It’s no coincidence that holiday parties and celebrations occur in the season that according to Ayurveda, is characterized by the vata dosha (air and space elements). This is a time of erratic, cool winds and frenetic energy that stimulate an increase our mental awareness, spontaneity and sense of play. And, it’s no surprise that nature provides an abundance of balancing foods like root vegetables, winter squash and pumpkins to ground and warm us in this dry, cool time of year. Beyond enjoying seasonal fruits and vegetables, we may ask what else we can do to find more balance and optimize our health in this season of indulgence. While Ayurveda teaches us to eat seasonally and to choose foods that balance our constitution, it also recommends ensuring that we include foods from all of the six tastes in our diet to provide satisfaction in our everyday lives.

What are these six tastes?

1. Sweet – Sweet tastes are found in naturally occurring sugars like fruits and honey, but also in whole grains, long-storing vegetables (like beets, winter squash, potatoes, and other tubers), unfermented dairy products (from humanely and healthfully raised animals), and oils from nuts and seeds. Sweet tastes promote a sense of calm, contentment, and love, so it’s no wonder we indulge in the cold winter months. In excess, overindulging in the sweet taste can contribute to weight gain and stagnation like the couch-craving coma we often experience after traditional holiday meals. When craving sweets, opt for whole-foods and whole grain-based sweet tastes since our American diet is overly abundant in refined, processed and artificially sweet foods.

2. Salty – Most notably found in table salt and many processed foods as a natural preservative and flavor enhancer, the salty taste is associated with the elements water and fire, and thus tends to increase digestive fire and appetite. Since salt in the form of sodium can increase water retention, consider salty tastes as a condiment and opt for sea salt and sea vegetables to broaden your balance of minerals such as potassium and magnesium.

3. Sour – Predominant in fruits like lemon, lime, and tomatoes, sour tastes are also found in fermented foods like vinegar, cheese, wine, beer, and yogurt. Sour foods consist of fire and earth elements and thus can help stimulate digestion and even calm the windy and active vata mind. However, in excess they can increase fermentation or yeast overgrowth, so include sour foods in moderation (something as simple as lemon squeezed in our water) to balance your holiday diet.

4. Pungent – Pungent tastes are associated with spicy and hot, fiery foods like cayenne and black pepper, ginger, radishes, garlic, and onions. Comprised of the elements air and fire, pungent foods are typically warming and stimulate metabolism, circulation, and digestive fire (agni), but can also irritate the nervous system and inspire irritability and anger. Use pungent tastes like fresh ginger to balance the grounding nature of sweet potatoes and roasted squash and to stimulate digestion of a heavy holiday meal.

5. Bitter – Bitter tastes are associated with leafy greens like kale, dandelion, and some fresh herbs like cilantro, but also in some fruits like grapefruit, and in beverages such as coffee and some forms of tea. These foods tend to cool and cleanse the body and detoxify and tone the organs. Comprised of the dominate elements air and water, bitter tastes are considered detoxifying, antibiotic, anti-parasitic, and antiseptic. Even though cooling in nature, bitter foods should be included in moderation to balance winter holiday indulgences and associated weight gain and water retention.

6. Astringent – Perhaps the least common and most challenging taste to comprehend, astringent tastes are dry and cooling. Astringency is classified by its effect on the tongue more than its actual taste. Like when you apply a toner to your face, it immediately tightens your pores; think how an astringent food might create a feeling of tightening in your tongue. When you eat a raw walnut, for example, you are sure to experience its astringent, drying effect on your mouth. Astringent foods include raw nuts, legumes, pomegranate seeds, persimmons and raw cranberries, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and artichoke, as well as grapes and dry wed wine.

Let’s embrace this celebratory time of year with friends, family, and good cheer, and the abundance of nature’s bounty. Be sure to include some aspects of all the six tastes (not just holiday sweets!) to optimize your palate, round out your plate, find more balance in your life, and look and feel your sexy best through the New Year!

Are you looking for a seasonal dish to include at your holiday meals that incorporates all six tastes? Try the recipe below for sweet and smoky Brussels sprouts with quinoa. Wintery Brussels sprouts peak September through February and are high in vitamins A and C and phytonutrients that help fight cancer. These cruciferous gems provide the bitter base of this dish balanced by sweet raisins and quinoa, while sea salt and broth provide saltiness. Smoked paprika, black pepper, and shallots add pungency, and a splash of sherry vinegar provides the balance of sour. Top with raw walnuts for crunchy notes of astringency.