One important tenet of Ayurvedic medicine — a medical system that originated in India more than 3,000 years ago and is followed by millions of people to this day — is called the "six tastes." The concept: There are six different types of tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent) and eating all of them (ideally within one meal, or at least within one day) will provide you with a healthy, balanced diet.
"In the U.S., we're all concerned about the obesity epidemic," says Pratibha Shah, BAMS, MPH, editor with the Ayurveda Journal of Health, and practitioner of Ayurveda at Well Life Medical in Peabody, Massachusetts. "So with most diets, there's an emphasis on macronutrients, like carbs, protein, and fats. The nutritional message is usually targeted toward calorie counting."
"What happens, though, is we miss out on the micronutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants," Shah adds. "Eating the six tastes is similar to eating a rainbow diet — it encourages you to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and spices, so you get the micronutrients, as well as the macronutrients."
And these micronutrients can boost your health in significant ways: "They contribute to immunity, mental faculties, blood count, and optimal functioning of the body's systems," Shah says.
What Are the Six Tastes in Ayurveda?
To find out exactly how much of each taste you should eat, you'd have to visit an Ayurveda practitioner for a personal assessment, but here are some typical foods categorized by taste to give you an idea of what's often incorporated into a meal or diet, according to Shah:
Sweet: sweet corn, sweet peas, sweet potatoes
Sour: lemons, limes, yogurt, tomatoes, kimchi
Salty: seaweed (the only naturally salty food, Shah says, but anything you sprinkle salt on counts as salty)
Pungent: black pepper, jalapeños, paprika, ginger, hot sauce
Bitter: kale, arugula, spinach, dandelion leaves, grapefruit
Astringent: pomegranate seeds, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip
The Problems With Ayurvedic Medicine
"Let's face it: The number one driver of food intake is not science, nutrition, or texture — it's taste. That's what consumers look for. So making sure the meal is tasteful is quite on the mark," says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, clinical associate professor at Boston University's Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, author of Nutrition & You, spokesperson for the American of Nutrition and Dietetics.
But Blake has some concerns about this meal plan. For one thing, there's no scientific research that shows eating these six tastes will lead to a balanced diet, better health, weight loss, or fewer sugar cravings.
"Interpretation of flavors is individualized. Sweet might mean peaches in canned syrup. Salty could be potato chips. Sour could be Sour Patch Kids candy," Blake says. "People have a hard enough time trying to figure out what foods they should be eating, let alone figuring out: Is this astringent? To me, it becomes another layer of complication."
Blake agrees with Shah that it's important to consume both macro- and micronutrients, but she argues that you're better off getting them by following a plant-based diet that's rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and poultry, unsaturated fats, and lean dairy.
And it's not just what you eat, but when you eat.
"Americans often eat in a triangle shape. Their breakfast isn't big, they're running around for lunch, and then they bank all their calories toward the end of the day. You're setting the stage for your blood sugar to go up and down, which will increase cravings," she says. "It's not efficient or healthy. It's best to eat balanced meals throughout the day and get the majority of your caloric needs prior to dinner."
What to Know Before You Try 'Six Tastes'
If you're interested in trying the "six tastes" approach, do it carefully. Make sure the foods that you choose are wholesome, control your portions, and strive to eat them steadily throughout the day.