnancy, when constipation can be experienced. Its oily quality also softens the body, aiding delivery of the baby. Although ghee’s properties increase Kapha dosha, in moderation, ghee balances all the dosas.
Ghee nourishes both body and mind
Ghee’s sweet nature is responsible for it increasing all body tissues, ojas, semen, breast milk, promoting strength, normalising the blood and lymph, as well as being beneficial for the eyes, hair and skin. In Ayurveda, the sweet taste is the only taste to stimulate anabolic (growth) activity, increasing all body tissues, due to the predominance of the earth element. Of utmost importance is the fact that ghee increases ojas in the body, which is the underlying basis of immunity and the essence of all bodily tissues. Dr. Vasant Lad writes, “As ghee is the pure essence of milk, in the same way ojas is the pure essence of the dhatus”.
Ghee’s highly nourishing property explains its importance in the Ayurvedic monthly pregnancy regime according to the Ayurvedic sages. Ghee is recommended, along with milk, honey and rice, for the expectant mother. Such sweet, soft, cold and tasty foods maintain the mother’s health, pacify vata dosha, nourish the foetus and aid lactation. Similarly, the combination of black lentils cooked with ghee was considered by the Ayurvedic masters to be the equivalent of eating meat, and was recommended to increase semen. On a more subtle level, the sweet taste also produces satisfaction in the body, leading to a feeling of contentment in both body and mind. Adding ghee to Ayurvedic recipes such as kitcheri (rice and dhal) ensures there is a feeling of total satisfaction after completion of a meal which is characteristic of Ayurvedic cooking.
Ghee increases the digestive fire (Ayurvedic concept of agni)
“Ghee is excellent for stimulating the gastric fire. If the gastric fire is kindled by fuel in the form of ghee, then it cannot be suppressed even by too heavy food” (Ch Chi 15/201).
Considering the importance of wholesome food in general, ghee’s role in increasing the capacity to digest food (agni) is very important in Ayurvedic preventative health. Without proper functioning of agni no benefit can be gained from food, and toxins (ama) resulting from poor digestion are involved in many diseases. Our strength and quality of life are totally dependent on having good agni. One or two teaspoonfuls of ghee in food not only provides nourishment to the body in itself, but also increases a this capacity to nourish the body with food. What is truly special about the effect of ghee increasing agni is that it does so without aggravating Pitta dosha (the fire element) in the body. Instead ghee balances the different types of Agnis found in the body, the main type of which can be correlated with the digestive enzymes.
Ghee lubricates other foods
Charaka’s first rule for eating is that food should be warm (Ayurveda does not favour a predominance of raw, cold and heavy to digest food!). His second guiding principle is that food must be unctuous (or oily) so that it is not only delicious but also provokes agni, getting digested quickly, and also helping the downward movement of Vata dosha. Such unctuous food also has the effect of increases the plumpness of the body, strengthening sense faculties, promoting strength and brightening the complexion (Ch Vi 1/25). Ghee has the quality of snigda (oiliness), that makes it nurturing, lubricating and smooth. It also increases Kapha dosha, making the skin soft and the voice melodious. In contrast to ghee, foods such as rice, vegetables and pulses are not at all oily and only considered to nourish the body and mind in combination with ghee. Without ghee pulses are likely to cause flatulence and aggravate Vata dosha. This is why Ayurveda advocates the use of pulses, vegetables and rice with ghee or some other unctuous substance to add to both taste and nutritional value.
Ghee plays a key role in recipes
Ghee is viewed as a superior cooking fat in that it doesn’t burn during cooking, unlike butter and fats which are liquid at room temperature. According to Ayurvedic tradition ghee, when fried with spices, takes on the properties of those spices and diffuses them throughout the food. Ghee also provides a soothing and cooling effect, helping to offset the irritant effect of chillies and pices. Ayurvedic principles of diet planning emphasise neutralising any kind of toxin which is likely to be present in the food or generated during its metabolism. In Ayurvedic recipes, the ingredients work well together. However, if there were any incompatible food items, these would be taken care of by ghee. Ghee also aids in the elimination and neutralisation of any toxins and toxic effects (eg: bacterial contamination). Turmeric is considered best for this, and hence is so widely used in Ayurvedic cooking. However, ghee also plays a role. Such specific rationales for the use of ghee indicate the scientific attitude towards nutritional values of the diets in ancient times, when a proper combination was seen as important.
Varying intake of ghee
For maximum benefit one must alter one’s intake of ghee throughout one’s life and the seasons in accordance with the Ayurvedic concept of Rtucarya (seasonal modifications of daily routine). For example in Summertime, heat can lead to a feeling of weakness. Both ghee and milk are ideal at this time, as sweet, cold liquids and an oily diet help maintain balance. Intake of both ghee and substances with the bitter taste is advised in Autumn when Pitta dosha can potentially get aggravated due to being exposed to heat all Summer. Taking ghee in Autumn also helps prevent Vata getting aggravated with the increase in cold dry weather. Similarly, excess intake of ghee in Spring is not advised, due to potential for kapha to get aggravated aggravating conditions such as colds and hay fever. Beyond seasonal variations, Ayurveda is a science of individualisation and even a food as wholesome of ghee is not always considered healthy. For example, ghee is not advised when kapha is aggravated and should be used very sparingly in overweight individuals. Ghee is also mentioned as unwholesome when taken with honey in equal weight, and when its consumption is followed by cold substances.
India is regarded as one of the first country to have developed milk products such as ghee. Ayurvedic wisdom is unequivocal that cow ghee is an important part of a healthy diet. With the body and mind being made of food, a daily dose of ghee confers many benefits in regards to nourishment, promoting sattva (calm and peaceful mind), digestion, assimilation and elimination. Ghee helps with balancing both Vata and Pitta doshas, lubrication, clearing toxins and promoting agni, ojas, lymph and semen. However, cow ghee has become relatively expensive in India today and there are also concerns over it being an unhealthy saturated fat. For these reasons it has been widely replaced by artificial vegetable ghee. Through assessing its Ayurvedic properties, one can deal with ghee in dimensions that are quite impossible from the point of view of Western nutrition, and the effects of this substitution are detrimental. This topic will be expanded in the last article where contemporary scientific evidence in regards to the uses of ghee will be examined. Ayurveda considers food as medicine and medicine as food, and hence the subject of the next article will be how ghee’s effects in the body and mind are fully utilised in Ayurvedic treatment of disease.
If you are feeling inspired to make some ghee please see the Recipe page for instructions.
Where to learn more on Ayurvedic uses of ghee in the diet:
- Please see Recommended Ayurvedic cookbooks under Links and Recommended Reading
- Please see Recipes page for How to Make Ghee and Recipes containing ghee
- Ballentine, R (1978): Diet and Nutrition- a holistic approach. The Himalayan International Institute
- Gupta, Dr LP (1999): Biogenic Secrets of Food in Ayurveda. Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, Delhi
- Kulkarni PH (1998): Ayurvedic Aahar. Pune, India Ayurvedic Education series
- Pitchford, P (1993): Healing with Wholefoods. North Atlantic Books, 3rd edition
- Tiwari, M (1995): Ayurveda- a Life of Balance, Healing Arts Press