What is the Ayurvedic Lifestyle and Diet
An Ayurvedic diet is an eating plan that provides guidelines for when you eat, what you eat, and how you eat to boost your health, prevent or manage disease, and maintain wellness. If you follow an Ayurvedic diet, you’ll eat primarily whole or minimally processed foods and practice mindful eating rituals.
The diet is based on Indian Ayurvedic wellness systems that date back thousands of years. Some studies have shown that Ayurvedic lifestyle practices—including the diet—can help improve your health. But following an Ayurvedic diet for weight loss isn’t necessarily a proven method to reduce weight.
Grounded in a Hindu system of medicine, an Ayurvedic diet instructs you to eat according to a dominant dosha (energy type). There is no scientific rationale for this style of eating, but experts agree the focus on unprocessed foods and mindful eating are both valuable takeaways. —Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH
Ayurveda is a wellness practice that originated in India and is about 5,000 years old. The word “Ayurveda” is a combination of two Sanskrit words that mean life (Ayur) and science (Veda), so the literal translation of Ayurveda is “the science of life.” Ayurvedic medicine seeks to create a healthy strong body through a series of diet, exercise and lifestyle practices, including sleep and mindful living.
If you follow an Ayurvedic diet, you’ll incorporate many different practices into your eating routine. These practices help you to benefit from the different qualities of food.
One of the primary characteristics of an Ayurvedic diet is that you eat according to your dominant constitutional type or dosha. You can think of your dosha as your most prominent energy. There are three different Ayurvedic doshas that derive from five different elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. Each element provides different qualities or attributes.
- Vata (space and air): Vatas are often described as creative, intense, or expressive. Attributes include dry, light, cold, and rough.
- Pitta (fire and water): Pittas are often described as intelligent, joyful, and driven. Attributes include sharp, hot, liquid, and mobile.
- Kapha (earth and water): Kaphas are often described as calm, loving, or lethargic. Attributes include moist, heavy, soft, and static.
After reading descriptions of each dosha, you may find that one sounds more like the qualities you embody. Many people find that they have two strong doshas. Those who practice an Ayurvedic lifestyle believe that each of us embodies all three doshas. Your prominent dosha will determine your eating style.
Once you have determined your dominant dosha, you can create meals around foods that will help nourish your body and balance your energy. You’ll find more extensive guides for dosha-based eating online at sites including The Ayurveda Institute, but it’s helpful to scan a few of the foods suggested by the organization for each dosha.
- Sweet fruit such as cooked apples or cherries
- Cooked vegetables like asparagus or beets
- Grains including quinoa or rice
- Red lentils
- Dairy products (in moderation)
- Black pepper
- Coriander leaves
- Peanuts and pecans
- Chia or flax seeds
- Beer or white wine
- Sesame oil and ghee
- Dried fruit
- Raw apples and watermelon
- Frozen, raw or dried vegetables
- Split peas
- Red wine
- Sweet or bitter vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower
- Dry cereal
- Black beans
- Unsalted butter
- Chicken (white meat)
- Egg whites
- Dry white wine
- Pungent vegetables like onion or raw leeks
- Sour fruits
- Bread made with yeast
- Quinoa and brown rice
- soy sauce
- Salted butter
- Sour cream
- Chicken (dark meat)
- Chili pepper
- Red or sweet wine
- Seafood other than shrimp
- Astringent fruit like applesauce or prunes
- Pungent or bitter vegetables like celery or carrots
- Lima beans
- Cottage cheese
- Dry red or white wine
- Sweet or sour fruits like grapefruit or figs
- Sweet or juicy vegetables like cucumber or zucchini
- Cooked oats
- Kidney beans
- Soft or hard cheese
- Freshwater fish
- Hard alcohol
Some of the basic Ayurvedic eating practices include:
- Intake of six rasas or tastes. At each meal, you will incorporate foods that are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent. You begin your meal with foods that have a sweet taste (like sweet fruit), then consume food that is salty (such as seafood) and sour (citrus fruit, for example), then finish with foods that are pungent (like onions or peppers), astringent (such as green apples or tea), and bitter (celery, kale, or green leafy vegetables).
- Eat mindfully and with concentration. Avoid talking, laughter, and other distractions to fully appreciate your meal and the wholesome benefits it provides.
- Eat slowly enough that you can savor the taste of the food.
- Eat quickly enough to prevent the food from getting cold.
- Eat the proper quantity of food. Be aware of hunger signals and signs of fullness to avoid overeating.
