Ayurvedic food is structured around the principles of a medical system that developed over 3,000 years ago. What does ancient Indian medicine have to teach us about our diet, and should we all adapt to Ayurvedic eating?April 28, 2022 5:19 pm August 18, 2021 4:49 pm
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is a traditional system of medicine which hails originally from India. Much like Traditional Chinese Medicine, it first appeared thousands of years ago, yet still has ardent followers in the modern day.
Some historians date Ayurvedic medicine back to the 2nd century BC.(1) That means it was just getting going around the time that Hannibal crossed the alps (complete with retinue of African war elephants).(2)
Ayurveda encompasses an entire lifestyle, beyond simply adopting a certain diet. It divides people by body type, and once you know yours you can follow the relevant advice about eating and self-care.
Astoundingly, given that it first appeared thousands of years ago, Ayurveda is still extremely popular today. In 2017, a survey conducted by PWC found that 77% of Indian households use Ayurvedic products.(3)
It’s also attracting plenty of attention in the West, with around 240,000 Americans using Ayurvedic medicine of some kind.(4)
Why is Ayurvedic food becoming popular again?
While everyone will have their own individual reasons for turning to an Ayurvedic way of eating, there are definitely certain trends.
Firstly, the wellness industry has boomed in recent years. According to the Global Wellness Institute, in 2017/18 its value rested at $4.5 trillion.(5) Demand for products and services which help us to feel our best has never been higher, perhaps due to the strains of modern life.
While we may not be technically ‘ill’ – we don’t have a specific disease – we feel there’s something missing. We don’t feel at our best physically and emotionally, and we’re looking for answers.
Writing in Forbes, Scott Nelson (himself a founder of a light therapy company) suggested that people are more becoming interested in wellness for a few key reasons.
Firstly, we’re living in an ageing population, and a society in which stress and burnout are incredibly common. Next, we have more information than ever before, so are better placed to take accountability for our own health. And thirdly, we’re not as satisfied with Western treatment options as we once were.(5)
That leaves many of us searching for alternative ways of thinking about our health, which is where traditional systems such as Ayurveda and TCM come in.
What are the main principles of Ayurvedic eating?
In the early days of medical thinking, different systems developed around the world. One was our Western notion of medicine, which depended heavily on the study of anatomy and disease.
Another was Ayurveda, which looks at the body as a whole system.
Ayurvedic eating aims to keep that system in balance by choosing the right types of food.
What’s more, an Ayurvedic diet doesn’t look the same for everyone. Rather, your recommended diet is based on your Ayurvedic body type.
The three doshas
In Ayurvedic thinking, there are three life energies, or ‘doshas’. They are in every human being, but they also make up all other beings in the universe, including plants, animals, minerals and even the seasons of the year.(6)
Because of this, we humans are not distinct from the natural world, but simply another element within it.
Each of us has a slightly different balance of each dosha, and knowing which is your dominant dosha is essential for figuring out which foods you should eat. Your makeup of doshas is called your Pakriti, and it remains unchanged throughout your life.(6)
The aim is always to keep your doshas in balance. Eating the wrong sort of foods can throw them off, leading to problems down the line for your health.
Which is my dominant dosha?
The three doshas are called Pitta, Vata and Kapha, and they are made up of the Ayurvedic elements (air, ether, fire, earth and water).
They each have associated qualities, so if you’d like to figure out which is your dominant dosha, ask yourself which of these descriptions sounds most like you.(8)
Vata: Made up of a combination of air and ether, this dosha belongs to you if you have a delicate build and fine hair. You’re generally cheerful, chatty, and creative, while your moods and decisions can change on a moment’s notice.
Pitta: Your dosha is made of fire and water. You have a medium, muscular build and a warm nature, but your temper can turn fiery if you’re crossed! You’re not afraid to be a leader and you’re comfortable speaking your mind.
Kapha: Made of earth and water, the kappa dosha is yours if you have a solid frame and a calm disposition. You’re easy-going, thoughtful and loving.
If it seems to you like you’re a blend of more than one dosha, it’s because it is also possible to have two dominant doshas!
So, now you have a feel for your dominant dosha, let’s look at what you should be eating.
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"An Ayurvedic diet aims to keep your body in balance and maintain a state of wellbeing."
The major tastes in Ayurvedic food
Different combinations of the Ayurvedic elements (air, ether, water, fire and earth) create different flavors. The key tastes in Ayurveda are sweet, pungent, sour, bitter, saline and astringent.
These are easy to match up with the foods they describe. For example, pungent foods include garlic, ginger and onion, while astringent foods usually contain tannins, such as pomegranate, green bananas and herbs such as turmeric and parsley.
Each taste is associated with a particular dosha. (As mentioned above, doshas make up everything, including food!)
While it might seem logical to match up your dosha to foods associated with it, you should actually be aiming to balance your dominant dosha by eating mostly foods associated with the other two.
So, for example, if your dominant dosha is pitta, you should try and eat foods associated with kapha and vata. This will bring you back to a state of balance.
The right (and wrong) foods for your dosha: Pitta
If your dominant dosha is pitta, you should:
- Eat lots of: grains such as rice, wheat, oats and barley. Stock up on fresh veg such as cucumber, red pepper, broccoli and avocado. All sweet fruits are fine for you.
