Even though it's been around for about 5,000 years, you may have just recently heard about the Ayurvedic diet, an eating plan derived from traditional Indian medicine.
Sound like something you'd like to try? Here's what you need to know before you take the plunge, from how to find your dosha (and what the heck a dosha is) to a few words of warning to keep in mind.
What's Ayurveda All About?
Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India, and the diet aspect of the tradition is inspired by this Ayurvedic proverb: "When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use; when diet is correct, medicine is of no need."
Larry Mangel, a certified Ayurvedic practitioner at Shanti Yoga and Ayurveda in Philadelphia, tells LIVESTRONG.com that Ayruveda is based around the belief in three body types, or doshas: Winter (Vata), Spring (Kapha) and Summer (Pitta).
"We all have a specific constitution when we're born," he explains. "As we move through life, our present constitution or state can change or become unbalanced from stress, the wrong diet and the wrong lifestyle. The seasons can also cause changes."
The purpose of an Ayurvedic diet is to maintain a person's original constitution and to bring the body back to its natural state if it becomes unbalanced. "According to Ayurveda, being in our natural state is true health," Mangel says.
"The easiest way to achieve one's dietary needs is by using taste," he adds, explaining that Ayurveda recognizes six tastes: sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent.
Each taste corresponds with different foods, which have an effect on your dosha, according to The Ayurvedic Institute. For example, sweet-tasting foods lower Winter and Summer influences but increase Spring; salty tastes balance Winter, but aggravate Spring and Summer; and so on.
Eating the Ayurvedic Way
The Ayurvedic eating style starts with discovering your natural body type, or dosha, which is usually done with the help of an Ayurvedic practitioner. However, there are also quizzes available online, such as this free body type quiz from the Joyful Belly School of Ayurvedic Diet & Digestion. But keep in mind that these online tools may not be totally accurate.
Once you know your dosha, there are several guidelines to keep in mind to align your eating with Ayurveda.
1. Eat for your body type.
In Ayurveda, eating for your body type means applying the rule of opposites, says Erin Casperson, dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, Ayurvedic health practitioner and Kripalu yoga teacher. The idea is that you want to eat foods that keep your elements in balance.
For example, if you have more of a fire constitution, you will want to eat foods that don't fire you up too much. "Favor simple, cooling foods like grains, legumes, root vegetables and sweet fruits," Casperson suggests. "Avoid heating chilis, alcohol, coffee and sugar."
"Eating begins long before the food enters the mouth. It begins with smell and touching. Through cooking, the body begins to relax around what it is going to eat."
2. Choose seasonal foods grown locally.
Nature provides the foods that naturally balance out the qualities of each season, Casperson says. For example, if you live in New England, the spring is damp and cloudy. Couple that with eating heavier winter foods, like casseroles and stews, and you could end up feeling a bit sluggish.
The fix? Lighter and more "heating" foods that naturally grow in springtime, like ramps, asparagus, radishes and greens like spinach, kale and collards.
"If we eat local foods, say, those grown within 100 miles of where we live, we can ensure that we are getting exactly what we need to balance any adverse effects of the current season," she says.
3. Eat in a relaxed state.
Relaxation goes hand-in-hand with digestions, according to Casperson.
"Ayurveda invites us to slow down, savor our foods and eat mindfully," she says. "When we are stressed out and in fight-or-flight mode, all our blood is channeled from the gastrointestinal tract into the muscles of the arms and legs to run for our life."
By consuming meals when we are relaxed and away from distractions — computers, work, etc. — we can ensure that all the energy and blood is going to the digestive system to help process our food.
By the same token, Casperson says, Ayurveda discourages people from eating when they are angry or upset.
4. Allow plenty of time between meals.
It's important to space out meals, says Casperson, in order to allow your body the proper digestion time.
Ayurveda practices recommend that the previous meal be completely digested before partaking in the next meal. This ensures proper digestion and helps ward off gas, bloating, heartburn or heaviness in the stomach, Casperson says.
5. Avoid snacking between meals.
Casperson does not recommend snacking in between meals, as it can interrupt the digestion of the previous meal and can result in what Ayurvedic practitioners refers to as ama. According to their beliefs, this substance is one of the root causes of disease and can cause sour burps, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion and poor absorption of nutrients.
