It is a common practice to link Ayurveda to vegetarianism. In my clinical practice, I have met several patients who admit they don’t take Ayurveda medicines just because they cannot skip meat or fish from their diet. What is the reality behind this common notion? In the present context of a pandemic, what does Ayurveda suggest in this regard? The first and foremost point to be kept in mind is that Ayurveda never propagates vegetarianism. In fact, detailed descriptions of meat from all sorts of animals and even recipes using these meats can be seen throughout the classical texts. Moreover various medicinal formulations with non vegetarian ingredients are described in therapeutic management of various ailments.
In the present context of COVID-19 and all talks regarding preventing the pandemic, prime importance is to be given in maintaining a healthy lifestyle which is the backbone of a healthy immune system. Undoubtedly, food, exercise and sleep have specific roles in it. Common non vegetarian foods we eat today fall in the heavy (guru guṇa- difficult to digest) category by its nature or by its preparation or cooking (saṃskaraṇa). Moreover, non vegetarian food that we obtain now, be it poultry or cattle, in a broader sense, is domesticated. Due to their loss of natural habitat and limited movements, domesticated meat is observed to be even more heavy in its property. So, taking more of this meat than what is required, increases the Kapha doṣa (one of the three bio-energies in Ayurveda; the energy of cohesion) which is directly related to the heavy property. This abnormal increase may eventually become a health problem.
There is little space for general rules as far as Ayurveda is concerned. Approaching a patient is always individualized based on variables like individual nature (prakṛti), level of tolerance (satva) etc. Same is the approach regarding selection of food. Food has to be selected by considering the digestive capacity (agni bala), location of the individual or from where the food is procured (deśa), season, age of individual (kāla), pathological stage (doṣa avastha), and individual preferences and habituation (sātmya). This is very relevant while taking non vegetarian food. Food taken without considering these factors is bound to create ill health. Non vegetarian food is especially potential to produce metabolic toxins (āma).
Taking heavy food frequently and inappropriately may create an additional burden for our digestive system and thereby compromise the individual’s immune response. An incompetent immune system can make us prone to various infections, COVID-19 included. On analyzing COVID-19, it is understood that pre-existing health issues like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease in the infected individual are contributing towards morbidity and mortality of the disease. Excessive consumption of Kapha-increasing and heavy food like non vegetarian food is the major etiology of these lifestyle diseases.
To summarize, non vegetarian food is to be taken with caution, especially in the present context. It is strictly contra-indicated in various conditions like indigestion (ajīrṇa), metabolic toxins (āmatva), acute fever (nava jvara) etc. It is of prime importance that the food we eat are easily digestible and assimilable. If at all non vegetarian food is to be taken, one should ensure that it is prepared light and easily digestible and taken in moderation. Meat soup (māṃsarasa) or soups prepared with herbs and spices that enhances digestive capacity like dried ginger-pepper-long pepper combo (trikaṭu) or the five acrids (pañcakola) are advisable as it meets the above said criteria.