Ayurveda, considered a natural system of healing wisdom, originated in India more than 5,000 years ago. (1) This Sanskrit word Ayurveda translates as “the knowledge of life” (ayur means life, while veda means science or knowledge). Ayurvedic medicine is still practiced widely today in modern India and now also extends its influence worldwide, including the practice of following an Ayurvedic diet.
As one of the oldest medicinal systems in history, Ayurvedic principles and foods work with the body’s innate intelligence in order to promote natural self-healing. Ayurvedic diets are customized depending on someone’s specific body type (or “constitution”), called a dosha. Because Ayurveda is based on rhythmic changes found in nature — including the rise and fall of the sun each day, the changing seasons, and the phases of life (birth, aging and death) — foods included in an Ayurvedic diet change throughout the year and can also fluctuate throughout someone’s lifetime.
In Ayurvedic medicine, health is defined as a state of equilibrium with one’s self (svasthya) and is also closely linked to one’s environment. (2) While following a nutrient-dense, personalized diet is very important in Ayurvedic medicine, there are also other Ayurvedic lifestyle practices that help prevent disease and optimize well-being, both physically and mentally. Ayurveda is said to addresses the whole person — the body, mind and spirit — which means that diet, stress management, sleep, use of herbs and/or supplements, and movement all come together to support overall health.
What Is the Ayurvedic Diet?
Ayurvedic diets are based on ancient medicinal practices that promote “holistic” balance in the physical body and mind in order to manage or treat various health problems. Today, Ayurvedic medicine is considered a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which means it can be used along with conventional “Western” medicine practices and/or also incorporate various other CAM treatments, such as use of homeopathy, massage, yoga, meditation, aromatherapy and exercise. (3)
Some of the main benefits associated with Ayurvedic diets include:
- Improved digestive and metabolic processes
- Improved heath of the gut/microbiome
- Weight management
- Enhanced detoxification
- Less anxiety and more inner calm
- Improved fertility and sexual/reproductive health
- Improved efficiency in the excretion process (help passing bowel movements)
- Improved functionality and range of motion due to decreased inflammation
What are the Ayurvedic body types?
According to the NIH’s National Center of Complementary and Integrative Health, “Ayurvedic medicine has several key foundations that pertain to health and disease. These concepts have to do with universal interconnectedness, the body’s constitution (prakriti), and the life forces (doshas).” (4)
In Ayurveda the three doshas are vata, pitta and kapha. The doshas correspond to different body types, tendencies, personality traits and nutritional needs. Each dosha is made up of five basic elements — ether (the upper regions of space), air, fire, water and earth — and each person has a unique combination of the three doshas that determines his or her physical and psychological characteristics. The goal of Ayurvedic practices, including following an appropriate Ayurvedic diet, is to prevent imbalances in the doshas. Imbalances can be due to any combination of an unhealthy lifestyle, nutrient deficiencies, too much or too little physical activity, chronic stress, seasonal fluctuations, and toxin exposure.
Here is an overview of what makes each dosha unique: (5)
- Vata — Tend to be thin, have smaller bones, not to put on weight easily and struggle with digestion. Known to be creative, open-minded, curious and energetic but also fearful, stressed and “scatter-brained” at times. Vata energy plays a role in essential functions, including mobility, motion, circulation and breathing. Vatas are susceptible to mental obstacles, including fear and grief, and health problems, like neurological disorders, insomnia, arthritis and heart disease.
- Pitta — Tend to have a medium, athletic build and be versatile in terms of putting on weight or muscle. Pitta types are often smart, hard-working, ambitious/driven, competitive but angry and aggressive at times. Pitta energy plays a strong role in metabolic functions, digestion, absorption of nutrients, body temperature and energy expenditure. Pittas are considered vulnerable to problems like overexertion, hypertension, heart disease, infectious diseases and digestive conditions.
- Kapha — Tend to struggle with weight gain and have a bigger, solid build. Known to be grounded, supportive, loving and forgiving but lazy, insecure, envious and sad at times. Kapha energy plays a role in lubrication, fluid balance, nourishment, rest, relaxation, caring for others, reproduction and building strong immune system. Health problems that kapahas may deal with more often include diabetes, cancer, obesity, fluid retention and respiratory illnesses.
