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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

The ancient Indian practice of ayurveda — the benefits of which have been recently publicized by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Kourtney Kardashian — is one of the world's oldest medical systems and is all about treating the mind and body holistically.

Ayurveda translates to the "science of life" and focuses on diet, exercise and lifestyle, as well as some plant- and animal-based interventions. If you're interested in following an ayurvedic diet, you'll reorient your food choices to better connect yourself with the world around you. The ayurvedic belief in doing so is that better aligning digestion, metabolism, your immune system and other bodily functions with your environment can help them perform better and reduce risk of 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

Ayurvedic medicine relies on the notion that each individual has one dosha that is stronger than the rest, which can affect your behavior and appearance. For example, if Vata is your dominant dosha, you may be more slender because Vata is tied to catabolism, or breakdown of molecules within the body. Pitta, on the other hand, oversees metabolism, so people who are Pitta-dominant, may be have a strong appetite and be more muscular. People with a strong Kapha, which is linked to anabolism (the opposite of catabolism) may have slower metabolisms.

As a result, you should eat according to your dominant dosha to help boost your non-dominant functions and create more harmony. These are some principles to help you figure out the best and words foods for your 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

Because the diet prioritizes eating lots of plants and whole foods, the research shows that an ayurvedic diet can have preventive health benefits for both the mind and body. But because ayurveda is holistic and focused on the whole body, you will need to practice other lifestyle habits for the benefits of balancing your dosha. Daily yoga and meditation are common for ayurveda practitioners, and research shows there are benefits to doing both on a regular basis, such as improving mental health and body aches. Yoga can also improve blood sugar levels, cholesterol and blood pressure, one study found.

Ayurvedic diet for weight loss

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.