I’ve got some good and some not so good news (!) and I’ll start with the latter - According to Ayurveda, many of the foods we’re accustomed to eating on the same plate in Western culture are hurting our Agni (digestive fire), leaving us bloated, uncomfortable and irregular. Sound familiar? As a result, many people end up self-medicating with laxatives, heartburn or acid reflux drugs instead of treating the source of the problem (food! And the WHEN and HOW we eat it!). This is even more worrisome given that certain heartburn meds have been linked to serious diseases, while some people become dependent on laxatives — or abuse them purposefully in a misguided effort to lose weight.

The good news is that, by avoiding these noxious combos as much as we can, not only can we improve our digestion, but we can also occasionally enjoy these — let’s call them “unhelpful” (rather than “bad”) —  combinations, as well as full-on feasts (!), without paying for it in discomfort. That’s because when we strengthen our Agni, it is better able to process typically hard-to-digest foods. With that in mind, once you start understanding which foods make you feel less than ideal — and reconnecting with what your body really needs, you’ll find that you don’t crave the culprits as much.

1. Beans and lentils

You may have been told that beans and other legumes are always hard to digest, but that’s far from being the case. Freshly prepared, well cooked beans and lentils (usually soaked first and cooked until soft, preferably with spices) have a legitimate place in any Ayurvedic diet, as long as you don’t combine them with any sort of dairy, eggs, meat, fish or fruit. It’s bad news for your full English fry-up, but great news for your tummy!

2. Ghee

Ghee is an important, nutritious and therapeutic ingredient in Ayurvedic cooking and treatments. It is also a better cooking fat than regular butter, as the former is the clarified version — which is heat-stable, and since it contains no milk solids is easier for many people to digest. Ghee should not be consumed in equal proportions with honey e.g 1:1 as this has a deleterious effect on the body. 

3. Cheese or yoghurt

These fermented dairy products are trickier than ghee when it comes to food combining: avoid combining them with each other, or with fruit, beans, meat, fish, eggs, milk, hot drinks or nightshades (more about these in East by West, page 22). Those grapes that accompany a cheese board aren’t doing you many favours, sadly. Freshly made yoghurt and ricotta or paneer (see East by West for recipes) are a better choice than older cheeses and shop-bought yoghurts.

4. Milk

As you have seen already, dairy is quite hard to digest — cheese is best when it’s made fresh like ricotta, and ghee is preferable to butter. Milk is easier to digest if it’s cooked and served hot and best enjoyed on it’s own for the most part since it is made much worse if combined with salt or sour (e.g lemon)  which creates a curdling effect in the stomach. Milk is also difficult to digest with many other foods foods, especially fish. Thankfully, there aren’t too many dishes that call for dairy and fish together, but you’re usually best laying off dairy-based fish curries, for example, or fish poached in milk. Milk cooked with grains and pseudocereals such as oat and amaranth porridge works well though.

5. Eggs

Eggs have popped up in this list quite a bit already — that’s right, Ayurveda understands them as heavy and often hard to digest (especially for Pitta and Kapha types). You definitely don’t have to stop eating them altogether (and I use them in a handful of recipes in East by West), but your body will thank you if you don’t have them with milk, cheese, yoghurt, fruit (especially melons, see below), beans, potatoes, meat or fish. That’s another reason to skip the English breakfast, and a strike against cheesy bacon omelettes. If you have any digestive symptoms at all, and/or hope not to in the future, then It’ll all be worth it — promise!

6. Fruit

As a general rule, fruit should be eaten on its own since it digests more quickly than other foods and can lead to fermentation (hence indigestion) — especially when it comes to melon, which breaks down really quickly in the body. There are a few exceptions, though: you’ll see in my recipes that I sometimes do combine cooked fruits with other ingredients — like in my buckwheat banana bread or as a compote with porridge or pancakes like these chestnut crêpes, with added spices to help it all go down well. Dates and milk are also OK together.

7. Grains

In contrast to many popular diets (paleo, keto, etc.), Ayurvedic cooking (a diet based on holistic health, as opposed to a ‘weight loss’ approach) fully embraces grains as long as they are prepared properly. But because getting food combinations right is just as important as each individual ingredient is, it’s better to enjoy these carbohydrates without fruit — UNLESS, as mentioned above, we’re talking cooked fruit. So if you’re in the habit of topping your morning cereal with raw berries, this could be causing any bloating or discomfort you experience throughout your day, or even into the next!

8. Veg

How can veg be bad for you?? It’s not, I promise (I LOVE adding vegetables to my famous kitchari according to the Doshas)! However, like everything else, it can become indigestible if eaten with the wrong foods. Veg doesn’t mesh well with either fruit or or milk, so try to avoid those combos whenever you can.

9. Leftovers

Leftovers are a bit of a no-no in Ayurveda to begin with, as they are considered too Tamasic, but they can be even worse for your digestion if you eat them alongside freshly cooked foods. So if you absolutely must reheat a dish, try not to add anything else to it, other than the magic formula of sautéed ginger in ghee with black pepper to give it back some Prana and help it go down.

10. Raw foods

The raw diet has also gained quite a lot of traction in the past few years, but Ayurveda considers raw foods (with some exceptions such as type of food, time of day and time of the year) too difficult to process. If eaten together with a lot of cooked food, they can be quite harsh on your Agni. This is because your stomach processes all foods at different rates, which is exacerbated when some foods are really crunchy and others are really soft.

Lastly, and this is probably my favourite tip — don’t make a meal out of a meal when you’re feeling less than your best. This is a time when comfort food — or even “baby food” becomes your best friend. In your day-to-day, try to eat soft, well cooked foods as much as possible — in short, be gentle with your digestive system! It’s a fragile balance to maintain — especially in this busy world where stress has become a 24-hour reality, and is at the root of many potential ailments — but can support your lifestyle beautifully if you feed it like it needs. I know these guidelines seem like a lot to keep in mind, but don’t worry — once you understand the basic principles of Ayurveda, it will become second nature.

For the best food combos for your digestion take a read here.