There are several key recommendations for living an Ayurvedic lifestyle that are based on someone’s dosha:
- Stop eating or minimize harmful foods that are not appropriate for your dosha. These include processed foods, in some cases cold foods and poor-quality animal products.
- Eat more nourishing foods specific to your dosha, for example vegetables, spices, legumes and healthy fats like clarified butter (ghee).
- As many mornings as possible, wake up at about the same time and sit for a brief meditation (about 15 minutes to set the day’s intention).
- Make your home and work place a calming environment by clearing clutter, allowing in fresh air, and adding plants or flowers.
- Engage in exercise that is appropriate for your body type — not too rigorous, but enough to improve circulation and functionality.
5 Benefits of the Ayurvedic Diet
1. Helps Improve Digestion
Ayurvedic diets include many wholesome foods that are easily digested, nutrient-dense and capable of improving gut health. Traditional Ayurvedic practices are used to transform the way that wholesome foods are metabolized, for example by fermenting and cooking ingredients to make their nutrients easier to digest. Foods can be prepared in ways that help relieve digestive discomfort, such as served raw, dried, smoked, grilled, pickled, fermented or steamed.
There’s evidence that the Ayurvedic diet may help people overcome conditions affecting the gastrointestinal system, such as hyperacidity, irritable bowel syndrome, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, constipation and heartburn. Another major advantage of eating an Ayurvedic diet is that it limits processed, inflammatory foods that can lead to poor gut/microbiota health. These include foods like artificial additives, processed grains and refined fats. A major focus of the Ayurvedic diet is limiting “incompatibilities,” or foods that are not tolerated well. Incompatibilities that might lead certain foods to be excluded from someone’s diet depend on factors like the food’s processing, quantity/dose, time/season, combination of ingredients and specific tastes.
2. May Help Support Weight Loss or Maintenance
One study involving 200 subjects from a mix of the three doshas found that following an Ayurvedic diet appropriate for each participant’s dosha encouraged weight loss or healthy weight maintenance. At the beginning of the study, kapha and pitta people were heavier than vata people, and after the three months of therapy, the pitta group lost the most weight while both the pitta and kapha experienced improved in multiple measurements. The researchers’ conclusion was that “diets based on Ayurvedic constitution may prove useful in promoting weight loss.” (6)
There’s also evidence that Ayurvedic diets may help normalize hormones, improve insulin sensitivity and help prevent diabetes. (7)
3. Encourages Eating Organic, Seasonal and Locally Grown Foods
The Ayurvedic diet always changes along with the seasons because we need different sources of nourishment at different points in the year. No matter what someone’s dosha is, it’s important to eat a diet that balances whichever dosha is peaking due to the season. Kapha is said to peak during late winter and early spring, vata to peak during summer, and pitta to peak during fall and early winter.
According to Ayurvedic principles, here are guidelines for how to follow an Ayurvedic diet depending on the season:
- Winter — You might notice that your appetite and hunger increase due to the need to build inner warmth. Eat less cold and light foods, like raw veggies, smoothies and salads. Eat more nourishing healthy fats, complex carbs like cooked grains, soups and stews. Increase intake of sweet, sour and salty flavored foods, but reduce intake of sour, pungent and bitter foods. Consume ghee, warming spices and raw honey to boost immunity.
- Spring — Eat more bitter, astringent and pungent foods instead of sweet, sour and salty foods. Emphasize lighter, drier and warmer foods over heavy, fatty foods. Eat meat and fruit sparingly, consume more green plants, use warming spices, eat smaller portions, and increase exercise.
- Summer — Eat more naturally sweet foods, and minimize hot tastes (spicy, pungent, sour, salty) and dry foods (those that are astringent and bitter). Emphasize cool, moist foods over dry foods, eat less fats, and consume more lighter foods. Eat less hot foods, soups or stews, and have more fresh fruits and veggies. Enjoy more freshly made juices, coconut products, yogurt, smoothies and cooling plants like cucumber, berries and melons.
- Fall — Eat sweet and slightly bitter and astringent foods instead of pungent, sour, salty foods. Find a balance between cooling and hot foods and light and heavy foods. Eat more soups, warming spices, pomegranates and seasonal well-ripened fruits. Also eat more bitter, green veggies and spices.
