Every day you read about new diets—diets to lose weight, for thyroid conditions, depression, gluten intolerance, blood pressure, cholesterol, and elevated blood sugar—the list goes on.
Maybe you’ve tried some of them and they helped for a while … before they stopped. Some may have done wonders for your mother or your best friend, but didn’t work for you at all, and may even have set you back. Some weight loss diets you tried were so stringent you took a break. Only to gain the weight back and then some, leaving you feeling down and depressed.
The Ayurvedic diet is different. Actually, it isn’t a diet at all. It’s a proven 5000-year-old holistic healing system with easy and accessible principles for leading a balanced and healthy life. And best of all, this is a system that finds unique solutions for everyone with full respect for individual differences.
Ayurveda is all about maintaining balance: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. When working with a client, Ayurvedic practitioners first determine their constitution based on five elements—ether, air, fire, water, and earth—that come together to form three different constitutions or doshas—vata, pitta, or kapha. Vata is air and ether, pitta, fire and water, and kapha earth and water. Everyone has all five elements, but in different proportions, which define our individual differences and the health challenges we face.
The doshas also guide us to the food and lifestyle choices that keep us healthy. The right diet, consisting of properly cooked food, is central to achieving balance, which makes Ayurvedic cooking a pathway to enjoying and maintaining good health.
What is an Ayurvedic diet?
What makes an Ayurvedic diet different is that you choose and combine foods based on your dosha. It also stresses the importance of eating at specific times and the environment you’re eating in.
An Ayurvedic practitioner will review your current diet, but they will also take into account your lifestyle, emotions, age, and environment before suggesting appropriate food choices.
For example, if stress dominates your life and you drink a lot of caffeine to stay awake and eat fast food to save time, your symptoms could be insomnia, anxiety, frustration, angry outbursts, and other indications of imbalance. The first step in restoring your health is changing your diet. But the best food choices depend on which of your doshas are out of balance.
If your imbalance is in vata (characterized by air and ether, which are cold and dry) you will benefit from warming, grounding, foods and spices such as sweet potatoes, cinnamon, or Ashwagandha. Avoiding cold and dry foods such as ice cream, raw or dried fruits, and snacks like chips—which can aggravate your already cold and dry constitution—would also be recommended.
Pitta (water and fire) imbalances need to cool down. If this is you, look forward to ice cream and sweet fruits, and avoid hot, spicy, and sour foods that aggravate pitta further, increasing your frustration or even unleashing your temper.
Kapha imbalances are sluggish and cool. Light, dry, warm foods, such as grains like barley and rye, along with dry fruits like apples and cranberries are best. Low or nonfat milk is good, but minimize cultured dairy products. Kapha can handle all spices and herbs, but go easy on the salt. Beans (except soybeans) and seeds (pumpkin or sunflower) are excellent choices.
When you understand your imbalances, you can choose foods to correct them, which is why Ayurvedic cooking is a major pathway to wellness.
Take this simple dosha quiz to reveal your dosha and learn how it is affecting you.
Stay Healthy with Ayurvedic Cooking Principles
Ayurveda recognizes six tastes, sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent. Including all six at each meal covers each of the recognized dietary building blocks like fat, protein, vitamins and minerals. And this is the case regardless of your preferred cuisine.
Examples of sweet, salty, sour and bitter foods are easy to imagine. Astringent foods are cooling and heavy like beans and peas. Vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are also astringent as are coffee and tea. Spicy foods like chili peppers, cayenne, ginger, garlic and onion are considered pungent.
For each dosha, three of the six tastes are balancing, the other three aggravating. Sweet, sour and salty foods help offset the dry coldness of vata’s air and ether, while bitter, pungent and astringent tastes aggravate them. Sweet, bitter and astringent tastes help pacify pitta’s steamy heat, which is aggravated by sour, salty and pungent. Kaphas are balanced by pungent, bitter and astringent, and aggravated by sweet, sour and salty.
If you cook for a group, don’t worry about separate menus for each person. Just offer a little of each taste at each meal.
For example, when you serve kale, which is bitter and can aggravate vata, offer vata friendly vinegar or soy sauce on the side. Sour cream offsets the astringent qualities of potatoes, while lemon does the same for tea. If your breakfast menu includes oatmeal, which is great for vatas and pittas, have couscous or a dry cereal like muesli for the kapha imbalanced.
You can also create variety by serving at least two vegetables at each meal, along with a grain, beans, or lentils. Meat, especially in small quantities, is acceptable in Ayurveda as are fish and eggs. These heavy sources of protein are hard to digest and best served in small quantities at lunchtime when your digestive fire is at its peak.
If you are accustomed to eating a lot of meat, consider easing off gradually, and pay attention to how you feel as your diet becomes more balanced.
Most Ayurvedic cookbooks offer helpful advice on this topic, including insight on which ingredients are best for which dosha so you can plan accordingly.
Ayurvedic Cooking for Beginners
Even if you are a beginner, Ayurvedic cooking principles are simple and easy to learn. Here are some tips to get you started.
Stock up on commonly used spices such as turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander and fennel. All of them serve to bring balance and/or facilitate digestion.
When it comes to choosing the best cooking oil, according to Ayurveda, you can’t go wrong with ghee. It is tri-doshic, which means it balances all three doshas. It also aids digestion, has a high smoke point so is great for sauteing, and it keeps well without refrigeration. While it can be pricey to purchase ready made, it is easy to make.
Use it as a condiment to drizzle on hot cereal, and over vegetables. If you are lactose intolerant, put it in coffee in place of cream.
When cooking with spices, saute them in ghee first to help release the flavors and make them more digestible. Add vegetables or grains and stir until well coated. Then add water as needed to complete cooking.
Oats, oat bran or couscous are good breakfast foods. Saute nuts (pecans, walnuts or cashews), and fruit (bananas or apples and raisins) in ghee. Then add grains and sufficient water for cooking.
Bonus Tips for Ayurvedic Cooking
A basic principle of Ayurveda is to be in tune with natural cycles as much as possible. Here are some ways to incorporate that concept into your cooking and eating.
- When possible choose foods that are in season and grown in the area where you live. Farmers markets are a good source for such foods, and many grocery stores carry local produce as well.
- Eat organic.
- Avoid very cold drinks. Rather than ice water keep yourself hydrated by sipping warm or room temperature water throughout the day.
- Drinking liquids during a meal dilutes your digestive fire. Drink only small amounts while eating.
- Eat food that increases your prana or life force. This means saying “no” to food that is processed, microwaved or left over. It’s always best to start fresh.
- At one sitting, eat only an amount of food that fits comfortably into your cupped hands.
Ayurvedic Cooking: Something for Everyone
Imagine a life where you no longer stress about finding the eating plan that is best for you. Once you understand your basic constitution or dosha and are sensitive to how to keep yourself in balance, you’ll feel healthier, more energetic, and more connected to your body and your kitchen!