Non-Western approaches to wellness have become increasing popular, from massage and meditation to acupuncture and aromatherapy. The interest in nutrition for both preventative and therapeutic purposes has also soared, including the awareness of eating practices from healthy populations around the globe. One in particular that’s been bubbling up is the Ayurvedic diet.
In existence for thousands of years, the Ayurvedic diet is based on principles of Ayurvedic medicine. The focus is on balancing various energies within the body—to achieve better synergy and improve health of body and mind.
Why your body type matters
Body type determines the guiding eating principles. According to Ayurveda, there are five elements that make up the universe: vayu (air), jala (water), akash (space), teja (fire), and prithvi (earth). These elements are believed to form three distinct doshas, or body types, which relate to energy that circulates within the body. While everyone maintains characteristics of all three doshas, one is typically dominant:
Vata (space and air): Vata controls basic bodily functions, including the mind, breathing, blood flow, and digestion. People with this dosha are typically thin and energetic. When they are out of balance, they may experience issues with digestive health, fatigue, weight loss, insomnia, or anxiety.
Pitta (fire and water): This dosha controls metabolism, hormones, and digestion. People with a pitta dosha often have a medium build. If out of balance, they may struggle with high blood pressure, heart disease, inflammation, or digestive conditions.
Kapha (water and earth). This dosha controls immunity, muscle growth, and strength. Those with a kapha dosha typically have a sturdier frame. If they're out of balance, they may experience problems with weight management, fluid retention, diabetes, depression, allergies, or lung health.
Your dosha determines which foods you should eat and avoid. And according to Ayurvedic practice, once you are in balance, you will naturally desire foods that are most beneficial for maintaining wellness.
What to eat for your body type
The Ayurvedic diet also identifies six major tastes with distinctly beneficial effects: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Including all six in your daily meals is encouraged, so you consistently feel nourished and satisfied. The belief is that regularly eating only a few of these tastes can trigger cravings for unhealthy foods—or throw the body out of balance. For example, consuming pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes help to counter sweet, sour, and salty. This can curb the desire to overeat the latter, which can lead to health problems, as they are characteristic of fast food or processed foods.
Those who are vata dominant should minimize cold and raw foods and too much caffeine. Instead, they should favor warm dishes that are more dominant in sweet, salty, and sour tastes. Sweet foods, like whole grains, starchy vegetables, and honey, have a soothing effect on the body. Salty foods, including table salt and salted fish, enhance appetite. And sour, found in citrus, berries, and pickled foods, aids digestion.
Those with a pitta dosha should reduce hot and spicy foods and avoid alcoholic and fermented foods. They should instead focus on sweet, bitter, and astringent foods. Bitter foods, including leafy greens, broccoli, and celery, help with detoxification. And astringent foods, such as lentils, beans, green apples, and pomegranate, help to balance pitta.
People with a kapha dosha should curb salty or heavy foods, as well as dairy. Instead, hey should prioritize pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes. Pungent, found in peppers, garlic, onions, mustard, and ginger, helps clear sinuses and promotes sweating.
Can the Ayurvedic diet lead to weight loss?
While few studies have been published on the outcomes of an Ayurvedic diet, there are some concrete benefits. In one small study that paired the diet with other Ayurveda-based lifestyle practices, including yoga and stress management, participants averaged a weight loss of 13 pounds over a nine-month period
Overall, the diet emphasizes whole foods and minimizes processed foods, a pattern that ups the intake of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, and may help support weight management. One study found that a switch from processed foods to whole foods without decreasing calorie intake resulted in an increase in post-meal calorie burning by nearly 50%.
An Ayurvedic diet also incorporates plenty of herbs and spices. In addition to being rich sources of antioxidants, some natural seasonings act as prebiotics—which nourish the beneficial gut bacteria tied to anti-inflammation, immunity, and a positive mood. Herbs and spices have also been shown to boost satiety. And some, including ginger and hot peppers, are known to rev metabolism.
The Ayurvedic diet and m eating
Ayurveda also promotes mindful eating, which can result in naturally consuming fewer calories while simultaneously feeling more satisfied. And the lifestyle encourages other healthful habits, including spending time in nature, prioritizing adequate sleep and rest, being physically active, and laughing more. Laughter has been shown to lower stress hormones, including cortisol. Excess cortisol has been linked to an increase in belly fat and weakened immunity.
This, however, is just a brief overview of the Ayurvedic diet. A consultation with a registered dietitian nutritionist trained in the practice would provide much more in-depth and tailored recommendations. You can also learn more by exploring cookbooks that include introductions to the diet principles, along with flavorful recipes.
Bottom line: Even if you don’t embrace all of the tenants of the Ayurvedic diet, consuming whole foods in a thoughtful balance, and combining nutrition with other wellness-focused behaviors, lays the foundation for healthy, sustainable living.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a nutrition consultant for the New York Yankees.
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