By Emma Stessman
Is the Ayurvedic diet healthy?
All involve eating whole foods (as opposed to packaged and processed) and filling your plate with quality sources of protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-rich vegetables. (Again, we’re talking about the ones that fall somewhere on the healthy spectrum, not unhealthy fad diets like, ahem, the Grapefruit Diet.)
However, each proposes a slightly different path that leads to fulfilling those principles.
In this column, we’ll be breaking them down for you one by one so you can figure out which (if any!) is right for you. We’ll quickly explain the facts and then provide quick, actionable tips on how to follow the diet as part of a Nutritious Life.
What Is the Ayurvedic Diet?
More than a just diet, Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old medical practice and lifestyle, based on the idea that the body is made of three energy systems. Vata (wind), Pitta (fire), and Kapha (earth), otherwise known as the doshas, are the elements that we have within us (similar to chakras). While everyone has some of each, one tends to be dominant.
According to Ayurveda, your dominant dosha helps determine the healthiest lifestyle choices and diet for your unique body. By eating foods that cater to your dosha, you can nourish and heal your body, strengthen your digestive power (known as Agni), and create balance among your internal energies.
What You Eat
What you do and don’t eat is entirely dependant on your dosha, which you can easily determine through an online quiz, like this one from the Chopra Center. Overall, however, according to Ayurveda, good nutrition comes from eating fresh, properly prepared foods. At any meal, expect to have a lot of color on your plate, as “eating the rainbow” is a central part of this diet. Along with that, every meal contains at least one aspect of each of the six major tastes: sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter, and astringent. By including all of these, you’ll feel more satiated after a meal and will be less likely to snack or overeat.
Vata doshas are described as having a cold, light, and dry energy, so they’re encouraged to eat warming foods to create balance. Cooked vegetables, such as asparagus, cauliflower, greens, and sweet potatoes are staples, as well as sweet fruits, cooked grains, dairy, and most meats. Warm drinks and teas should be sipped on throughout the day.
Pittas, on the other hand, have a strong internal fire, which means most foods should be cooling or served at a moderate temperature. Stick to sweet fruits and vegetables, like berries, apples, beets, carrots, and cucumbers. Pittas tend to fare better on pescetarian diets, eating eggs (no yolks) or fish for protein.
Kaphas are grounded in the earth, which means they hold on to fluids and fats more readily, so lighter foods are preferred. Acidic and bitter-leaning fruits and vegetables, like cherries, lemons, peaches, greens, broccoli, and sprouts, are all good options. Grains and cereals should be consumed often, as well as various types of dairy. Almost all spices are okay for Kaphas, so food should be flavorful.
What You Don’t Eat
Since the diet aims to create a healthy body and mind, there’s an emphasis on natural and nutrient-dense foods, so processed snacks and packaged meals are off the table.
Vatas should stay away from dried fruits, frozen vegetables, winter squash, and most bean varieties. Salads, cold drinks, and most raw foods are also no-gos.
Pittas are told to avoid foods cooked at extremely high temperatures, especially fried foods. Egg yolks, nuts, most meats, and spicy condiments should be eliminated.
Since Kaphas hold on to fats more readily, they’re encouraged to follow a lower-fat diet. Most nuts, oils, and fatty meats should be avoided. As well as soy, and sweet fruits and vegetables.
The Ayurvedic Diet: Pros and Cons
One benefit of the Ayurvedic diet, of course, is that it focuses on eating fresh, nutrient-dense foods. But, there’s also an equally important emphasis put on the way you eat them. According to the teachings, good health is entirely dependant on your ability to fully metabolize all nutritional, emotional, and sensory information from your meals and beyond. This means, that in order to fully strengthen your digestive power, you need to eat slowly, mindfully, and with intention. The diet employs a handful of super important mindful eating strategies, including sitting down to eat (and not in front of a TV or computer), following hunger cues, and recognizing emotional eating patterns and stopping them in their tracks.
That being said, there are a lot of complicated rules, that aren’t necessarily nutritionally sound from an RD perspective. For example, the eggs with no yolks for Pittas or the heavy emphasis on dairy for Vata doshas. Research has shown that following Ayurvedic principles can assist in weight loss and improving overall health, but there aren’t any studies that speak to the benefits of the diet specifically.
On top of that, the dosha concept is based on ancient cultural wisdom, not science, and the quizzes online (which vary significantly) are far from scientific. You’re essentially figuring out how you’re going to eat based on qualities like social behaviors and perceived body temperature, not hard medical data like blood tests or family health history.
The Bottom Line
There’s no real evidence to prove that eating for your dosha will help you lose weight or feel better overall. And doing so involves lots of unnecessary restrictions that may make it harder for you to follow a healthy eating plan. (As in, if you’re a Kapha who loves to eat peanut butter on the reg, your dosha shouldn’t stop you from scooping up a spoonful or two.)
That being said, the Ayurvedic Diet is based on principles that can absolutely help you eat healthier. Whole, unprocessed foods should make up the basis of your diet. Focusing on mindful eating can help you avoid overeating and introducing color and variety on your plate (through the six tastes) will help you get a range of important nutrients in. And yes, thinking about what really works for your body—based on listening to cues and thinking about how your body responds to certain foods—is a very good thing.