Eating Beyond the Ayurvedic Food Lists.
Self-care through proper nutrition plays a large part in Ayurveda. In the west, Ayurvedic training and clinical practice tends to focus heavily on this facet. The benefit of having a strong emphasis on this aspect is that a healthy diet provides a strong foundation for healing and prevention of disease, as well as a support for other therapies being administered. The treatment of a disorder or disease often hinges around what we put into our body on a daily basis.
In Ayurveda, foods can be classified according to their qualities, such as hot or cold, light or heavy, dry or wet, and so on. This knowledge of quality helps us to refine food choices to the degree needed to maintain balance with our unique body constitution and to treat disease. A relatively new tool that is used to help tailor one’s diet is the doshic food list. It categorizes foods as being appropriate or inappropriate for each of the doshas (bodily humors), vata, pitta, and kapha. The creation for such list likely arose out of the need to provide quick information to clients new to Ayurveda, as well a simplified approach to diet for introductory books on Ayurveda.
The classic texts of Ayurveda do not layout a cut and dry dietary list for each constitutional type. They give examples of the energetics of certain food items and how they relate to dosha, but not a clear cut yes and no list to follow. Everyone is unique and the factors that go into how well we digest a particular food are not only related to our unique constitution, but also to age, state of health or disease, season, the climate in which we live, and our overall psychological state.
There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water here. Food lists can help people to do some detective work to see if they are eating too much of certain foods that clearly increase a certain dosha relating to one’s overall constitution or imbalanced state, but to base food choices solely on these lists would leave all pitta types without any nuts or pungent vegetables in their diet, and vata types without many legumes and foods like broccoli or raw apples. If we examine the qualities of an avocado for instance, we will see they are heavy, fatty, and wet, but I have never met a kapha person that gained too much weight from eating avocados. The main point I’m trying to get across is that we can look at these lists from the perspective of increase and decrease, rather than yes and no. The greater the imbalance, the more the need to emphasize foods that decrease/pacify the dosha(s) involved.
In clinical practice, food lists are often too restrictive by nature, and are impractical for people new to eating in a healthy way. And they are utterly confusing for those with dual-dosha constitutions. To minimize confusion and provide useful and practical advice, clinicians can simply examine what patients eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well for snacks and drinks that are taken on a regular basis. This useful information can give us a framework to customize a dietary program that is focused on strengthening weakest links first.
Generally speaking, vata types may develop more gas from eating legumes like black beans or garbanzo beans, but if we were to strictly follow the food list, we would be left with very few choices when it comes to larger types of beans. What I have noticed is that individuals who are really sensitive to legumes tend to form excess gas and bloating from most types of beans. Conversely, I have met vata types that can digest beans just fine. For those with sensitivity, I suggest experimenting for your self to see which foods you digest better than others. Here a food list can be helpful to fine tune things.
In my private practice, I rarely give more than a half dozen food items for a person to avoid on their initial consultation. Often just reducing or avoiding the few items that are the contributors to the imbalance gives plenty of homework over the weeks and months that follow an initial Ayurvedic consultation. An important point here is to offer or seek out healthy alternatives to the foods that we are eliminating. It can take time to get past the learning curve, but it is well worth it, and provides options when we are out shopping for groceries.
So where do we begin when working with the complexity of diet in Ayurveda. First and foremost, eat sensibly. If you’re eating a good amount of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and quality proteins, your are already heading in the right direction. A trained Ayurvedic practitioner can help tailor one’s diet based upon a person’s specific needs. For those going it alone, I strongly suggest putting down the books and get in to see your local practitioner, this will streamline your experience and make it a more peaceful and enjoyable process.
Slow change is lasting change. Enjoy the journey!