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What is the ayurvedic diet? A dietitian explains the centuries-old eating philosophy

Want to take a more holistic approach to what's on your plate? Here's everything you need to know about the ayurvedic diet.
For people with "Pitta" as their dominant dosha, grains like barley, rice, and oats are a staple. 
For people with "Pitta" as their dominant dosha, grains like barley, rice, and oats are a staple. Getty Images

Ayurveda is nothing new: It is a centuries-old practice. But with celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Rodgers and Kourtney Kardashian, touting the benefits of the lifestyle, it has become a wellness trend that is piquing people's interests.

Ayurveda, which translates to the “science of life,” is a holistic medical healing system designed to align the mind, body and nature. Part of this involves dietary practices to create harmony between your individual energy patterns and universal elements. The belief is that, when aligned, processes like digestion, metabolism and immune regulation function at peak performance, thereby reducing your risk of chronic health problems.

The basics of ayurveda: Understanding elements and doshas

Ayurvedic practitioners believe the universe is comprised of five elements:

  • Vayu, or air
  • Jala, or water
  • Aakash, or space
  • Prithvi, or earth
  • Teja, or fire

Along with the five elements, it’s believed that people have three energy patterns, known as doshas:

  • Vata stands for air and ether. This dosha maintains electrolyte balance and helps eliminate waste.
  • Pitta stands for fire and water. Pitta regulates body temperature and our hunger and thirst mechanisms.
  • Kapha stands for earth and water. This dosha is responsible for healthy joints.

Ayurveda emphasizes the alignment of elements and doshas. This balance is considered a healthy state, whereas imbalances are thought to promote illness and disease.

How to eat for your dosha

According to ayurvedic practices, we each have a dominant dosha, and your diet can help balance it out. The doshas are believed to be connected to different bodily functions. For instance, Vata governs catabolism, or the breakdown of substances, and Vata-dominant people are considered lean or to have a delicate frame. Pitta governs metabolism, so Pitta dominant people may have a strong appetite and muscular build. Meanwhile, anabolism — the body’s way of building and repairing internal structures — is overseen by Kapha, and this dominance is thought to correspond with a slower metabolism. Kaphas are described as “big-boned.”  

According to ayurveda, your dosha determines what you should eat to create the harmony needed for optimal health. Here’s some general guidance about the best and worst foods to eat for each dosha:

  • Best foods for Vata dominance: Vata’s attributes are cool and dry, so Vatta dominance is balanced by warm, moist foods, such as soups, casseroles, stews, cooked apples and soaked dates. Vata dominance also benefits from warming spices.
  • Worst foods for Vata dominance: To balance Vata dominance, nightshade veggies, such as potatoes, peppers and eggplant, should be avoided. Likewise, nuts and seeds should be avoided in their crunchy state and consumed as either nut butter or nut milk instead. It’s also best for Vatas to avoid cold, raw and frozen foods as well as sweets.
  • Best foods for Pitta dominance: Since Pitta types have fiery qualities, they benefit from cool, non-spicy foods. Vegetarianism is ideal for Pittas, and raw veggies, such as salads, are emphasized in warmer months. Grains like barley, rice, and oats are another staple for people with Pitta dominance.
  • Worst foods for Pitta dominance: Since Pittas benefit from cool foods, hot spices, including cinnamon and turmeric, are typically limited. Pitta qualities are also balanced when reducing salt and limiting oils, coffee and alcohol.
  • Best foods for Kapha dominance: Kapha types are balanced by leafy greens and other veggies grown above the ground. They eat fewer grains than the other types, but millet is one of the preferred grains. For proteins, legumes are preferred to animal proteins. Honey is the only sweetener considered appropriate for this dosha. Spices are okay for Kaphas.
  • Worst foods for Kapha dominance: Since Kapha dominance is associated with a slower metabolism, sweets and fried or greasy foods are eaten infrequently. Dairy foods are also limited when balancing out Kapha dominance. Plus, this type shouldn’t drink iced beverages.

These are just a handful of food recommendations for each dosha, so if you want to learn your dominant dosha and what to eat to balance it out, it’s best to work with a practitioner who’s experienced in ayurvedic practices.

Benefits of the ayurvedic diet

Essentially, the ayurvedic diet is a plant-centric, whole foods diet. All existing evidence points to the fact that eating a plant predominant diet protects the mind and body from various health problems. 

But remember that ayurveda is a holistic approach to balancing your dosha, so it goes beyond your eating habits. For example, movement, such as yoga and meditation, are recommended daily, and these practices are associated with numerous benefits. For instance, yoga has been widely studied and shown to help reduce stress, anxiety, depression and muscle pain.

 Yoga offers additional health benefits, too. According to a review comparing the effects of yoga among people with type 2 diabetes, yoga led to better blood-sugar control and improvements in cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

Additionally, one small study found that combining the ayurvedic diet to address Kapha dominance with a three-time-per-week yoga practice resulted in weight loss. Participants lost an average of about 8 pounds over the 12-week period, and they continued losing weight after the study period, losing a total of close to 13 pounds over six months. However, the study didn’t have a control group for comparison. 

Likewise, meditation can help improve health problems like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It can also help you feel more in control around food and increase your enjoyment while eating, so it’s a perfect complement to Ayurvedic diet strategies.

Downsides of the ayurvedic diet

Some people might find the eating guidelines confusing or restrictive, which would make the diet hard to sustain. Plus, while the diet includes many healthy foods, other nutritious foods are avoided or eaten infrequently. For example, Vatas are better off without tomatoes, while Kaphas avoid oats.

Another challenge could be getting used to eating foods you may not be accustomed to eating. And if you aren’t a home chef, it may feel overwhelming to shop for and prepare your meals. That means you may need extra guidance on working these dietary strategies into your lifestyle.

Additionally, while ayurvedic medicine has been practiced for hundreds of years, there are no standardized or scientifically validated ways to figure out your dosha. In other words, your dosha isn’t based on your blood type or anything else that can be measured. Plus, much of the existing research is from small studies or research with limitations (such as no control group).

Finally, ayurvedic medicine isn’t well-regulated in the United States, and different states may have different practice requirements. Even the term doctor may be misleading. In ayurvedic medicine, it refers to a certain level of education, but it doesn’t mean the practitioner is a medical doctor (MD). If you’re interested in exploring the ayurvedic diet, the National Ayurvedic Medical Association has a certification process and a search tool to help you locate a certified professional.