As the world's oldest and third-largest religion, Hinduism promotes natural, simple living as a path to physical and spiritual purity. The Hindu diet varies by region -- some adherents are strict vegetarians, while others eat meat hunted locally. Hindu dietary customs are based in the belief that the body is composed of fire, water, air and earth, and that the food you eat can either balance these elements or throw them out of balance.
All food falls into one of three categories, and the weight each category lends to the diet varies according to local custom. Sattvic foods are considered ideal, and are the only foods eaten in certain customs. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts are considered Sattvic, and are thought to cleanse the mind and body, increasing inner tranquility. Animal products and pungent or spicy foods like chili peppers and pickles are considered Rajasic foods, which are thought to heighten intense emotion and promote restlessness. Tamasic foods are thought to promote negative emotions, and include foods that are stale, spoiled, overripe or otherwise inedible.
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Vegetarianism is commonly associated with the Hindu diet, but the majority of Hindus consume some type of animal products. While vegans refuse any food that comes from an animal, some Hindus will eat dairy products, fish and shellfish or even poultry. Pork is even consumed in regions where wild boar has historically provided a ready food source in lean times. The majority of Hindus don't eat beef -- cows are seen as "The Mother" -- but beef is consumed in small pockets of Hindu populations.
Most Americans have limited experience with Hindu dietary customs, and even that is limited to the practices promoted by the Hare Krishnas and the dishes served in Indian restaurants. The Hare Krishnas introduced the West to the Brahman custom, which prohibits animal products except for dairy, as well as onions, alcohol, mushrooms and caffeine. The Food you get in a typical Indian restaurant is from the Mughal tradition, which includes strong spices, lamb, rice pilaf and naan. The cuisine of Southern India is mostly vegetarian, and includes the increasingly familiar aromatics, coconut milk, lentils and the addition of seafood.
Hindus practice fasting for spiritual reasons on holy days, but the practice varies according to local custom and individual preference. Some adherents forgo all nourishment, others drink only juice, and still others limit themselves to a single meal per day. Fasting is seen as a spiritual and physical "reset" that will ultimately enhance the body's condition. Rest is encouraged, and proponents take this time to practice self-control and exert power over mental suggestion. A spiritually successful fast should not lead to the urge to binge when the fast is broken.