It's undeniable, fresh food has a "je ne sais quoi" about it, something special even if you can't detect the difference in a lab. There's something bright, juicy and colorful about fresh food. Classical Ayurveda recommends against eating leftovers, for several reasons. Perople today argue that there were no refrigerators in ancient India when the Ayurvedic rules were written and wonder whether this rule still applies in modern times.
So, let's take a fresh look at leftovers.
The majority of people eat leftovers to save time and money. Modern people expect to spend 30 minutes a day on average, cooking, thanks to leftovers, the microwave, take home, and pizza delivery. So let us look at the pros and cons of eating leftovers.
The Nutritional Value of Leftovers
In some cases, leftovers may be healthier than the alternatives. When you don't have time to cook lunch on busy office days, bagging last night's dinner can mean the difference between enjoying a healthy meal versus a mad dash to a nearby fast food chain. Some of our patients are so adamant about following 'no leftovers' rule of Ayurveda, that they end up binging on ice-cream rather than day-old veggies. Clearly, eating leftovers is better than fast food and binging on ice-cream. While we can't always make the perfect choices in life, we can strive to make the best ones. At times life is a great balancing act.
However, when we take a look at some of the costs of leftovers, the fact remains that the longer food sits, whether raw or cooked, the less nutritional value it has. Here we can draw a distinction between the medicinal value or a food and the nutritional value. The medicinal value of food evaporates very quickly with the essential oils and breakdown of other unique phytochemicals. The nutritional value, on the other hand, often degrades more slowly.
The nutritional value in cooked food degrades faster than raw. Whether lettuce or potato, your food is often still alive until it is chopped or cooked, even after it has been picked. These foods, while living, are still nutrient dense. Once cooked, your food is definitively dead. As cells decompose, so do nutrients and phytochemicals. Enzymes within the cells themselves may auto-digest many of the nutrients.
Exposure to heat, oxygen, light, and many other factors further reduces nutritional value of food. Cooked food that sits in the fridge for several days may have very little nutritional value left in it. Reheating food causes further nutritional degradation. For example, vitamin C and all the B vitamins are very heat sensitive.
Digestibility of Leftovers
Some of our Vata patients, with weak digestion simply cannot digest leftover food without some evidence of a 'stomach upset'. Overnight, much of the starch in leftover food such as pasta, potato, and rice turns into an indigestible starch or resistant starch. Resistant starch is more like fiber than food. These indigestible fibers lead to gas and bloating for Vata constitutional individuals.
Resistant starch isn't all bad. Overweight individuals will be pleased to know that leftover pasta, potato and rice has significantly fewer calories and higher fiber than freshly cooked starches as a result of its indigestibility. These individuals may benefit from leftover carbohydrates, i.e. cook your rice a day in advance if you're trying to lose weight.
Meat proteins, on the other, start to break down when left to sit, rendering the meat easier to digest. Therefore, Vata individuals may benefit from leftover meats. Note, however, that meats generally offer few micronutrients, and total protein content remains relatively the same a day later, so there are few drawbacks to leftover meat. Take caution as older meats are much more likely to be rancid.
Are Leftovers Toxic?
Ayurveda believes leftover foods promotes ama, which basically means toxicity, in Ayurveda. The longer leftovers sit, the more toxic they become because of fermentation by bacteria. Cooked foods turns rancid especially quickly. So, between indigestibility and toxicity, eating leftovers can turn an otherwise healthy bowel into a fermenting cauldron of rotten food.
The following guidelines will ensure your food is safe to eat:
Chill the foods below 40 degrees quickly. Quickly means within two hours on a normal day, and within one hour on a hot, summer day. Note: Do not put hot food in the refrigerator because it will heat up the fridge and cause neighboring food to spoil. Instead, place it in an ice-bath in the sink until chilled. Then place it in the refrigerator.
Store leftover food in shallow containers (less than 3"). Deep, wide containers (such as a soup pot) do not cool down fast enough. It could take too long for food in the center of the pot to cool down, and this food may spoil. Do not stack leftover food containers on top of each other for the same reason. Make sure there is plenty of room for cold air to circulate in the refrigerator. Do not put leftovers on the fridge door because the temperature fluctuation is higher there.
For better retention of taste and moisture content, as well as reduction of fridge odors distorting taste of your food, always cover leftovers with a lid in the fridge.
Put labels on leftover food so you know how old it is. Do not leave leftovers in the fridge for more than 4 days. Toss any food that appears different in look or smell.
Make sure you reheat the food to at least 160 degrees before consumption to kill any bacteria that is growing in the food. Reheat the food quickly to maintain maximum nutrients.
If the food looks colourless, lifeless, is growing mould or otherwise needs a haircut, throw it out.
The Value of Freshness
Probably the biggest reason not to eat leftovers is loss of taste. Taste is important in Ayurveda, because taste is how your body chooses and relates to food. Taste is the medicine of the food. Whether you're eating lots of leftovers, TV dinners, or food that comes from a box instead of a farm, these foods have been sitting for a long time, and have lost a lot of their flavour.
