Āyurvedic eating principles are not one size fits all-and neither are we! This is why nutrition fads just don’t work for everyone-because everyone is different and needs different foods to thrive.
Āyurvedic personalized guidelines can help determine what diets and specific foods are good for someone based on the qualities and doshas within their body type. It’s also how practitioners like me help people figure out what is best for them, and not necessarily what’s best for everybody else.
While I recommend you work with a certified Āyurvedic Practitioner to find out the best eating guidelines for your body type and constitution, below I have outlined general Ayurvedic principles to help you determine the right diet for your body type.
These guidelines will help you understand how Āyurvedic eating principles allow you to make better food choices without becoming overly neurotic about what you should eat. Don’t worry if you need to re-read things a few times in order to grasp the concepts. Āyurveda is a nuanced science and it takes time to fully grasp its many layers and concepts.
Understanding the Three Doshas That Make Us Unique
No introduction to Āyurvedic dietary guidelines and eating principles would be complete without a discussion of the three doshas, or the major humors that exist within every organism. Though present within everyone, their varying ratios are what make each individual unique, and determines your prakruti, or constitution type.
Made up of ether and air elements, this dosha governs movement and communication. Vāta-dominant people tend to be thin with dry skin, chatty, spacy, mobile, sensitive, easily adaptable and may have weak digestion. Imbalances of vāta may manifest as loss of appetite, anxiety, difficulty focusing, excessive talking, constipation and sleeplessness. Vāta digestion often shows as variable hunger that doesn’t follow a schedule, and vāta-dominant people often tend to snack without eating regular meals. Their energy tends to be variable, and they often quickly bounce back and forth between energized and tired.
This dosha is made up of fire and water and governs metabolism and transformation. Pitta-dominant individuals tend to have a medium build, oily skin, redden easily, great mental focus and love complex tasks. Imbalances of pitta can show up as anger, loose bowels, excessive sweating, very strong thirst and appetite and fanaticism. Pitta has the strongest digestion of all the constitution types, thus many tend to eat things that aren’t so healthy because they don’t notice the effects as quickly as other constitution types.
Comprised of earth and water, kapha makes up the bulk of the body and is what gives stability and structure. Kapha people tend towards a heavier build, large eyes, thick hair, great physical stamina and are natural nurturers. Imbalances include greediness, weight gain, attachment, depression and excess sleep. Digestion is often poor with low hunger, though kapha will tend to eat anyways, especially if fulfilling an emotional need.
While you may be dominant in one dosha, have two dominant doshas, or are even equal in all three, you can also have an imbalance or increase of any of the other doshas as well. For example, you can be vāta dominant with a pitta imbalance; you can have a pitta-kapha type constitution and have elevated vāta, and so on.
Understanding Your Dosha And How It Should Guide Your Diet
Now that we have covered the basics of the doshas, let’s take a look at how this applies to diet and establishes eating principles for each constitution type. Using the descriptions of the doshas above, you can identify certain qualities in yourself that you can then address through the foods you eat. The goal is to create balance in your body, which will help to maximize your overall health.
Imagine that you are a person who runs very cold, is thin and has a hard time focusing. According to Āyurvedic philosophy, by employing opposites in your diet such as cooked, nourishing and grounding foods, you can bring in the qualities you need to help achieve a state of balance. Or, if you are lethargic and heavy, eat stimulating (spicey) and light foods to help you become more balanced!
And remember—you are not what you EAT, you are what you DIGEST. You can have the “healthiest” food in the world, but if you aren’t digesting it properly, it is doing nothing more than keeping your intestines working.
Vāta Balancing Guidelines: “Stay on Schedule.”
Vāta dominant individuals are best balanced by the flavors of sweet, sour and salty. Note that in Āyurveda, sweet does not mean refined sugar products. Sweet taste is composed of earth and water elements and includes foods like milk, rice, wheat or ghee. While these foods provide the nourishment and grounding needed, they are also the most difficult to digest.This means that vāta individuals need to take care to engage in food habits that enhance digestion so that they can reap the benefits of a heavier menu, rather than creating indigestion or toxic build-up within the body. Vāta also benefits the most from eating meat, which the other doshas do not require unless they are performing manual labor.
Eat cooked food.
This is the single most important food guideline for vāta-dominant or imbalanced folks. Eating cooked food mitigates the cold that vāta people often feel and makes food more digestible, which is very important. Cooking your food also encourages the use of spices, which is another way to enhance the digestibility of your food.
Sit down to eat.
Vāta people are very easily distracted and tend to eat on the go. These bad habits diminish their digestive capacity because visual cues play an important role in triggering your body to release the appropriate enzymes and acids to digest your meal. Sitting down to eat means we are more likely to properly chew our food and engage with what’s in front of us, instead of scarfing something down in the car on the go. So put your phone, computer and newspaper away, and enjoy what’s in front of you!
Regular meal times.
Vāta-imbalanced or -dominant people tend to forget to eat, or eat at irregular times, which plays a huge role in creating vāta symptoms and tendencies. Food is grounding, and without it, vāta prone folks can tend to float away (physically by losing weight, and mentally through a lack of focus). Our bodies love routines, and eating at regular times creates patterns and boundaries that help to balance vāta’s tendency towards irregularity.
Key food choices for vāta: cooked, oily, savory, sweet, salty, warming and grounding. Soups, stews and kitchari are all excellent choices for this dosha!
