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Eating for the Mind: The Basics of the Ayurvedic Diet

ayurvedic diet

What you eat and drink doesn’t just impact your weight and overall health. It also affects brain function and emotional wellness.

An Ayurvedic diet is a holistic approach to helping you maintain an optimal mind-body balance.

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What Is the Ayurvedic Diet?

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Ayurveda is thought to be the world’s oldest healing science. It has been practiced for at least 3,000 years in India.

Ayurveda is based on the concept that disease comes from an imbalance in specific energy types, known as doshas. If your doshas are unbalanced, illness, cognitive issues, and emotional issues may result.

There are three types of doshas.

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  • Vatta: Energy that controls autonomic bodily functions associated with movement like heartbeat, breathing, blinking, and circulation. Balanced Vatta leads to creativity and vitality. When Vatta is unbalanced, anxiety and worry often result.
  • Pitta: Energy that controls metabolic functions like digestion, absorption, and body temperature. Balanced Pitta causes contentment and intelligence. Unbalanced Pitta may result in anger and ulcers.
  • Kapha: Energy that controls growth. Balanced Kapha leads to love and forgiveness. Unbalanced Kapha triggers insecurity and envy.

All three dosha types are present in everyone. However, at least one is dominant. Eating foods that support your dominant dosha helps keep your mind and body in balance.

The Chopra Center (TCC) offers a quiz to help you determine your dominant dosha. On the Ayurvedic diet, you should focus on eating foods that support your dominant dosha, and minimize your intake of foods that cause it to be out of balance. A 2015 study suggests that doshas impact the quality and quantity of sleep.

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The Six Tastes

According to TCC, Ayurveda recognizes six tastes, and suggests enjoying all of them at every meal:

  • sweet: grains, pasta, bread, rice, starches, dairy, meat, chicken, sugar, honey, and molasses
  • salty: salt, soy sauce, salted meats, fish
  • sour: citrus, berries, tomatoes, pickled foods, alcohol
  • pungent: peppers, chilies, onions, garlic, cayenne, black pepper, ginger, cloves, mustard, salsa
  • bitter: leafy vegetables, green and yellow vegetables, kale, celery, broccoli, sprouts, beets
  • astringent: lentils, dried beans, apples, pomegranates, tea, cauliflower

Eating for Your Dosha Type

Each taste impacts your doshas. If a dosha is out of balance, you should eat more or less of a specific taste.

If Vata is dominant and out of balance, you may find yourself skipping meals, experiencing unintended weight loss, and having digestive issues. To balance Vata, you should:

  • eat foods that taste sweet, salty, and sour
  • eat foods that are oily, heavy, and warm
  • avoid cold and raw foods
  • eat basil, bay, cinnamon, citrus, frankincense, cloves, lavender, vanilla, sage, and pine

If Pitta is dominant and out of balance, the results may be ulcers, heartburn, high blood pressure, and inflammation in the body. You may become angry and irritable. To balance Pitta:

  • eat sweet, bitter, and astringent tasting foods
  • avoid hot and spicy foods
  • add sandalwood, jasmine, mint, lavender, fennel, and chamomile to your diet

If Kapha is dominant and out of balance, you may retain fluid, gain weight, and develop allergies. Emotionally, you may become stubborn, be resistant to change, and hold on to unhealthy behaviors and relationships. To balance Kapha:

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  • eat foods that taste pungent, bitter, and astringent
  • avoid heavy foods, salt, and dairy
  • add stimulating herbs to your diet such as cloves, juniper, marjoram, and cinnamon

The Ayurvedic Institute created guidelines to help you determine which foods are best and worst for each dosha.

The Three Gunas

According to Ayurveda Dosha, all foods have qualities that affect the mind and body. It’s not just the food itself that determines its guna, but also how it’s prepared:

  • Sattva: Fruits and vegetables, ghee, milk, and legumes bring balance and calm, and promote a clear mind. They are easily digestible, fresh and clean (contain no artificial ingredients or preservatives), and made with love and peace. Sattva foods should be your diet foundation.
  • Rajas: Fiery foods which support energy and determination. They include garlic, caffeine, eggs, meat, alcohol, fried foods, overcooked foods, or fermented and fresh-canned foods. Rajas foods may be prepared with anger or passion. Eat these foods as needed for passion and drive.
  • Tamas: Onions, mushrooms, meats, microwaved foods, frozen foods, and foods made with disinterest are negative and promote lethargy, depression, and murderous or suicidal intentions. These foods should be reduced in your diet or eliminated.

General Ayurvedic Diet Tips

The Ayurvedic diet is not about deprivation or avoiding foods. Rather, it’s based on eating to keep your dominant dosha in balance for optimal physical and mental health. Keep in mind that doshas other than your dominant one may also become imbalanced. At that point, you should eat foods to help balance that specific dosha.

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Dr. Mark Vinick is a chiropractor and clinical Ayurvedic specialist. According to his website, there are general fundamental guidelines to follow on the Ayurvedic diet:

  • Eat fresh, organic foods as much as possible.
  • Eat warm, freshly cooked foods. Do not microwave foods.
  • Avoid processed foods including canned, frozen, and genetically engineered foods.
  • Avoid refined flours and sugars.
  • Avoid artificial flavors, preservatives, and colorings.
  • Cook foods gradually, over low heat.
  • Eat until you are full and don’t skip meals.
  • Eat around the same time each day.
  • Breakfast and dinner should be light meals, and lunch should be the largest meal of the day and consist of plenty of protein.
  • Chew your food slowly and thoroughly.
  • Don’t drink cold beverages with your meal, and sip warm or room temperature drinks such as herbal tea or water.
  • Take a brief walk after every meal.

Scientific Evidence

Research warrants caution when considering or taking Ayurvedic supplements. In a 2008 study of 193 Ayurvedic products, 21 percent contained toxic levels of heavy metals.

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A preliminary trial of Ayurvedic herbs did show promising results for arthritis sufferers, compared to a commonly prescribed drug, methotrexate.

Though research remains limited, the use of turmeric, commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine, also shows potential help for digestive disorders and arthritis.

Due to insufficient research or poor study design, conclusions as to the safety, efficacy, and value of various Ayurvedic treatments, diets, and protocols remains uncertain. More closely controlled and quality research is needed.

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The Takeaway

The cliché is true — you are what you eat. And science supports the emphasis that Ayurveda has placed on eating real, whole, fresh, and nutrient-rich foods. According to a UCLA report, research shows that omega-3s help protect the brain and prevent mental illness, especially when paired with exercise.

The Ayurvedic diet is more a healthy way to eat than a diet in that it avoids processed foods and promotes clean eating and doesn’t rely on counting calorie and restricting foods.

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If you’re searching for a way to balance your mind and maintain good health, talk to your doctor or natural health practitioner to determine if the Ayurvedic diet is right for you.

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