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.

Get the Recipe: Turmeric Latte

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. Enter Ayurveda, an ancient Indian approach of holistically healing the body with food and herbs. And recently it’s been getting a lot of buzz in the wellness world. (You’ve probably seen a kitchari bowl or two on your social feeds.) Curious? Here’s what you need to know before making space in your cabinet for cultured ghee.

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.

Hold Up, What’s the Deal with 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?

A biggie that you might have seen on your Instagram feed? Kitchari, 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.

Related Content:

Keep Reading

Next Up

Gluten-Free Diets: Good or Bad?

Seems like everyone is buzzing about gluten free. Gluten-free products and diet books are flooding the marketplace and celebrities are swearing by their anti-gluten lifestyles. So what’s this really all about? Does going gluten free hold the key to better health and weight loss success? Get the facts.

I’m Technically Failing at the Keto Diet — and I’m 100% OK With It

A mother’s greatest challenge is not brain cancer, but Keto.

The 5 Worst Diets for Weight Loss

Trying a weight loss plan that doesn’t work can become extremely frustrating and discouraging. Before starting any of these diets, read why I say skip ‘em!

Anti-Diet Isn't Anti-Health

This way of eating doesn’t mean an endless supply of doughnuts, cupcakes and French fries.

Sodium 101: Shaking the Salt Habit

Because doctors don’t routinely check for salt sensitivity, you may not know if you're one of those unlucky few with high blood pressure risks. To play it safe, everyone should be cutting back the salt in their diet and making a few other healthy tweaks.

5 Ways to Know Your Diet is Working Without Stepping On a Scale

These 5 cues are more important than a number on a scale.

Diet 101: OMAD Diet

We take a deep dive into intermittent fasting and what it means for your health.

Diet 101: Dukan Diet

Although the Dukan Diet has been a best seller for years in France, it’s been rapidly growing popularity since Kate Middleton announced that she’s on it in order to lose weight for her upcoming royal nuptials to Prince William. Other celebs like model Giselle Bundchen and Jennifer Lopez have also reportedly been on the diet to help them shed their post-baby pounds. But should you be following in the footsteps of these high profile celebs?

Diet 101: GAPS Diet

The GAPS Diet promises to improve digestion and psychological health. We investigate.

Diet 101: DASH Diet

The DASH Diet was created for those with high blood pressure, but was recently voted Best Overall Diet for Healthy Eating by U.S. News. Find out what it's about.