If this ama travels beyond the digestive system, according to Ayurvedic beliefs, it can cause a host of other problems, such as acne, skin disorders, achy/swollen joints and inflammation.
6. Cook more often than you dine out.
Cooking at home ensures a few things: You'll know exactly what you're eating and you'll have the ability to control fat, salt and sugar.
Casperson adds that it allows us to connect with our food. "Eating begins long before the food enters the mouth. It begins with smell and touching. Through cooking, the body begins to relax around what it is going to eat," she says. "When we eat at restaurants, on the other hand, we don't know the energy that is being put into the food. What if someone is angry cooking your food? Are you then also eating anger? Eating at home allows you to know the ingredients and the emotions being cooked into your meal."
7. Consume less packaged and processed foods.
Sure, packaged foods have their place. They are convenient and there are loads of healthy options available. However, the Ayurvedic approach dictates that you eat as close to the source as possible, says Casperson.
"Think about shelf life," she says. "What are we really eating if the food can last for months or years on a shelf?"
8. Limit animal-based foods.
Eating plant-based foods is recommended, as Ayurveda derives from the yoga sutra, which encourages the concept of non-harming or ahimsa. However, exceptions are occasionally made.
Animal products are sometimes recommended for specific healing purposes, Mangel says. For example, when a person has a Winter imbalance, they can become depleted and weak. "If the condition is severe, a practitioner may suggest some meat to help them gain strength," he explains.
9. Avoid cold liquids.
According to Mangel, drinking liquids that are chilled can stifle digestion. The Ayurvedic belief, he explains, is that they diminish the digestive fire, known as agni.
"For best digestion, we suggest drinking 15 to 20 minutes before meals and a few minutes after eating," he adds. "Also, warm water is much easier to absorb for hydration and lymphatic cleaning."
Can It Help Me Lose Weight?
Although practitioners link a plethora of health benefits to the Ayurvedic approach to eating, including weight loss, there's very little scientific evidence to support these claims.
One very small study, published January 2014 in Global Advances in Health and Medicine, found that an Ayurveda and yoga-based lifestyle modification program was effective for weight management, but only about a dozen individuals participated in the research.
Another small trial, published in the Romanian Journal of Diabetes Nutrition and Metabolic Diseases in December 2014, found that Ayurvedic eating coupled with physical activity may help prevent type 2 diabetes.
However, keep in mind that many nutritionists aren't convinced of the diet's effectiveness. "Since there doesn't seem to be a clear scientific rationale for its underlying premise of eating based on energy type (or dominant dosha), that provides one key reason why I personally don't recommend an Ayurvedic approach," Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
And if your main objective is weight loss, Newgent cautions that Ayurveda probably isn't the diet for you due to its rather complex guidelines that are traditionally not meant to be followed in the short-term. However, if you're looking for an approach to protect you from chronic disease, such as heart disease, "following at least its whole food focus may help boost your efforts, since that can displace highly-processed foods, which offer fewer protective plant nutrients," she says.
Newgent does recommend features of the diet, including enjoying nutrient-rich whole foods and minimally processed foods, as well as practicing mindfulness. "At the end of the day, if someone is able to follow the approach, as long as they're meeting their overall nutrient needs, I wouldn't advise them to stop," she says.
- Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health: "Erin Casperson, Dean, Kripalu School of Ayurveda"
- Shanti Yoga and Ayurveda: "About Larry"
- Joyful Belly School of Ayurvedic Diet & Digestion: "Find Your Ayurvedic Body Type With This Free Dosha Quiz"
- The Ayurvedic Institute: "Food Guidelines for Basic Constitutional Types"
- Global Advances in Health and Medicine: "A Pilot Feasibility Study of Whole-systems Ayurvedic Medicine and Yoga therapy for Weight Loss"
- Romanian Journal of Diabetes Nutrition and Metabolic Diseases: "Diet and Lifestyle Guidelines for Diabetes: Evidence Based Ayurvedic Perspective"
- Jackie Newgent: "Meet Jackie"