Adults may overlook this change in taste. The taste buds of adults are dull, so they may not even notice. Children however, have far superior taste buds. Kids know intuitively that something in the food has changed - that's why they don't like leftovers and complain when they have to eat them.
Just imagine day mushy, day old green beans. Wouldn't you say they are tasteless? How would you compare stale bread to freshly baked? Wouldn't it lack aroma? Try the following experiment: Take two sprigs of mint. Cut up one sprig of mint and put it in a bowl. A day later, cut up the other sprig and place in a second bowl. Smell the mint from each bowl. The smell of the newly cut mint will be fresh, vibrant, and alive. The day old mint may hardly smell at all, even though both sprigs are of the same age. Try to same experiment with a sweet potato. Cut it in half and cook one half. The next day cook the other half. Smell each half. These experiments illustrate the remarkable difference between freshly cut or cooked food and leftovers.
The aroma and unique flavour in food comes from its essential oils. Along with the flavour, much of the medicinal value of food is contained in its essential oils. These essential oils rapidly evaporate from food as it sits. Therefore as food sits, the fresh flavour and medicinal value evaporate, even if the nutrients do not. Moisture also evaporates from food as it sits. Despite dryness, leftover food may also be soggy.
Ayurveda recognises the principle: like increases like. Stale foods make you feel stale, while fresh foods restore vibrancy to your step. Food that lacks taste causes you to eat more because it all tastes like cardboard, and fails to satisfy.
Leftover food is yesterday's news - a day late and a dollar short. Just because your body was craving red meat yesterday doesn't mean you have a red meat deficiency today. Your body may have a new deficiency. It's better to be in the moment with food, instead of one day behind.
Frozen vegetables often have more nutrients than produce left to decay on the shelves and in your fridge. Organic frozen corn, peas and other veggies are non-GMO and easy to cook quickly.
Many doctors agree, better health starts in the digestive tract. Because digestion turns food into blood. Healthy blood revitalises your entire body and strengthens your immunity. Poor digestion creates weak blood. Since blood feeds your organs and your mind, poor digestion weakens your entire body and destabilises your emotions.
How to Save Time and and Stay Vibrant
Now let's talk about some solutions. One way to avoid leftovers is by using a pressure cooker. It cooks your food quickly, so your food is ready to take to work that day. Simply toss in some veggies, vegetable oil, salt and your favorite protein. 5 minutes or so after it's hissed, remove from heat and toss in your favorite spices (if you haven't cooked the Indian way). Bring a garnish of plain yogurt, fresh herbs, seeds and nuts to complement your afternoon cooked meal.
For a quick meal that night, start by steaming some veggies. Pre-boil 3-4 eggs so you have a reliable protein source, and cook up some organic lentils. Drizzle the ensemble with olive oil, garnish with fresh herbs, and sprinkle on some chopped nuts.
Buy or pre-make sauces and dressings to have on hand to add to your pre-cut steamed veggies and rice. Sauces, fresh herbs and nuts make it easier for you to create something enjoyable on the run, with a variety of tastes and textures. Whip up a salad, toss in nuts and fresh herbs. This is a great way to get a fresh lively dinner every night.
As a final option, you can always toss a sweet potato in the oven and bake it. For a side, try steamed greens with tahini dressing. Put miso in a warm water for a quick miso soup, so you don't have to think too hard after a long day.
Note: However tempting to throw in some fresh food to liven up leftovers, Ayurveda recommends against mixing new food with old.
Improper food and lifestyle causes balances to accumulate. Ayurveda shows you exactly which doshas and qualities will accumulate in your body. Once these doshas and qualities accumulate too much, they will begin to cause disease. You can reduce an imbalanced dosha or quality by removing things that aggravate it from your diet and lifestyle.
If you have a systemic imbalance of one of these doshas or qualities, Ayurveda would highly recommend that you remove, substitute or lessen the frequency of frequent leftovers.
Leftovers are healthier than fast food, ice-cream, vending machines, and most processed food. Leftover carbohydrates may have fewer calories, while leftover meats are easy to digest. However, there are some important drawbacks to leftovers as well, including loss of taste, nutrients, indigestibility, and potential for toxicity.
For practitioners, the following summarises the properties of leftover foods from an Ayurvedic point of view:
Taste: Deficient in all 6 tastes
Qualities: Dull, dry, rough, hard, gross, cloudy
Elements: Air - Gas and bloating, toxicity
Agni: Amagenic, Hard to digest, bhutagni affected
Qualities, gunas: Toxic, dry, difficult (to digest)
Subdoshas: Bodhaka - Taste
Samana / Apana - Gas / Bloating
Bhrajaka - Ama
Ranjaka - Detoxification
Srotamsi Prana - Less life force
Anna / Mala - Gas / bloating
Ambu / Mutra / Sveda - Kidney toxicity
Majja - Toxicity
Deficient in Prana - Less life force
Tejas - Cellular intelligence depleted
What types of food retain nutritional value longest?
Why does Ayurveda avoid mixing fresh food with leftovers?
What are some of the reasons why you include 'frequent leftovers' in your life?