An Expert’s Guide on The Ayurvedic Diet
Ayurveda has long used diet as a principal means of creating health within the body and mind. In India, Nepal, and other parts of the East, Ayurveda is considered serious medicine. This natural healing science originated in India more than 5,000 years ago — and the Ayurvedic diet is an approach to food and nutrition that zeroes in on your dosha (more on this later).
UK-based Ayurvedic practitioner and health coach Dr Varalakshmi Yanamandra (@drvaralakshmi) gives us an introduction to the basic principles and practices of Ayurveda, and one of her favourite recipes.
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda, meaning “life” and “knowledge” in Sanskrit, is the ancient Indian medical system based on a natural and holistic approach to physical and mental health. “Ayurveda emphasizes the importance of daily regimen and self-care practices that one can implement in their day-to-day life to enhance their well-being,” says Dr Varalakshmi.
It teaches us how to lead a healthy life by following a diet and lifestyle in harmony with nature, she explains. The reason: According to Ayurveda, we are inherently attached to nature and the idea of health is to maintain this unique bond that exists between us. “With the changing seasons, our internal physiology changes to adjust to the outside environment. One must adapt their diet and lifestyle accordingly as per Ayurveda.”
Ayurveda maintains that each person has a unique mind-body constitution, known as a dosha. When the doshas are balanced, we are healthy; when they are unbalanced, we become prone to illness, which is usually made manifest by skin issues, poor digestion, insomnia, irritability, and anxiety.
What are the basic principles of Ayurveda?
According to Dr Varalakshmi, one of the most fundamental theories of Ayurveda is the concept of five elements. This theory explains that all the beings present in the universe are composed of the five elements: Air, Ether, Fire, Water and Earth. These elements combine and form three biofunctional energies called doshas, namely Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
Vata (Air & Vacuum)
Vata governs movement, elimination and communication. It is responsible for every physiological process that requires movement, from breathing to excretion.
Pitta (Fire & Water)
Pitta governs metabolism and transformation. It maintains the physiological processes that involve transformation, such as regulating our body temperature by preserving heat.
Kapha (Water & Earth)
Kapha governs lubrication, stability, and compactness. It lubricates the joints, creates moisture in the body and brings stability to the body and mind.
Each human being is born with unique combinations of doshas (combined from your parents) and this is natural balance is what is responsible for physical, mental and emotional differences among people. “This state of doshas is called Prakruthi,” says Dr Varalakshmi.
“Unlike a genetic code, this dosha balance can be affected by the weather, diet, and lifestyles that we lead. Each dosha has its own unique qualities, and these qualities are affected by external factors,” explains Dr Varalakshmi. “Whenever we indulge in foods and activities similar to the qualities of a dosha, it can lead to an imbalance in one or other doshas. This state of imbalance, called Vikruthi, can ultimately lead to illness.
According to Dr Varalakshmi, Ayurveda treats a person rather than a disease and corrects this imbalance inside the body to create homeostasis. It is a personalised approach to diet and medicine; two people with similar conditions can have different treatment protocols.
How do you discover your dosha?
One of the best ways to discover your dosha is by working with an Ayurvedic practitioner who can thoroughly assess all your physical, physiological, and emotional characteristics, recommends Dr Varalakshmi. Figuring out your dosha can be a complicated process, but in the most basic terms:
Physically, a Vata person tends to be on the leaner side, with prominent joints and narrow shoulders and hips.
Creativity is one of the positive traits of Vata. Vatas tend to always be on the go, with energetic and creative minds. A Vata mind has constant enthusiasm to create and execute ideas, which may make them lose sleep in the process. A Vata person can have a varied appetite and might struggle with regular bowel movements.
Pittas are a combination of fire and water elements, with fire being the dominant element. Pittas tend to have a good appetite and can digest any food easily. When imbalanced, they can end up with acidity, ulcers, acne and gastritis.
Due to the fire element in a Pitta person, they tend to have intense emotions. They are precise, sharp-witted, direct, and often outspoken. They are passionate about goals and can ignore sleep and relationships in the process.
Kaphas are more stable and strongly built due to the earth element. That makes it harder for them to shed calories and they tend to retain water and fat. Food is a source of comfort and Kaphas can overeat when stressed.
Kaphas are strong, loyal, patient, steady, and supportive. When imbalanced, they tend to hold on to things, jobs, and relationships long after they are no longer present, displaying excessive attachment.
How does an Ayurvedic diet work?
Ayurveda encourages a person to eat consciously after assessing their digestive strength, dosha, and depending upon the season. Our ability to digest food depends on our dosha, diet, exercise, and lifestyle, says Dr Varalakshmi.
“You are not what you eat, but you are what you digest and assimilate!”
The basic rules of diet include consuming warm, cooked and lighter grains and fresh, seasonal vegetables. As per Ayurveda, there are six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent, and bitter. Eating a meal containing all the six tastes can balance the three doshas and nourish the tissues, says Dr Varalakshmi.
Ayurveda can even help you identify food sensitivities at an early stage; identifying your dosha can help you understand these inherent tendencies and plan your diet accordingly to avoid future diseases. “Many people are struggling to digest foods like milk and wheat, which have been around for centuries. With the help of Ayurveda, one can identify these sensitivities at an earlier stage,” says Dr Varalakshmi. “For example, a Vata person is prone to indigestion when they consume gassy foods like beans and onions. Likewise, a Kapha person can find it hard to digest wheat or dairy products due to their heavy and sticky nature.”
What are some Ayurvedic foods worth incorporating into our diet?
As for Ayurvedic foods, Dr Varalakshmi recommends consuming spices like fennel and coriander regularly to reap their benefits.
Fennel aids in digestion and relieves abdominal cramps. Chewing fennel seeds after a meal can aid in digestion and curb food cravings. Coriander seeds are useful in balancing the three doshas, relieves thirst, aids in digestion and is also an excellent diuretic.