You’ve probably come across the word Ayurveda recently (your bestie swears by her Ayurvedic morning routine, and your yoga teacher told you that she only eats according to her dosha). But what exactly is it...and is it just a fad? Before you dismiss the Ayurvedic diet as another version of the clean eating trend, you should know that this Indian philosophy has actually been around for thousands of years.
This ancient philosophy of holistic healing is based on the belief that health depends on a balance of mind, body and spirit. This delicate equilibrium is achieved by following the guidelines and ideas written down in 5,000-year-old Vedic texts. “Ayurvedic principles remind us that we are self-healing creatures and that we can maintain—or regain—good health by choosing healing foods, a balanced lifestyle and inner calm,” writes Vedic scholar Acharya Shunya in Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom.
Eating healthy, wholesome foods is one of the main pillars of Ayurveda. Another important aspect of this intricate wellness system? Being in tune with your dosha. (More on that below.)
How Does the Ayurvedic Diet Work?
According to Ayurveda, the universe is made up of five elements: vayu (air), jala (water), akash (space), teja (fire) and prithvi (earth). These elements combine to form three different doshas, or life energies: Vata (space and air), Pitta (fire and water) and Kapha (earth and water).
The three doshas are present in all of us, but we each have one that is more prominent, while the other two should be in an equal (but often shifting) balance. Optimal health is achieved when the doshas are balanced.
Once you know your dominant energy force, you can eat specific foods for your dosha that will nourish your body and promote balance. You can also avoid foods that will cause imbalance, which Ayurveda considers to be at the root of many diseases and health issues, including poor digestion, bad sleep, anxiety, skin problems and more. Confused? Here’s an example: Pitta is made up of the fire element, so someone with that dosha should avoid foods that would fuel that fire (say, a spicy enchilada) since this would throw the elements out of balance.
For an extensive guide to eating for your dosha, check out The Ayurvedic Institute and its comprehensive list of foods to eat and to avoid. You can also find an abbreviated version of this below. (Note: Because Ayurveda is such an ancient program, there may be some variation from one source to another.)
How Do I Find My Dosha?
The best way to uncover your dosha is to meet with an Ayurvedic doctor, who can suggest which foods to eat to achieve optimal balance. You can also discover your dominant energy with this easy “What Is Your Ayurvedic Dosha?” quiz or by reading up about each dosha to see where you may fit. Here are some general characteristics:
- Vatas are creative, energetic and expressive. They are light sleepers and usually have thin frames. Always complaining about cold hands and feet? Yep, you’re a Vata. When out of balance, this dosha will suffer from restlessness and weakness.
- Pittas are intelligent, ambitious and sharp-witted. They’re deep sleepers for short periods of time, have athletic body types and are usually warm. When out of balance, Pittas may suffer from skin rashes, heartburn and indigestion.
- Kaphas are nurturing, calm and thoughtful. They are sound sleepers who enjoy routine and have solid body frames. When out of balance, this dosha may become overweight or depressed and sleep excessively.
Foods to Eat
- Fruits: most sweet fruits, such as cooked apples, bananas, berries, mangoes, peaches, pineapples, fresh dates and figs
- Vegetables: cooked vegetables, including asparagus, beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, onions, radishes, turnips and green beans
- Grains: quinoa, rice, oats
- Legumes: red lentils, chickpeas, mung beans
- Dairy: most forms of dairy are acceptable, including butter, cheese and milk
- Meat: poultry and seafood in small quantities
- Nuts and seeds: all nuts and seeds are fair game
- Herbs and spices: all, including basil, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, garlic, ginger, oregano and thyme
- Fruits: sweet and fully ripe fruits like bananas, cherries, coconuts, oranges, melons, pears, pineapples, plums and raisins
- Vegetables: sweet and bitter vegetables like asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, green beans, leafy greens, mushrooms, peas, potatoes, squash and sweet potatoes
- Grains: barley, oats, quinoa, wheat and white rice
- Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils and mung beans
- Dairy: butter (unsalted), cheese (soft), ghee and milk
- Meat: chicken, freshwater fish, rabbit, shrimp and turkey
- Nuts and seeds: almonds (soaked and peeled), coconut and flaxseed
- Herbs and spices: basil, cinnamon, ginger, mint, saffron and turmeric
- Fruits: apples, apricots, berries, pears and pomegranates. Dried fruits are also good for Kaphas, including figs, prunes and raisins.
- Vegetables: asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, garlic, leafy greens, mushrooms, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes and radishes
- Grains: barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats (dry) and rye
- Legumes: most are acceptable including black beans, chickpeas, lentils and white beans
- Dairy: goat’s milk and soy milk
- Meat: chicken, fish (freshwater), rabbit, shrimp and turkey (white)
- Nuts and seeds: sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and flax seeds
- Herbs and spices: any, including black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, paprika, saffron and turmeric
FOODS TO AVOID
- Fruits: most dried fruits, including dates, figs, raisins and prunes, as well as raw apples, cranberries, pears, pomegranates and watermelon
- Vegetables: frozen or raw vegetables, as well as cooked broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, potatoes and tomatoes
- Grains: barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, quinoa, rye and wheat
- Legumes: beans and chickpeas
- Dairy: yogurt
- Meat: lamb, pork, rabbit and venison
- Fruits: most sour fruits, including berries, grapefruit, grapes, lemon and rhubarb
- Vegetables: beets, chili peppers, eggplant, garlic, onions and tomatoes
- Grains: corn, millet, rice and rye
- Legumes: soy
- Dairy: butter (salted), cheese (hard), sour cream and yogurt
- Meat: beef, duck, fish (sea), lamb and pork
- Nuts and seeds: almonds (with skin), cashews, chia seeds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, sesame seeds and walnuts
- Herbs and spices: bay leaf, cayenne, garlic, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, rosemary, sage, salt and thyme
- Fruits: bananas, coconuts, dates, grapefruit, kiwi, oranges, pineapple, plums and watermelon
- Vegetables: cucumber, olives, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and zucchini
- Grains: oats (cooked), rice and wheat
- Legumes: soy beans, kidney beans and miso
- Dairy: butter, cheese, milk and yogurt
- Meat: beef, duck, fish, lamb, pork and turkey (dark)
- Nuts and seeds: cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, sesame seeds and walnuts
- Herbs and spices: salt
Ready to start cooking? Start with one of these delicious Ayurvedic recipes.
