Should You Follow the Ayurvedic Diet?
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Ayurveda-from ayur, meaning "life," and veda, meaning "science or knowledge"-is an ancient theory of mind-body wellness that dates back more than 2,000 years to ancient India. While Ayurveda isn't backed by the same kind of scientific research that guides our philosophies on health and nutrition today, it was once considered a groundbreaking approach to general wellness. Today, it is increasingly recognized as a beneficial complementary alternative for health care, eating and weight loss.
The guiding principles of the Ayurvedic diet are balance and nourishment, both of the body and mind. According to the Ayurvedic doctrine, nourishing the body nourishes the soul-and vice versa-leading to better overall wellness.
While it's important to remember that the nutritional guidelines we follow today are reinforced by modern research-and that Ayurveda doesn't hold up to a modern-day fact-check-it's intriguing to learn more about what the ancient sages believed about health and wellness. (You may even consider introducing a few of their theories into your own diet.)
Related: How to Eat More Mindfully
How to Eat to Achieve Ayurvedic Balance
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According to Ayurvedic philosophies, every individual has a unique makeup and personality that is influenced by your mind-body type, known as your dosha. There are three doshas-vata, pitta and kapha-each made up of different physical, emotional and mental characteristics (learn more below). While all three doshas are present, you will have a prominent dosha that largely determines your personality and characteristics. If you're trying to follow an Ayurvedic diet, achieving balance with your doshas is key to overall wellness.
Dosha balance is achieved by adjusting various habits or patterns in your life to more closely align with the characteristics associated with your prominent personality characteristics. You should be following a diet that is influenced by your body type, your body's needs, its digestive power and its composition.
Generally speaking, if you're trying to follow an Ayurvedic diet, you should eat according to your unique constitution, or prakriti. Additionally, Ayurveda asserts that the quality of food should be taken into consideration before consumption, thus requiring a well-thought-out approach to food and nutrition. Ayurvedic principles hold that eating the proper food is paramount to a person's health, and has the power to increase immunity, longevity and energy. Only after one achieves a balanced digestive system can the body absorb the nutrients present in food and utilize them.
How to Eat to Balance Your Doshas
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Before designing a diet that seeks Ayurvedic balance, you must first determine the dominant dosha that guides your flow of energy. The three doshas associated with Ayurvedic living are derived from five different elements: ether (space), water, air, earth and fire.
Numerous online questionnaires can help you determine your dominant dosha, though these may be inconsistent. You can also seek out an Ayurvedic doctor. No U.S. state licenses Ayurvedic doctors, but some have approved Ayurvedic schools.
Vata (ether and air): According to Ayurveda, individuals with a dominant vata should consume warm and wet foods like soups, oils and herbal teas. People with vata dominance are spiritual and positive when the vata is balanced, but restless and indecisive when it's unbalanced.
Pitta (fire and water): Individuals with a dominant pitta are often leaders and visionaries, but when these individuals become unbalanced, they may become aggressive and arrogant. People with pitta imbalance may face issues with inflammation, acid reflux and overheating. Ayurvedic principles suggest that people with a dominant pitta should avoid alcohol, caffeine and spicy food and should consume foods like juices, salad and raw seeds.
Kapha (water and earth): Individuals with a dominant kapha tend to be patient and kind, but are languid and prone to weight gain<. They should prioritize eating bitter, light and dry foods, such as salads, beans, whole grains and citrus fruits.
How you eat is equally important as what you eat, say adherents of this diet. The time you eat, your age, gender and the season of the year also affect the balance of your doshas, as do various herbs and spices. According to Ayurveda, adding herbs such as cumin, turmeric, ginger, black pepper and coriander to your diet may promote digestion, enhance flavor and balance doshas.
Food Combinations to Avoid for Ayurvedic Eating
Advocates of Ayurveda believe that combining certain foods may lead to the development of toxins in the body that could cause diseases, and that certain food combinations could cause symptoms like indigestion, fermentation or gas.
For example, many people following the Ayurvedic diet believe that combining milk with seafood produces toxins and disturbs digestion; that raw and cooked foods should not be combined in the same meal; that fruit should be eaten on an empty stomach-and never with milk-and that one should not combine two concentrated carbohydrates or two heavy proteins together. Keep in mind, there's no science-backed reason to avoid these food combinations but if you want to eat for your dosha, these rules are recommended.
Can the Ayurvedic Diet Help with Weight Loss?
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While many approaches to the Ayurvedic diet exist, there's limited science to support its effectiveness for weight loss or general health. Because the Ayurvedic diet relies heavily on whole, unprocessed foods, it stands to reason you may shed a few pounds following this mind-body eating philosophy if your previous diet relied heavily on calorie-rich ultra-processed foods. However, research has not found consistent results to promote the Ayurvedic diet as a reasonable approach to weight loss.
Some small studies suggest there may be a kernel of truth to the popular claim that the Ayurvedic diet helps promote weight loss. In fact, one study of 200 people with mixed doshas found that this whole foods-focused way of eating may help people lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. Another study, this one in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, found clinically significant weight-loss results when an Ayurvedic treatment group was compared to people who ate a placebo meal instead.
So, while it's possible this eating philosophy will greatly improve the quality of food you're eating, it won't translate to weight loss for every individual.
Take a Sensible Approach to Following an Ayurvedic Diet
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There's little evidence to back most of the benefits attributed to the Ayurvedic diet, which range from treating cancer to preventing type 2 diabetes. This eating philosophy was developed thousands of years ago, when scientific knowledge about food and nutrition did not exist in the way it does today. Now that we know how the digestive system works, that knowledge directly contradicts the Ayurvedic guidance around limiting foods or restricting the food groups you combine at meals. The human body is more than capable of digesting mixed meals.
However, it is true that pairing certain foods can affect how they are absorbed by your body, and how readily certain nutrients are ingested. For example:
- Vitamin C enhances the body's absorption of iron when both are ingested together. Therefore, it's helpful to pair iron-rich plant foods (like spinach, beans, lentils and chickpeas)-whose iron isn't as available as that from meat-with foods rich in vitamin C (like citrus fruits and bell peppers) to make the highest concentration of nutrients available to your body.
- Fat-soluble vitamins Vitamin A (found in sweet potatoes, carrots and kale), vitamin D (found in wild-caught fish, milk and cheese) and vitamin E (found in sunflower seeds, almonds and spinach) should be eaten alongside a source of fat (such as extra-virgin olive oil) to help increase nutrient absorption.
- Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over your tomatoes to help the body absorb more lycopene, which is a powerful antioxidant. Drizzle it over dark-green veggies, too; it'll increase the absorption of lutein, which is another beneficial antioxidant.
Related: Foods That Are Healthier Together
Faithfully following an Ayurvedic diet could be extremely difficult today, due to its restrictive nature and complex rules. Additionally, modern science doesn't support the nutritional philosophies of Ayurveda as they apply to balancing the doshas. However, many of its overall principles, such as mindful eating, avoiding overconsumption and considering the environmental impact of a diet, do ring true. So while it's not advisable to eat solely to balance your dosha, there are several aspects of this diet that may enhance your overall nutrition and health.