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Satvik, rajasik, and tamasik foods, is it easier if redefined for modern times?

Author: Sonia Velarsan, RD


As a child, I often wondered why we didn't eat onions on religious festival days. I was told that those were days for "Satvik" food. However, when I asked why onions were not considered Satvik, I was told that our ancestors did not consider them fit for consumption. This was confusing - we enjoyed onion dishes on regular days without any issues, so how is it that on some days they became unfit for consumption?


In Indian culture, the idea of satvik, rajasik, and tamasik foods has a long history, with one popular source being the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 17, Verses 7-9). These categories were based on the three gunas - Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas - which represent different qualities of consciousness. However, over time, these categories have become more rigid, and certain foods have been designated as satvik, rajasik, or tamasik based on tradition rather than their actual qualities.


As a dietitian, I feel maybe it's time to redefine these categories and make them more inclusive and universal. Here's my proposal:


Satvik - any food that is cooked at home that is traditional to your community, locality, and the current season. While animal products are typically excluded due to moral and ethical considerations, it's essential to recognize that in many cultures animal-based foods are an integral part of the diets. From a nutritional standpoint, animal sources like meat, eggs, fish, milk, and yogurt are rich sources of quality protein and micronutrients. No matter what your religious or cultural food preferences are, if the food is prepared with love and care, perhaps it can be wholesome. 


Rajasik - any food that is eaten outside of the home, such as restaurant meals or food ordered via delivery apps. These foods are often high in calories, fat, salt, and sugar, and may not be as nutritious as home-cooked meals. However, they are delicious and enjoyable and can be a part of a balanced diet if consumed in moderation.


Tamasik - any food that is heavily processed, low in fiber, and packed with preservatives. These foods are often convenient and easy to consume but provide little nutritional value. Foods like packaged snacks, sugary drinks, and fast food would fall into this category. They should be avoided as much as possible in favor of more wholesome options.

Satvik, rajasik, and tamasik foods
Modern perspective

By thinking of satvik, rajasik, and tamasik foods as current food habits, we can more easily navigate food choices. It's important to remember that these categories are not meant to be rigid or restrictive, but rather a guide to help us make healthier choices and create a more balanced and sustainable diet. Also, they serve as yet another way of classifying food; their classical defined relationship to our health is philosophical rather than chemical. Ultimately, the key to a healthy diet is moderation, variety, and mindfulness - so don’t vex yourself over the category, instead, focus on making choices that work for you. 


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