I went to a private high school and back then that, mostly, meant that you were geared and suited up for the "professions". That meant you might be successful and makes lots of money and influence others. You weren't taught HOW to think, you were taught WHAT to know. The HOW would come later, in life lessons, perhaps in your work environment and perhaps in personal life. All of a sudden the theory of what I had been taught did not encompass all of life. I hit the road and stretched my boundaries to learn that on my own.
Professor Graham Gibbs published his ideas on the Reflective cycle entitled "Learning by Doing" (1988) which is a model to innately think through every part of an experience or activity. This link provides a simple outline on the 6 phases of reflection. The basic premise of this structure is bringing your own opinions into the evaluation by checking in with theory vs practise and emotions that arose during the experience. To be clear, I do believe this aspect of food education seems to have gone out the window. If I hear one more yoga magazine exclaim the merits of ... (insert latest herb/food supplement) I will probably not scream but feel the cause has gone haywire. As guides in the more subtle realms of this philosophy, isn't it our role to take a person through an experience with the aim of critical thinking? There are too many experts out there deciding ideas for others without the necessary follow through.
I propose a contrarian theory to the dire food/diet situation present in our society. The only radical shift you might ever see is an arresting of the disease factor in the system. You may never know health, however, just stasis, and that is a sad state of affairs. Food has become a separate affair to the rest of our lives. When an item is declared SUPER it is not determined in reference to how the person eats or how much a person eats, just that the innate characteristics seem to align with a list of Recommended Daily Intakes. This idea of RDI has an assumption that even though we all look different on the outside, for some reason every one of us needs the same amount of vitamins and minerals and if we reach those via consumption we will be happy. The supplements industry relies on this bit of social brainwashing.
How does Ayurveda see food?
Food can exhibit certain general qualities but it comes alive when it works with the person eating it. This translates as follows - an already hot person might take a chilli pepper and experience an intensity in the gut that might feel like burning. A cold person might take the same chilli pepper and feel comfortable warm and have a glow in their cheek where there was previously none. Same chilli pepper.
Not possible to do an RDI for this chilli pepper as the side of food packets can't match this relationship.
To add another level to this relationship it depends where the food was grown. Some oranges taste sweet and some sour. It can depend on the type of orange but also the same type of orange can exhibit different flavours depending on where it's grown. I had an experience in the streets of Amsterdam. I thought twice about buying strawberries on the street since I had not done that before in my life (early travel days). I was so thankful I did because until that age (I was 25) I had never had a strawberry like that. I even had a peach tree I would walk past on the streets of Portland, OR on the way to Fred Myers supermarket that would have the most incredible peaches each Summer. Fruit can taste astringent where it seems that it takes more juice from you than it offers, it can be salivatingly sweet, it can be sour. Each experience would leave a different impression on you, depending on what qualities you had at the time.
The journey from Gross to Subtle
Confusing? Which is why there is a system to get to this point of knowing.
Step 1 - get to know yourself via the Ayurvedic system, clean your system so you are not drawn to shitty foods that make you feel bad.
Step 2 - now that you know how to observe yourself, get to know the basic qualities of food.
Step 3 - now that you're familiar with the basic qualities of food and self, experiment with how that food item feels for you personally, irrespective of the rules and regulations, at each season.
We start off gross with guidelines and general recipes and ensuring we clean our tongue and have general cleanses and keep a moderate routine then the ability to detect changes in our mind and body increases. We refine and our sense of taste refines alongside.
Gross is learning about your body type (probably Vikruti) and following a diet plan someone gave you.
Subtle is walking into a grocery store and getting a sense for the intention behind the store and then being drawn to certain items that appeal to you - you don't need to know why. This system does rely on you knowing what's good for you vs what we call perverted taste - ie that which draws you further out of balance.
Eat what Makes you Happy
Personally I find the habits around food to be more profound than the actual items. Shitty habits with the best organic produce will only create more toxins in the system. An you can take a habit anywhere. One of the greatest precepts of food that we aspire to is to be as emotionally peaceful as possible whilst consuming food. I cannot understand a diet that makes you miserable or is seen as punishment. In Ayurveda we cannot express enough how important the feelings around cooking and eating are to the ultimate result. Intention is everything as they say.
So define happiness you say. Ok, happiness, in this situation, could be a state where the enjoyment of an activity yields an output that is sustainable, be it contentment (as opposed to feeling stuffed) or energised (as opposed to feeling stimulated) or nourished (as opposed to feeling guilty). There is no doubt that to get to the point of knowing the difference requires some cleaning up of the system so you have a reference point. Once you feel good then it's easier to know when you don't.
I sat with Dr Vasant Lad this last Summer in workshop and he had made a cute reference to eating ice cream. Of course someone piped up that ice was not nice and you should never eat ice cream. And his comment was precious - but in the middle of Summer it makes a Pitta person very happy when they eat ice cream. We were sitting in the 90's that week (mid to late 30's) In Albuqeruque and it was dry and hot and shit. And I ate ice cream. And I was happy.
One of my favourite references in the Ayurvedic scriptures relates to alcohol. I found it surprising when it didn't state that you should avoid alcohol (unless you have a really bad problem with it) but to cultivate a relationship with it. To know when it enhances rather than depletes. It also stated that alcohol should only be taken when feeling joyful and in joyful company because of its naturally subtle qualities. Just like it can take the essence of herbs and penetrate them deeper into your tissues, it can also take you good or bad thoughts and do the same. It's a magnifying glass.
I have a recommendation for you to trial out as new "diet".
Don't worry about the Ayurvedic rules on how to get there, just do this - choose foods you LOVE and eat a smaller version of what you usually do. And when I say love I mean pay attention to it, smile whilst eating, share what you've got with others, create a fun setting to eat it in.
And rest afterwards, like in a chair with a book you LOVE.