Diet 101: Ayurvedic Diet

Ayurvedic eating is pretty much the opposite of a fad diet — it’s existed for some 5,000 years. Here’s what you need to know about doshas, kitchari bowls and eating mindfully.

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Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

From the Ketogenic diet to Whole30, there are a lot of philosophies about healthy foods and eating habits like loading up on healthy fats or cutting out dairy and gluten for good. Then there's Ayurveda, an ancient Indian approach of holistically healing the body with food and herbs. Curious? Here’s a primer.

What Is Ayurveda?

Pronounced ay-er-vey-da, the word literally translates to the knowledge of life (“ayu” is the Sanskrit world for life; “veda” means knowledge). Big picture, Ayurveda preaches mindful eating — from buying sustainably to eating whole foods that make you feel good.

To dive a little deeper, we turned to Divya Alter’s cookbook What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen. “When people ask me to describe Ayurvedic food, my answer is: whatever your definition of healthy food is,” Alter writes. Alter believes ayurvedic food is “fresh, pure, seasonal, local, predominantly plant-based, nutrient rich, easy to digest, satisfying and energizing.”

Alter says that Ayurvedic food is healing when it’s prepared according to your individual needs. Your needs are based on your dosha — the Ayurvedic belief system describes people in terms of three different body-mind types called doshas. We’re born with a dominant dosha, although all three doshas are present. The food we put into our body can balance our doshas or disbalance them.

What Are Doshas?

The first step in Ayurvedic eating is determining your dominant dosha: Vata, Pitta or Kapha. Each dosha is ascribed with certain qualities. For example, Vatas are slender and energetic with delicate digestion, while Pittas are fiery hot and have strong digestion. Kaphas are naturally calm and have regular digestion.

Ayurvedic expert Nira Kehar, chef-owner of Chez Nini in New Delhi and author of Ojas: Modern Recipes and Ancient Wisdom for Everyday Ayurveda says figuring out your dosha should be a fun game of getting to know yourself: “There are a few great dosha quizzes you can take online, like the one from Banyan Botanicals, but your body is changing every single day so don’t try to figure it out in one sitting,” Kehar says. “Take several different tests at different times and different days.”

Once you know your dosha, you can look into Ayurveda’s food recommendations for balancing your body (The Ayurvedic Institute has a good list). Balance purportedly leads to health, strength, energy and a settled tummy.

“You shouldn’t be making a drastic change from your current diet,” Kehar emphasized. “Make microscopic, sustainable changes.” While the dietary guidelines for your dosha might seem strict and scary, Kehar explained that there can be a danger in interpreting it rigidly. “You can try incorporating one or two of the spices for you dosha and seeing how they make you feel,” she said.

Are There Any Ayurvedic-Approved Dishes?

Kitchari (sometimes spelled khichdi), is a golden stew that’s traditionally made with basmati rice and moong dal, soft veggies and spices.

Kehar explained that kitchari is pretty compatible with every dosha, so it’s a great meal to make for the whole family. You can adjust it slightly for each person, adding extra fat for vatas (a pat of butter and some toasted nuts), fresh crunchy veggies for pittas (sliced radishes and carrots) and toasted spices for kaphas (cumin and ginger).

“The ingredients are healthy and it’s easy to digest,” Kehar said. “If you grow up with Indian parents, that’s what they probably fed you when you’re were sick. It’s wholesome and settling.”

Other common ingredients in an Ayurvedic pantry are turmeric, ginger, ghee, coconut oil and raw honey. Because Ayurveda is so engrained in Indian culture, there tends to be a big overlap with ingredients you might associate with the cuisine.

However, Alter points out that the food you already eat on a daily basis — whether it’s an Italian chopped salad or simply roasted veggies — can totally mesh with the Ayurvedic diet. Just consider minding dosha guidelines, using whole organic foods and limiting ingredients like refined sugar, caffeine and alcohol.

What do the Nutritionists Say?

Although she’s no expert in Ayurveda, Food Network’s resident nutritionist Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, has some insight.

“The emphasis on mindfulness and whole foods certainly promotes a healthy way to eat,” she said.

“A lot of the Ayurvedic staple foods — legumes, mung, ghee, spices — are nourishing, so you can’t really go wrong there. And I do love a good kitchari: The balance of rice, dal, ginger and warm spices are tummy-pleasing.”

However, she’s a little wary of dosha food guidelines: “While I like the concept of the doshas, they can be very hard to stick to, making for a tricky and unnecessarily restrictive way of eating,” White said. “I doubt there is good science to support why those certain foods should be encouraged versus avoided.”

It’s tricky to pronounce certain elements “right” or “wrong” because it’s important to remember that Ayurveda isn’t some fad diet; it’s a body of knowledge that’s existed for some 5,000 years. If you’re still curious, we’d encourage you to check out Kehar and Alter’s books, which are great resources.

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