The main concept in Ayurveda for diet and nutrition is Agni; literally, ‘fire’. Agni is usually translated as ‘enzymes’ and indicates our capacity of digestion. In other words the Agni of a person tells us what the person is able to digest. The definition of ‘digest’ means, “assimilation of nutrients and evacuation of waste”. Collectively the concept of Agni means what nutrients a person is able to assimilate vs their elimination of waste; e.g., material ingested that is non-nutritive. Therefore, Agni is also the intelligent function of the digestion that is able to distinguish what portion of the food is nutritive and what portion is waste, or non-nutritive.
Babies are born with the potential of Agni, but their Agni is not yet functioning at birth. Thus, all dietary rules for babies are based on how we can activate the Agni of the baby successfully. A failure to start the correct function of Agni leads to a number of health problems and eventual food sensitivities and food allergies. A classic example of these kinds of problems are colic pain, diarrhea and skin rashes such as eczema.
Ayurveda advises that a baby be breast fed for at least six months and up to two years. During the period of breast feeding the treatments are given to the mother. Once the baby is given food then then the mother and baby are treated. When the baby only eats food then the baby alone is treated. Generally speaking until the child is five years old we treat the parents, not the child. This logic is based on the fact that the child is dependent on the parents (or should be) for their diet. If the parent is allowing the child to choose their food then this is generally catastrophic and leads to a number of childhood diseases such as diabetes, obesity or other metabolic disorders.
During the period of breastfeeding the mother needs to be aware that most solid foods with take roughly 36 hours to be transformed into milk. In some cases, liquids for example, the food can become milk in as little as 12 hours; this is exception rather the rule. Additionally, an animal based diet, such as meat and dairy, will take 48 to 60 hours before it becomes milk. Awareness on the mothers part is needed to discover which foods she is eating that the baby cannot digest. Typically this manifests as colic pain (intestinal gas) and liquid stools for a baby. The difficulty for the mother is that she will have problems to trace the food back to the correct meal if she is not aware of the above time delay her body needs to manufacture milk. The common tendancy is to just look back to the last meal which an error because that food is still in the digestive system of the mother.
The second primary concept of dietary rules in Ayurveda is that of non-digested, non-assimilated, non-evacuated food, or Ama. Ama is the result of an Agni which is not working at an optimal level. Ayurveda considers three states of less than optimal Agni functions; low, high and variable. If Agni is operating at any of these three levels the result is Ama. As the definition clearly states the food stays in the body (non-assimilated, non-evacuated food) and putrefies. Any food that is left in a warm, humid, dark place will rot. The human digestive tract is a perfect environment for rotting food as it is warm, humid and fairly dark. Ayurveda considered Ama to be one of the main causal factors in pathology.
Typically the mother will have some level of Ama in her body before and during pregnancy. This Ama (rotten food) is more or less filtered by the body before the production of milk. However, the level of Ama is important, or the Ama has been present in the mother’s body for a long period of time (e.g., years) then some Ama will pass into the baby. This means that the baby’s Agni will not only have to learn how to digest food, mother’s milk, but also the Ama in the milk. Often the failure to digest this Ama manifests as Eczema or other hard to treat skin disorders. This is why the baby can be only weeks old and start to show signs of Eczema. In spite of this tendency mother’s milk is still the best food for the baby. Eventually the baby will learn how to digest the Ama and the childhood Eczema usually disappears between the age of 6 to 8 years old.
Around six months the baby begins to grow teeth. Once the teeth begin to come in the baby is giving a sign that it is ready to eat food other than milk. Giving solid food (mashed, cooked, mixed or otherwise prepared) is a major mistake in today’s pediatrics. The result of giving food to babies before their digestion is ready results in Ama. If the baby gets Ama then increases colic, distention, gas and liquid stools or constipation, or both. This is the main cause of the epidemic of skin disorders with babies today – coupled with the mother passing on her own Ama 80% of infant skin disorders can be accounted for by this modern practice.
Virtually all traditional cultures for the last several thousand years (with the exception of Laplanders and Eskimo’s) have given their children a mono diet of cereals and grains for the first years of their development. The classic texts of Ayurveda indicate that children should be started with cereals and grains as the first food because it builds tissue strength or Bala. It is also easy to digest for the budding Agni of a baby. Cereals should be the main food until the age of 8 to 10 years old.
Depending on your culture either root vegetables or leguminous (beans) can be added into the grains around 12 months of age. Some cultures, such as India and Brazil, eat leguminous two to three times per day. Others, such as Europe and the USA, do not eat many leguminous. Mung Dal and Adzuki beans are the two most nutritious and easy to digest of all leguminous. Otherwise start with root vegetables such as carrots, beets, celery, etc. Avoid potatoes and other Solanacea Family (eggplant, tomatoes, etc.).
The basic concept is that Agni needs time to understand and adapt to each food in order to digest it. Therefore, the rule is that we should introduce one food at a time. Keep this food for some time until you are sure the child can digest it – e.g., no colic, etc. – and then introduce the next food. Avoid at all costs the store bought “baby foods” that have five to seven different kinds of foods in them to be “balanced”. From an Ayurvedic point of view the worst thing you can do is give your child a bunch of different foods at the same meal – even if they are mixed and made into a puree. This is because the Agni (or enzymes if you like) needs to sort out the different foods in order to transform them, or digest them.
A word on fruit. Fruit is basically cleansing and cooling in nature although a few exceptions exist. According to Ayurveda fruit does not build Bala, or strength. It can be useful if the child tends towards hard stools and constipation. However, the parents should be aware that fruit will not build tissues and strength needed to go with them. Hence, they should not be used as a main food, but rather as a supplement after 12 months old. Bananas are a common food given to children. In Ayurveda bananas are considered to be sweet and nourishing in the first stages of digestion and acidic in the second stage (liver metabolism); they are also constipative.
Following this basic logic for the first years will reduce the number of childhood digestive problems and metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes when the child is 8 to 12 years old. The logic of this is easy to see in the USA and India where this traditional approach is not followed – hence these countries now have the highest rates of childhood diabetes in the world.
Even though much of this information is opposite to what governments, doctors and nutritionists are telling new parents it does not reduce the time proven truth of this approach. The advantage of using traditional forms of medicine is that they have already tried out everything and found out what works.