4. May Help Improve Moods
According to Ayurveda, psychological states — including lust, anger, greed, desire, attachment and ego — are closely linked to food. Because the Ayurvedic diet takes into account someone’s specific body and mental type, metabolic processes and biological rhythms, plus seasonal variations and life stages, it can help improve mood stabilization and energy by tailoring the diet to someone’s specific needs.
For example, an Ayurvedic diet might include more grounding foods like complex carbs and healthy fats if someone is feeling nervous, having trouble sleeping or dealing with anxiety. Lighter foods, like smoothies and fruit, are recommended to reduce anger and lust. Specific tastes, like sweet, sour, bitter and salty, are also used to mitigate negative effects of someone’s constitution.
5. Fights Fatigue and Low Immunity
An Ayurvedic diet can also be helpful for overcoming fatigue, lethargy and susceptibility to illnesses due to stress. Foods like cooked vegetables; buttermilk; spices like garlic, cardamom, pepper and ginger; and honey are used to improve energy levels, prevent anemia and support immunity. Along with a healthy diet, herbs and supplements are also used in Ayurvedic medicine to improve the body’s ability to deal with stress, such as adaptogen herbs like ashwagandha and ginseng.
Best Ayurvedic Diet Foods
Below are some of the most nourishing foods that are included in an Ayurvedic diet:
- Spices — like turmeric, cumin, fennel, ginger, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, clove, rock salt, mint, black pepper and oregano.
- Soaked beans and legumes — such as mung beans, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas and adzuki beans.
- Fermented foods — such as yogurt, amasi and miso.
- Soaked/spouted grains — including quinoa, millet, oats, barley, white or brown rice (or rice pudding).
- Seasonal vegetables — for example, asparagus, beets, cabbage, carrots, cilantro, eggplant, fennel root (anise), garlic, green beans, green peas, leeks, okra onions (cooked), parsnips, pumpkin, radish, rutabaga, spaghetti squash and spinach.
- Root veggies — such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, turnips, winter melon, butternut and winter squash.
- Seasonal fruits — like apples, dates, figs, grapefruit, guavas, lemon, lime, mandarins, oranges, pears, plums, mango, pomegranate and tangerines.
- Meats — such as chicken, deer, goat, pig, rabbit, turkey or fish.
- Nuts and seeds — such as sesame, almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts.
- Healthy fats — like ghee, buttermilk (takra), sweet cream, full-fat raw milk or yogurt, olive and coconut oil.
- Water, wine and a variety of teas.
- Raw honey.
How to Follow the Ayurvedic Diet/Ayurvedic Diet Plan
In Ayurveda, the optimal diet depends on someone’s constitution (dosha) along with the season. An Ayurvedic practitioner can help develop a meal plan and other recommendations for someone by asking about his or her current diet, lifestyle practices and recent illnesses; by looking at physical characteristics; by testing blood, heart rate, urine or stool; and by asking about his or her family history.
Below are dietary recommendations for how each of the three doshas (vata, pitta and kapha) can tailor the diet to achieve more balance:
Diet tips for vata types:
- The best foods for vata include healthy fats like coconut or olive oil, full-fat dairy, ghee, avocado, plus cooked grains, spiced milks, cooked root vegetables, stewed fruits, nuts, seeds and warm beverages. (8)
- Eat at predictable, regular times to help with digestion.
- Prefer sweet, sour and salty tastes over bitter, pungent and astringent tastes.
- Eat mostly cooked foods, including cooked veggies and cooked or dried fruit.
- Use ghee or healthy fats with each meal to help with grounding.
- Use spices that help warm the body.
- Don’t eat much frozen or very cold foods.
- Avoid staying up late at night and eating just prior to bed.
- Avoid too much juice, drinking too much water and consuming frozen foods.
- Give enough time to fully digest between meals.
- Don’t fast or skip meals.
- Drink warm water or tea.
Diet tips for pitta types:
- The best foods for pitta include seasonal cooling fruits and veggies, beans except for tempeh, rice, barley, quinoa, oats, kamut, pumpkin seeds, sesame, almonds, organic cane sugar, cilantro, coriander, mint, chicken, turkey, goat, ghee, olive oil, and coconut oil. (9)
- Avoid hot/spicy, fried foods, sour foods, tomatoes, yogurt, vinegar, artificial sweeteners and alcoholic drinks.