- Eat only when your previous meal has been digested. Guidelines suggest that you do not eat within three hours of your previous meal or snack and you should not go without food for more than six hours. Many Ayurvedic practitioners also recommend that you eat a modest breakfast and a larger, satisfying lunch. Dinner may or may not be consumed based on your hunger levels.
Before you begin an Ayurvedic diet, you will need to learn about and find your dominant dosha. Many experts in Ayurvedic medicine suggest that the smartest method is visiting an Ayurvedic doctor.
“An Ayurvedic doctor can advise the right combination of foods to balance the dosha and make the diet more effective,” she says, adding that the doctor can advise you what foods to eat and what foods to avoid.
If you choose to visit an Ayurvedic doctor, the practitioner will interview you and make an assessment based on the information you provide. This is likely to be the most accurate method of finding your dosha.
If you don’t have access to an Ayurvedic doctor, you can try an online questionnaire to help you find your dominant dosha type. But the questionnaires may not always be accurate.
Once you have a sense of what your dosha might be, Dr. Shilpika Devaiah suggests getting a book to help create healthy meals as you learn how to follow an Ayurvedic diet. He recommends Ayurvedic Cooking: A Life of Balance, The Tastes of Ayurveda, and The Modern Ayurvedic Cook Book.
- Emphasis on unprocessed foods
- Promotes mindful eating
- May have health benefits
- May be effective for weight loss
- Determining dosha may be difficult
- Complicated, sometimes restrictive rules
- Some herbs may interact with prescription and over-the-counter medicines
Whole Food Focus
Some Ayurvedic practitioners urge their students to eat only local food. While this is impractical for many people, it might prompt you to eat more whole, unprocessed foods, which tend to be more healthful than processed ones.
Ayurvedic practices suggest eating mindfully and intuitively. That means paying attention to your food and to your body’s messages about it. It means taking the time to savor your food, to eat when you are hungry and to stop when you are full.
Even though Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced for thousands of years, much of the evidence to support its effectiveness is observational. However, as interest in the approach increases, more researchers are conducting high-quality studies that support using the system for improved health.
- Researchers from Harvard conducted a study supporting the possible use of holistic health interventions including Ayurveda to help people stick to new and healthy behaviors.
- A pilot investigation found that Ayurvedic practices appear to improve psychosocial health among both overweight/obese yoga students. These researchers cautioned, however, that results must be interpreted with caution due to problems with study design and other issues.
- A study conducted in Sweden found that Ayurvedic medicine improved outcomes for some study participants with respiratory, musculoskeletal, circulatory, tumor, and cutaneous illnesses.
Other studies have demonstrated that Ayurveda may be helpful in managing coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and improving sleep quality and duration.
Weight Loss Benefits
It’s not clear whether any weight loss resulting from the Ayurvedic diet comes from eating by dosha, or from the focus on whole foods and mindful eating. But some research has shown its effectiveness nonetheless. A review published in the International Journal of Obesity reported that a trial of herbal Ayurvedic preparations for weight loss resulted in clinically significant weight loss as compared to placebo. And researchers from the University of New Mexico and the University of Arizona published a study that reported that an Ayurveda and yoga-based lifestyle modification program is an acceptable and feasible approach to weight management.
While there is some evidence of the potential health and weight loss benefits of an Ayurvedic diet, it is hard to identify which factors in the Ayurvedic lifestyle are delivering the most benefit. Still, there are also some potential drawbacks to this diet and lifestyle.
Determination of Dosha
Keep in mind that the process of finding your dosha is subjective—even if you visit an Ayurvedic doctor. It is not based on objective data, like a blood or urine test. For that reason, it may not be perfectly accurate. Your dosha may also be a combination of more than one type. You may need to make some adjustments along the way.
It’s also important to remember that an Ayurvedic doctor may not be a licensed medical doctor in the United States. In the U.S., no states license Ayurvedic practitioners, although a few have approved Ayurvedic schools. The National Institutes of Health provides guidelines for selecting a complementary care provider, such as an Ayurvedic doctor. They also recommend that you communicate with your primary care physician about the use of alternative health practices.
Aside from taste, the complexity of an Ayurvedic diet may be intimidating for some. If following the dosha eating plan seems too confusing, some experts suggest simply using basic eating principles.
Shilpika Devaiah doesn’t suggest dosha-specific foods, but rather foods that aid in digestion, and lifestyle practices that emphasize listening to your body, coming into balance, and intuitive eating and exercise. Instead of focusing on weight loss, she helps her clients focus on wellness. She suggests choosing nutritious whole foods instead of processed foods, ignoring calorie counting, and eating intuitively to manage portion sizes.
