Your Complete Guide to the Ayurvedic Diet
The Ayurvedic diet is all about eating based on your unique balance of inner energies. Confused? Here's what that means.
For every supposed benefit of a trendy diet, there’s at least one way it puts some people at a disadvantage. The Paleo diet is praised for its potential to clear up acne and eliminate migraines, but its constraints on legumes and whole grains may leave meat-free eaters struggling to get enough protein. The Zone diet is lauded for its inflammation-reducing effects, but its small recommended portion sizes might leave some people feeling hungry and unsatisfied. The Keto diet is touted as a magic weight-loss tool, but its restrictions on entire food groups could trigger disordered eating in some people.
What if there were a no-frills eating style that was built upon your individual needs and body, designed to keep you feeling, quite simply, healthy? Enter: The Ayurvedic diet, a 5,000-plus-year-old approach to food and nutrition that zeros in on your internal energies.
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda, meaning “life” and “knowledge” in Sanskrit, is the ancient Indian medical system based on a natural and holistic approach to physical and mental health. Rather than focusing on curing health problems, Ayurveda focuses on preventing them, says Amita Banerjee, the Ayurveda wellness and lifestyle consultant at Holistic Ayurveda. The reason: “When you are fit, mind and body, then you are able to achieve your life goals and keep yourself in a very positive state of mind and energy,” she says.
According to Ayurveda, there are three types of energy that are related to natural elements: vata (space and air), pitta (fire and water), and kapha (earth and water). Each person is composed of a unique combination of these energies based on their physical, mental, and emotional attributes and one type of energy is typically more prominent than the others, called the dosha. This fingerprint-like blend of energy makes up your constitution, which remains constant throughout your lifetime, according to The Ayurvedic Institute.
Maintaining your balance of energy is key to staying mentally and physically healthy. In Ayurveda, energy creates the movement necessary to get fluids and nutrients to the cells, helps metabolize those nutrients, and lubricates and maintains cell structure, according to The Ayurvedic Institute. But when certain stressors—such as the seasons or weather, physical trauma, work or family relationships, or diet and food choices—amplify or reduce your dosha, illness and negative emotions (think: jealousy, anxiety, and greed) can occur. For example, if a person with a vata dosha, which is made of space and air elements, is highly exposed to more of those elements by, say, spending a long time in the cold, they may become imbalanced and feel fearful, nervous, and anxious. To restore balance, they can enjoy warm, moist, and heavy foods, take a steam bath, or crank up a humidifier, according to the Ayurvedic Institute. (Related: 5 Easy Ways to Incorporate Ayurveda Into Your Life)
That’s why knowing your dosha—and understanding how to balance it—is so important. In the simplest terms, opposites will balance you and like will imbalance you, says Banerjee. Think about being outside on a hot summer day. As your body heats up, you become dehydrated, and if it continues long enough, you might pass out. In that instance, a cup of hot water isn’t going to help you recover—what you need is the opposite of heat, such as cold water and shade, she explains.
How do you discover your dosha?
To figure out your dosha, Banerjee recommends seeing an Ayurvedic expert (the National Ayurvedic Medical Association has an online database of Ayurvedic professionals). Or you can take a detailed questionnaire, though she emphasizes that you will need to take the time to examine your genuine mindset and personality traits, not just how you’re feeling in the moment. For a general idea of each dosha, look to the most common personality traits and physical characteristics, according to The Ayurvedic Institute. Just take these descriptions with a grain of salt. No matter what school of thought you follow, just because you find that you fall under the vata dosha doesn't mean you're for sure going to have "small eyes," for example.
- Vata: A person who has predominant vata energy is creative, active, and a quick thinker, though they often feel ungrounded in their lives and are not good planners. Physically, they have a small frame, small eyes, prominent bones, and wavy, rough, or thick hair. Their digestion is irregular and they’re prone to constipation and bloating.
- Pitta: A person who has predominant pitta energy often has a keen intelligence and can think of impactful ideas and solutions, though they may come across as agitated and short-tempered when their energy balance is off. Physically, they have a moderate frame, moles and freckles on copper-toned skin, and silky hair. They have a strong metabolism, good digestion, and a strong appetite. (See also: What's the Enneagram Test? Plus, What to Do with Your Results)
- Kapha: A person who has predominant kapha energy has strength, endurance, and a loving disposition. Even though they’re calm and forgiving, they may feel greed and possessiveness when they’re out of balance. Physically, they have a large frame, oily, smooth skin, and well-developed muscles. They have a slow metabolism.
So how does an Ayurvedic diet work?
In Ayurveda, food—along with exercise, sleep and meditation, and breath—is one of the four pillars of nutrition, meaning they are all necessary to keep your energy balanced and achieve good health and fitness, says Banerjee.
That’s why it's recommended to have a spiritual relationship with food—and bring love to it, says Banjeree. “You cut, chop, wash, cook, and use the right ingredients because that is what you’re giving to your own body and mind as the fuel and the energy for you to prosper, for you to achieve your goals, and for you to live a healthy and fit life,” she says. Maintaining that relationship means eating fresh, high-quality foods and avoiding processed, canned, and microwaved ones. “If you just open up a can or a package and eat it, and you’re doing two, three, four other things at the same time, how can you create a relationship?” says Banerjee. (Related: I Took a Course to Heal My Relationship with Food and Discovered More Than I Imagined)
And while “you are what you eat” is the usual cliché, the saying is a little different in Ayurveda: You are what you digest, says Banerjee. Your digestive system is responsible for transforming food into energy, and proper metabolism is key to maintaining good health. Translation: Choosing foods that have a positive impact on your gut is essential. You should also listen closely to your hunger cues so you eat only when you’re hungry and you eat at a moderate speed (read: not wolfing down your meal in one minute flat), according to textbook Integrative and Functional Medical Nutrition Therapy.