- Avoid: pungent foods – you’re fiery enough! That means onion, garlic, strong spices and ginger are all out for you. Try to avoid sour fruits such as orange and lemon. Dairy items such as sour cream, buttermilk and cheese are to be avoided.
If your dominant dosha is vata, you should:
- Eat lots of: rice and pulses. You’re fine with cooked vegetables such as carrots, beetroot and sweet potato, and you can handle all spices and nuts in moderation.
- Avoid: White bread and maize, raw vegetables and salads, sour or dried fruit, and dairy.
If your dominant dosha is kapha, you should:
- Eat lots of: corn, pulses and barley, and plenty of raw vegetables. Astringent fruits are fine for you, so load up on apples, pears and berries. You can use all spices, including black pepper, chilli and garlic.
- Avoid: refined cereals, soy, and both sweet and sour fruits (including bananas, grapes, lemons and oranges). You should make a conscious effort to avoid using salt, oil and dairy, particularly yoghurt.
Foods for the wise, food for the foolish
In addition to the body type suggestions given above, Ayurveda has more general wisdom on which foods to enjoy and which to avoid.
This is based on the type of behaviour the foods bring out in us.
For example, the most venerated foods are thought to bring out wisdom. These include cooked vegetables, milk and honey. These are called Satvika foods.
Meanwhile, foods which provide us with the energy we need to go about our daily business, such as grains, pulses and oils, are considered Rajsika foods.
Finally, those that bring out our worst side are called Tamasika foods. These (unsurprisingly) include meat and alcohol, as well as spicy and sour foods.(9)
Changing with the seasons
Furthermore, Ayurveda advises that we eat with the seasons. As discussed above, they too are made up of a balance of different doshas.
A hot and dry summer period is likely to bring out our pitta dosha, while kapha is associated more with winter. Vata is most associated with autumn.
Therefore, we should also make an effort to eat foods which balance out not only our individual doshas, but take the seasons into account as well.
Pittas, that means you really shouldn’t go for lots of spicy foods in the summer! Instead, all of us (but especially pittas) should aim to eat cooling kapha foods at this time.
Likewise, in the winter, we can aim to eat a few more pitta foods to warm our cold bones!
As you may have intuited from the list above, which distinguishes between cooked and raw foods, temperature is hugely important in Ayurveda.
Generally speaking, foods which are served warm or at room temperature are best for us.
While you might think that a tall glass of iced water would be great for cooling you down if your pitta dosha is out of balance, Ayurveda actually advises against this.
Instead, you should drink water at room temperature.
This is down to the believe in Ayurveda that digestion is somewhat like a fire (agni); you should aim to keep it going steadily by adding firewood (warm foods). However, a glass of iced water will slow your digestive fire down. Similarly, very hot food will imbalance it.
So, for best results, avoid foods that are ice cold or red hot. Instead, stick to moderate temperatures.
One final thing to think about in terms of Ayurvedic eating is that some foods simply do not go together.
Each food has its own flavor, called a rasa, is defined as hot or cold (virya) and also has its own effect on the digestive system (vipaka).
When you eat two foods together which clash in terms of their rasa, virya or vipaka, it can wreak havoc on your digestive system. Think: bloating and indigestion.
However, they can both be eaten separately without causing any harm.
Take the combination of bananas and milk as an example (sorry, smoothie makers!). Both milk and banana have a sweet rasa and a cooling virya, but when it gets to vipaka there’s a clash. According to Ayurveda, bananas are sour while milk is sweet. Thus, your digestive system becomes confused and digestion slows.
Meanwhile honey and ghee can be eaten together, but never in a 1:1 ratio. The reason for this is a fourth element of Ayurvedic eating: prahbav, or ‘the unexplainable’.(11)
Should you follow an Ayurvedic diet?
Ayurveda has been around for thousands of years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, so much dietary guidance has accumulated that at first glance, it can seem pretty complicated.
How do you eat for your dosha, but also for the current season, while retaining the right temperature and avoiding any ‘bad’ pairings? It certainly takes a lot of planning!
It should also be noted that an Ayurvedic diet has not been scientifically proven to be better for you than other diets.
However, you will notice that Ayurvedic eating also makes use of plenty of dietary advice which doesn’t veer too far from the health advice given in Western countries.
For example, Ayurveda recommends whole foods, based around plenty of fruits, vegetables and grains. It advises that you eat intuitively, based on your body type and what it needs, and that you eat according to the season.
Ayurvedic food for wellness
An Ayurvedic diet aims to keep your body in balance and maintain a state of wellbeing. Many Ayurvedic remedies, such as turmeric and ashwagandha, have been studied and have produced promising health results which are causing excitement in Western medicine, too.
We advise you to take what you need from Ayurvedic eating patterns, and not put too much pressure on yourself to follow it dogmatically.
For example, consider your dosha and the season when deciding what to eat. This can be done quite intuitively.
For instance, if your predominant dosha is kapha and the weather outside is cold and rainy, then a meal like our vegan bean chilli would be perfect. It’s warm, nourishing, and full of legumes and gentle spice to balance out the cold, inside and out!
Meanwhile, thinking of your body as a delicately balanced system encourages you to question what your body really needs at a given time. That is always a positive thing, in our book!
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