Other Ayurvedic Eating Practices
Following an Ayurvedic diet isn’t just about what foods you eat but also how you eat them. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
When to eat
- Breakfast: The first meal of the day should be eaten before 8 a.m. (Yep, that means on weekends too.) And you should always eat breakfast, and all other meals, according to the season. Find the best breakfast for your dosha.
- Lunch: Lunch should ideally be consumed between noon and 12:30 p.m. and should never be eaten after 2 p.m., writes Shunya. This should be the largest meal of the day.
- Dinner: Have your evening meal before 7 p.m. It should be the lightest meal of the day since your digestion may not be as sharp as it was in the daytime. If you have to eat later, pick a time and stick to it—aim to keep mealtimes regular. (Psst: Here are the Ayurvedic dinner recipes you should make, based on your dosha.)
Cook food mindfully. Typically, making dinner involves a quick trip to the grocery store, coming home and realizing we’ve forgotten a key ingredient, and then a mad dash to get something on the table before 9 p.m., all while turning the kitchen into a giant mess. It’s not exactly a Zen activity. But for those following an Ayurvedic diet, cooking should be a tranquil experience. “Ayurveda recommends preparing fresh foods in a slow and relaxed manner in a spirit of joy and with the keen anticipation that will make the salivary glands and other digestive juices flow,” says Shunya.
Make each meal an event. Time to bust out the fine china. Yep, even if you’re eating solo. Set the stage for your meal with beautiful, clean and inspirational crockery, advises Shunya. Put some music on in the background (she recommends wind chimes) and consider lighting a candle or having some fresh fruits or flowers as a centerpiece.
Don’t eat too quickly and remember to chew your food. It’s all about being mindful about what you’re eating and how it tastes, as well as allowing your digestive system to do its thing. (But don’t eat so slowly that your food becomes cold.)
Don’t eat too much...or too little. This one is tricky since the right amount of food depends on the person. Shunya’s advice? “Eat until you feel pleasantly satiated. When you walk away from the table, you should not have any discomfort in your abdomen, your breathing should be comfortable and your mind should feel content. Only you know where to draw the line.” If you’re not sure how to do this, try to stop eating just before you’re full. (It’s OK to feel a little bit hungry after a meal.) Still need some help? Imagine your stomach is divided into four parts: two are for solids, one is for liquids and the last one you should keep empty so that everything digests appropriately.
Avoid mutually incompatible foods. Certain foods should not be eaten together, per Ayurvedic principles. For example, milk and vegetables, egg and meat, chicken and honey, lemon and tomato. Another bad combo? Raw fruit with cooked food (so go ahead and cancel that pineapple pizza order). These bad combos can upset the digestive system and cause unnecessary strain to your body.
Drink water consciously. You know you’re supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day to stay hydrated, but because you’re usually busy, you totally forget and often go for long stretches without drinking anything at all and then gulp a giant glass in two minutes flat. (Hey, us too.) Well, did you know there’s an Ayurvedic way of drinking water? Per our friends at Vasanti Health, sipping water slowly and deliberately throughout the day is much more beneficial to your body than sudden gulping. Ideally, this water should be room temperature or warm (not ice-cold).
Cook with ghee. This clarified butter should be your main cooking medium. Ghee has a super-high smoke point, which makes it great for sautéing. And because it has no milk proteins or lactose, it’s easier for sensitive stomachs to digest. (Don’t worry, it tastes like butter.)
Pros and Cons of the Ayurvedic Diet
Alejandro Junger, M.D., internist and founder of wellness company Clean, is a big proponent of the Ayurvedic diet. “I have witnessed the benefits and I think it is not a risky thing to try when looking for solutions, especially when other methods have not worked,” he tells us. “Whether it’s sugar balance, hormonal balance, weight loss, immune strengthening or improving digestion, Ayurvedic intervention through dosha dietary guidelines reaches every cell in the body.”
There’s a lot to like about the Ayurvedic diet. It focuses on nutrient-rich whole foods, which experts agree is beneficial to your health. It also minimizes processed foods, which are typically lacking in fiber and nutrients. Finally, the Ayurvedic diet encourages mindful eating (so no more scarfing down an energy bar for lunch). And while research is limited, one small study from the University of Arizona found that participants who followed an Ayurveda-based program (which included dietary changes and yoga classes) experienced an average weight loss of 13 pounds over nine months.
As for potential drawbacks? The diet can be confusing to follow. The lists of foods to eat and to avoid are quite extensive, and not everyone can adhere to the diet’s suggestions for when to eat and how much. It can also be difficult to accurately determine your dosha, so you run the risk of not following the diet correctly.
If you are suffering from a particular health issue, the diet shouldn’t replace advice from a medical professional. Per Dr. Junger, “I believe that no treatment or approach is good for everything.” But, he tells us, there’s certainly no harm in trying it.