- To avoid heartburn, space out meals by at least two or three hours. Eat smaller meals throughout the day instead of only two to three big meals.
- Don’t eat too many spicy or sour foods. Prefer sweet, bitter and astringent foods.
- Eat cooler foods over excessively hot foods.
- Don’t eat very oily foods or anything deep-fried.
- Use medium-heat cooking methods.
- Only light spice foods.
- Don’t eat much raw food.
Diet tips for kapha types:
- The best foods for kapha types include lower-fat dairy products, lighter fruits, honey, all beans but tofu, all grains (especially barley and millet), seasonal veggies, and spices. (10)
- Avoid eating too many sweet foods or very fatty meals, which may contribute to weight gain.
- Eat slowly and mindfully to avoid overeating.
- Don’t eat or drink foods and beverages with too much salt and water.
- Choose pungent, bitter and astringent tasting foods over sweet, sour and salty foods.
- Find balance between hot versus cold foods.
How many times should one eat in a day, according to Ayurveda? Like most other things in Ayurveda, this depends on your dosha. Vata types are encouraged to eat more often in order to feel more grounded and prevent anxiety. Pita and kapha types may be able to go longer periods of time without eating and may not need to snack as much. Kaphas are encouraged to avoid eating very big meals, so they may do better with pacing out their food intake throughout the day in order to avoid overeating at one or two meals.
Ayurvedic Diet vs. Fad Diets
- The goal of eating an Ayurvedic diet is not to lose weight quickly, but rather to live in a way that promotes balance and harmony between body and mind. Rather than being a short-term fix, Ayurvedic diets are meant to be followed for a lifetime, although they can change as someone ages and transitions through different stages of life.
- Something that makes Ayurveda unique compared to other diets is that it is not based on “a disease-based mind-set,” meaning it doesn’t just treat symptoms of diseases but emphasizes prevention and quality of life.
- Ayurveda promotes living a happy, joyful life in order to boost well-being and resilience. This is done through consuming a pure, fresh, cooked diet and adopting daily and seasonal rituals. Today we know this is an effective way to promote health because it limits stress on the body, both physically and mentally. For many reasons, chronic stress can take a serious toll on your quality of life.
- Compared to many fad diets, Ayurvedic diets are much more seasonal and personalized. Organic, fresh, local and seasonal foods are highly encouraged.
Ayurvedic Medicine History and Facts
Ayurvedic diets are based on ancient texts that have been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. There are two ancient texts that were written in Sanskrit at least 2,000 years ago that are now widely considered the main texts on Ayurvedic medicine: the Caraka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita.
Starting around the 1960s, Ayurvedic medicine began to be formally researched at universities and medical centers throughout India. Today, Ayurvedic medicine is still a very common treatment approach in places such as India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan. Many people choose to combine Ayurvedic principles with modern medicine practices, including people living in the “West,” such as in the U.S. and Europe.
Ayurveda remains a popular system of healing in yoga communities, among functional medicine doctors, and among practitioners like massage therapists and herbalists.
Precautions Regarding the Ayurvedic Diet
Ayurvedic diets and herbs are meant to complement other treatment approaches, including the use of medicine when need be. Don’t stop taking any medications when you begin an Ayurvedic diet, and ask your doctor if you’re unsure whether any herbs you’re using may cause medication interactions.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Ayurveda, meeting with an Ayurvedic practitioner or adding Ayurvedic medicine to your own health care practice, you can visit the Ayurvedic Institute website, the California College of Ayurveda website or the University of Minnesota’s page on Ayurvedic medicine,
Final Thoughts on the Ayurvedic Diet
- Ayurveda is a natural system of healing wisdom that originated in India more than 5,000 years ago. Ayurvedic diets are based on ancient practices that promote “holistic” balance in the physical body and mind.
- Ayurvedic diets are personalized and based on someone’s dosha, aka constitution. This determines which types are foods are best suited for a person’s personality, lifestyle and tendencies.
- Benefits of the Ayurvedic diet include improving gut health, digestion, moods, sleep, fertility and body weight.
- Foods included in an Ayurvedic diet include spices, healthy fats like coconut or ghee, quality animal products, fermented dairy, seasonal vegetables and fruit, beans, legumes, and nuts.