Ayurvedic Diet Foods
While other eating plans focus on the nutritional qualities of particular foods to create an all-around healthy meal, an Ayurvedic diet emphasizes the tastes on your plate. According to Ayurveda principles, all six tastes—sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent (acidic)—need to be present for a balanced meal. These guiding principles also say that each taste has a specific effect on the digestive system and your overall dosha. That means the amount of each taste you incorporate on your plate will depend on your dosha—not to mention a necessity in keeping your energy from being aggravated or diminished and promoting proper digestion.
The Best Ayurvedic Diet Foods for Vata
A person with predominant vata energy can keep their body balanced by emphasizing sweet, sour, and salty tastes on their plates.
- Fruit (in general, sweet): apples (cooked), apricots, bananas, berries, cherries, melons, peaches, strawberries
- Vegetables (in general, cooked): asparagus, beets, cucumber, fennel, garlic, green beans, parsnip, peas, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, summer squash
- Grains: durum flour, oats (cooked), quinoa, rice, wheat
- Legumes: mung beans, pigeon peas, urad beans
- Dairy: butter, buttermilk, soft cheese, cottage cheese, cow milk, ghee, goat's cheese, goat milk
- Protein: beef, buffalo, dark chicken, duck, eggs, salmon, sardines, seitan, shrimp, tuna, dark turkey
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, black walnuts, cashews, coconut, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
The Best Ayurvedic Diet Foods for Pitta
A person with predominant pitta energy can keep their body balanced by emphasizing sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes on their plates.
- Fruit (in general, sweet): apples, berries, cherries, red and purple grapes, mangoes, melons, pears, plums, pomegranates, watermelon
- Vegetables: artichoke, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, leafy greens, lettuce, mushrooms, peas, peppers, spaghetti squash, zucchini
- Grains: amaranth, barley, couscous, durum flour, oat bran, pasta, quinoa, rice (basmati, white, wild), spelt, tapioca, wheat
- Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils (red and brown), lima beans, navy beans, peas, pinto beans, soy, white beans
- Dairy: unsalted butter, cottage cheese, cow milk, ghee, goat milk, goat cheese, ice cream
- Protein: buffalo, white chicken, freshwater fish, tempeh, tofu, rabbit, seitan, white turkey, venison,
- Nuts and seeds: almonds (soaked and peeled), coconut, flaxseeds, popcorn, sunflower seeds
(Try these healthy recipes to satisfy all your pulse cravings)
The Best Ayurvedic Diet Foods for Kapha
A person with predominant kapha energy can keep their body balanced by emphasizing pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes on their plates.
- Fruit (in general, most astringent fruit): apples, berries, cherries, cranberries, pears, persimmons, pomegranates, prunes, raisins
- Vegetables (in general, most pungent and bitter vegetables): artichoke, asparagus, beets, bitter melon, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, corn, dandelion greens, eggplant, kale, kohlrabi, leafy greens, mustard greens, onions, white potatoes, radishes, spinach, sprouts
- Grains: barley, buckwheat, couscous, millet, muesli, oats (dry), polenta, rye, tapioca, wheat bran
- Legumes: black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils (red and brown), lima beans, navy beans, pinto beans, white beans
- Dairy: cottage cheese (from skimmed goat's milk), skim goat milk, yogurt (diluted)
- Protein: white chicken, eggs, freshwater fish, rabbit, seitan, shrimp, tempeh, white turkey, venison
- Nuts and seeds: chia seeds, popcorn
The Health Benefits of an Ayurvedic Diet
In general, if you eat according to your dosha and have a spiritual relationship with food, you’ll have good digestion, immunity, bowel movements, and energy, says Banerjee. “Ayurveda says if your gut is good, if your digestion is good, then everything else will be fine,” she says. (Related: How Your Mental Health Can Affect Your Digestion)
Though the overall goal of eating according to your dosha is to simply achieve good health and fitness, you might see other benefits from doing so. Since the Ayurvedic diet discourages eating processed foods, it may help you reduce your consumption of saturated fats, added sugar, and sodium—ingredients that are used widely in highly processed foods and are linked to heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
There’s also some evidence that an Ayurvedic diet may help with weight loss, though research is limited. In a study of 200 obese adults who were prescribed diets based on their doshas, participants lost an average of 17.8 lbs in three months. And since the Ayurvedic diet emphasizes paying attention to your body's hunger cues, consuming food at a leisurely pace, and eating until you're satisfied (not stuffed)—practices that are the basis of intuitive eating—you may lose weight simply because you're eating less.
The Drawbacks of an Ayurvedic Diet
If you want specific advice on how many carbs or calories to consume, an Ayurvedic diet might not be best for you, as there aren’t any clear-cut guidelines on macronutrients, food groups, or calorie consumption. Instead, you rely on how your body reacts to each food recommended for your dosha and your hunger cues.
The lists of recommended foods for each dosha by the Ayurvedic Institute may also seem limiting at first glance (a kapha dosha, for instance, is recommended to avoid most nuts). However, there is no "good" or "bad" food in Ayurveda, and nothing is 100-percent off-limits, says Banerjee. Unlike a keto or Whole30 diet, in which you're following a strict set of nutrition rules, an Ayurvedic diet allows—and encourages—you to make your own food choices by tuning into your body and its reactions to what you eat.
If a food is sending you straight to the bathroom, giving you annoying headaches, or overall making you feel like trash, it’s OK to eat less of it, eat it at certain times of day, or skip it entirely. And that’s the key takeaway of an Ayurvedic diet. “Ayurveda is not something that you have to take on,” says Banerjee. “It is a way of life, it is just about creating harmony between yourself and nature.”