6 Ayurvedic Diet Tips for Beginners

If you follow a paleo diet, you eat loads of meat and no grains. If you follow a vegan diet, you fill up on produce, but shun animal products. And if you follow an Ayurvedic diet, well, it’s complicated.

“When we think about food, we hear, ‘You are what you eat,’ but when you use the principles of Ayurveda, it’s not just what you eat, it’s when you eat, it’s how you eat, it’s why you’re eating it,” says Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian near Los Angeles and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Ayurveda, which translates to “the science of life,” is an ancient Indian healing art and science. The diet is an integral part of the broader practice, and aims to help people achieve balance in their overall health and well-being by promoting certain foods for certain body shapes and personality characteristics, as well as offering guidance on when and how much to eat, in what combinations, where food should come from, how it should be appreciated and more.

[See: 7 Traditional Chinese and Indian Eating Principles That Can Help You Lose Weight.]

While the Ayurvedic diet isn’t well-researched in Western medicine, many of its principles align with what scientists and clinicians do know about health, including that plant-based diets, mindful eating and strong social connections promote health. “There are some amazing perspectives or values that come through Ayurveda,” says Sheth, who grew up in India, where her family incorporated many of the diet’s philosophies into their own eating patterns. Here’s how you can get started today:

1. Go local.

One Ayurvedic principle goes as far as to suggest you shouldn’t eat anything made by someone you don’t know, says Dr. Siri Chand Khalsa, an internal medicine physician in private practice and guest faculty member at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. While that’s pretty unrealistic for the modern American, the more food you can grow yourself — or purchase at a farmers market or receive through a community supported agriculture program — the more likely you are to avoid certain chemicals and boost your fresh produce intake.

“Sustainability, farming practices, growing your own food, eating seasonally, eating food that’s freshly grown that hasn’t been imported over a large barge across the ocean — [all that] is actually part of an Ayurvedic diet,” Khalsa says.

2. Know yourself.

According to Ayurveda, there are three main forces — aka “doshas” — that affect mental, spiritual and physical health. Eating in a way that balances your dominant force can help you feel your best and prevent disease, the philosophy goes. And while there’s no science to say that people who tend to have heavier frames and calm natures (the kapha dosha) will benefit from eating cranberries but not kiwis, as the Ayurvedic Institute’s food guidelines suggest, nutrition experts do recommend taking an individualized approach to your diet.

Consider factors like your age, how certain foods make your body feel and what foods are in season when crafting a plan that works for you, Khalsa suggests. If you’re really serious about shifting your diet to incorporate these principles, work with a practitioner with expertise in Ayurveda too, Sheth recommends.

3. Embrace a variety of flavors.

If you’re craving something salty or sweet at the end of the day, your meals probably weren’t Ayurvedic-approved. Next time, try to incorporate all six flavors — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent — into your meals to boost satisfaction, Sheth recommends. A staple Ayurvedic meal, for instance, includes a mix of spices like turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander and fennel; fresh vegetables like carrots, zucchini and bok choy, mung beans and basmati rice, Khalsa says.

[See: These Healthy Seasonings Are Tasty Substitutes for Sugar and Salt.]

Focusing on including a mix of tastes, textures and temperatures can also help ensure you’re getting a healthy variety of nutrients, says Julie Satterfeal, a registered dietitian in Huntsville, Alabama, and author of the book “Ditch the Diet: How to Reclaim Your Health and Enjoy Food,” who’s not an expert in Ayurveda. “If you’re getting all that variety, you’re covering your bases,” she says.

4. Make eating an experience.

A snack in the car, at your desk or hovered over your sink is very un-Ayurvedic. Appreciating a relaxed meal with loved ones is. “Look beyond the physical eating experience and enjoy the food,” Sheth says. “It’s not just helping you sustain yourself, it’s also helping you sustain your relationships.” It’s also clearly health-promotional: Research shows that strong social connections are a key factor in longevity, and enjoying the experience of eating can also improve your digestion, boost your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and help prevent overeating.

5. Rest and digest.

Speaking of digestion, it’s a key component of Ayurveda, and one that’s increasingly validated in Western medicine as researchers continue to uncover links between gut health and overall health, Khalsa finds. While some Ayurvedic recommendations are based on people’s doshas and digestive tendencies — say, toward constipation or acid reflux — it generally encourages people not to snack (especially at night) and eat their biggest meal at lunch, which can support digestion.

If you’re not having regular bowel movements, ideally in the morning, try incorporating some deep breathing or meditation and hot water with lemon or ginger into your morning routine. At night, if you’re still hungry after your light, early meal, try a cup of hot tea or miso soup, Khalsa recommends. Those strategies can bring you closer to loved ones, too. “Make that time for tea sacred within your daily ritual,” she says.

[See: 8 Morning and Nighttime Rituals Health Pros Swear By.]

6. Don’t turn it into a diet-diet.

Like all eating patterns with “diet” in their names, it’s possible to misinterpret an Ayurvedic diet and make it work against you. For example, if you eliminate certain fruits and vegetables or combinations of nourishing foods you enjoy simply because a list tells you people with your “dosha” should limit them, you could wind up missing out on key nutrients or develop disordered eating patterns.

“Overall, I’m not a big fan of elimination for no apparent reason,” Satterfeal says. “I feel like it has other consequences, mental consequences, that take root.” She suggests approaching Ayurvedic diet insights like a horoscope: as a fun way to approach healthy eating in whatever ways resonate with you. “At the end of the day,” Khalsa says, “in Ayurveda, the tools and the terminologies are meant to take people closer to being able to be able to eat intuitively.”

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