Side Effects and Interactions
The National Institutes of Health cautions consumers that certain Ayurvedic products, herbs, or herbal combinations may cause side effects and can be harmful if used improperly. If you take prescription medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist before taking herbal preparations as interactions may occur.
You’ll notice that the Ayurvedic diet shares some qualities with other diets that incorporate lifestyle elements and a philosophy of wellness. However, since it is so personalized by dosha, it is tough to compare it with expert guidelines on nutrition.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines suggest filling your plate with a balanced combination of protein, grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. While Ayurveda also emphasizes balance, it does not offer guidance on food groups or macronutrients (like how much protein to eat). Instead, the focus is on which foods to eat within a category based on your dosha.
While the USDA suggests calorie ranges for weight loss and weight maintenance, the Ayurvedic diet instead emphasizes mindful, intuitive eating—listening to your body to determine what you need to eat, when, and how much. If weight loss is your goal, you may need to combine calorie counting with the Ayurvedic advice on which foods to eat (perhaps just until you learn what portion sizes work best for you and how to best interpret your body’s hunger cues). If you’re still interested in determining your individual calorie needs, you can do so with this calculator.
These diets all promote whole foods over processed ones, avoid calorie counting, and suggest that diet can help your body achieve balance and wellness.
- Philosophy: Practitioners believe that an Ayurvedic lifestyle, including diet, can help promote health. The diet’s guidelines include mindful eating and consuming foods that are appropriate for your dosha, or constitutional type.
- General Nutrition: The Ayurvedic diet stresses whole foods, but does not restrict any one group of foods for everyone. Instead, it offers lists of foods to favor and to avoid based on dosha. In this way, it can offer balanced nutrition as long as users make healthful choices about what to eat.
- Flexibility: Careful adherence to the rules is not required; those on the Ayurvedic diet can make their own choices about what works for them and their body.
- Sustainability: For proponents of Ayurveda, this is a lifelong way to eat (and live). But not everyone who tries this diet will want to continue it forever.
- Philosophy: Like the Ayurvedic diet, the goal of the macrobiotic diet is to find balance through food. This diet is also personalized based on factors such as gender, age, and climate.
- General Nutrition: This diet emphasizes local foods as well, but also entirely restricts processed foods and animal products (except small amounts of fish and seafood). This leaves out some important nutrients, so users must work harder to make sure they are getting what they need.
- Flexibility: While the diet can be restrictive, there are many ways to interpret it. This allows for some flexibility (but also some confusion).
- Sustainability: The restrictiveness of the diet can make it hard to adhere to over time.
Whole Foods Diet
- Philosophy: On a whole foods diet, the goal is to eat whole foods only. Nothing processed is allowed.
- General Nutrition: Since only processed foods, which tend to be less healthful than whole foods, are restricted, this diet offers many nutrients and lots of fiber.
- Flexibility: This is not a formal eating plan, so there is room to interpret it in a way that works for you. For example, you might decide that minimally processed foods (such as washed salad greens, or foods canned without added sugar or salt) are acceptable.
- Sustainability: Processed foods are convenient. Purchasing, prepping, and cooking all your own whole foods can grow tiresome, but many people do choose to continue this eating plan for the long haul.
Blood Type Diet
- Philosophy: Like the Ayurvedic diet, the blood type diet is personalized—in this case, by blood type instead of dosha. The theory is that for wellness, you should consume and avoid certain foods based on your blood type.
- General Nutrition: The diet varies significantly across the four blood types (A, B, AB, and O); some are more restrictive than others. But for all, whole foods are preferred over processed ones.
- Flexibility: There is not a lot of flexibility here; your blood type doesn’t change, so the rules for what to eat don’t either.
- Sustainability: This could depend a lot on what your blood type is and what your rules are. For example, the type O diet cuts out dairy and grains and limits vegetables to a moderate amount. This could be challenging to stick with.
The Ayurvedic diet has been practiced by millions of people for thousands of years and is well accepted in many parts of the world as a key component of overall health and wellness. There are many elements of the eating plan that overlap with nutrition fundamentals practiced by Western medical and health experts.
If weight loss is your goal, you’re likely to see results if you adopt an Ayurvedic diet and build meals around whole, unprocessed foods and mindful eating practices. However, the National Institutes of Health cautions consumers that certain Ayurvedic products, herbs, or herbal combinations may cause side effects and can be harmful if used improperly. Be sure to discuss any major dietary changes or herbal medicines with your health care provider to make sure they don’t interfere with current medications or with the management of your medical conditions.
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