Food to avoid or minimize: Cold, raw, bitter, astringent and caffeine.
Pitta Balancing Guidelines: “Keep it Cool.”
Pitta dominant people tend to have the strongest digestion of all the constitution types and have to pay special attention to foods that increase pitta such as the sour, salty and pungent tastes. Pitta is balanced by sweet, bitter and astringent flavors and cool/warm foods. That means these foods should be maximized in the diet. Hangry again a mere two hours after lunch? These guidelines might be for you, my spicy, chili pepper-loving friend.
Eat cooling or warm foods (not spicy!).
Pitta type digestion is often characterized by a tendency towards sharpness, which translates into very strong hunger and digesting very quickly—sometimes too quickly! A pitta imbalance within the bowels may show up as the urge to eliminate right after meals or multiple times a day, which lets you know things are moving too quickly through your system. You can actually get malabsorption syndrome from food moving through you too fast! By eating cooling or moderately warm foods, we can slow digestion down so that the system can get a chance to absorb food properly.
What are some examples of cooling foods? Coconut milk, oil, ghee, non-citrus fruits, cucumbers and cilantro. All of these are pitta-pacifying foods that nourish and pacify pitta’s system.
Eat at regular intervals.
The word “hangry” accurately depicts a pitta-dominant person and comes from the fact that pitta individuals inherently have a strong appetite that makes them somewhat… grumpy when they’re hungry. Keep healthy snacks such as fresh fruit handy, so that you and your spouse can continue to have a harmonious relationship, even while driving! While vāta people forget to eat, pitta tends to skip meals because they are too focused on the task at hand. This can quickly lead to burnout and cause your blood sugar levels to fluctuate unnecessarily. While pitta thinks they are quite strong, they are often more delicate than they care to admit and are known for “dragging their bodies behind.” Take care of your body… it’s your vessel for this lifetime and will last you much longer if you give it proper maintenance. Eating meals at regular intervals keeps us happy, healthy, and calm.
- Avoid red meat. While pitta people are often the first to claim they can’t survive without steak, they can and indeed should avoid eating red meat because it has qualities that can exacerbate pitta imbalances. A pitta can thrive on a vegetarian diet.However, if you are going to eat meat, make sure to stick to local farms, avoiding the chemically laden and barbarous meat of fast food restaurants and the discount supermarket. Because pitta in imbalance tends towards criticism and judgment, it is important to utilize foods that promote clarity of thought and action, as well as promoting a peaceful environment internally.
Key food words for pitta: Sweet, bitter, astringent flavors, some raw vegetables and salads, steamed veggies, rice, fresh fruit especially pomegranate, red grapes and yellow mango. Cucumber and cilantro water is a nice pitta-balancing beverage!
Foods to avoid or minimize: Fried, spicy, salty foods, red meat, hard alcohol and caffeine.
Kapha Balancing Guidelines: “Less is More.”
Because kapha is composed of earth and water, weight is more easily held onto by those of this constitution type. To create balance, it’s important to eat food with qualities that counteract its naturally heavy nature. This dosha is best balanced by bitter, astringent and pungent flavors, and by using a variety of spices, dry cooking methods and smaller portion sizes.
Skip meals if there is no hunger.
This does not mean you should starve yourself! It means that for kapha imbalances, it is especially important to determine if you are actually hungry, or if you are eating out of habit or for other reasons. This dosha is comprised of the most substantive elements and tends to hold onto weight. It is also the type that can do with the least amount of food. Kapha people tend to have weaker digestion, and often don’t feel hungry in the morning. Guess what?! If you’re not hungry, you don’t have to eat, my kapha friend! Kapha naturally has more fuel than the other dosha types, and doesn’t need to refill as often. Skipping breakfast is a-okay, and is often recommended. Your biggest meal should be at noon or when the sun is highest in the sky, and dinner should be light and eaten while the sun is still out.
Eat cooked foods!
As kapha tends to be cold with sluggish digestion, this dosha also benefits greatly from cooked, well-spiced foods. However, kapha should use dry methods of cooking, such as baking, broiling, grilling or sautéing. Eating cooked foods greatly increases digestibility, which kapha needs because their internal fires are often low.
Avoid snacking and sweets!
Oh, kapha, you love cookies and cake, but to eat them often is a mistake! Avoid munching between meals and try to develop other healthy habits instead. Ten minute walks, a glass of hot water or 20 pushups and 30 crunches are all great alternatives to mindless eating. Kapha may feel sluggish, but once in balance they can have the stamina of a freight train and are natural athletes. Tapping into that becomes easy once you make it a habit.
Key food words for kapha: Light, dry, cooked, well spiced, vegetables, dry methods of cooking and warm beverages.
Foods to avoid or minimize: Sweet, sour, salty, cookies, candy and ice cream. It’s also important to work against sedentary habits.
Āyurveda is one of the most powerful tools we can use to improve our diets and our health and wellness. As you can see, learning to eat the right foods for your body type and following Āyurvedic diet principles means you have to first learn what your body type is! Hopefully you have a better understanding of your body type (and you may see two or even see all three in yourself), and can use this knowledge to maximize your health by following the guidelines that best support your constitution. But keep in mind that all body types will benefit from eating fresh, organic, locally grown foods—they are always a great choice!