Eating for Balance
An Ayurvedic Prescription for Reaching Your Ideal Weight
If you are one of the millions of people who has a made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and start eating a more nurturing diet, the healing science of Ayurveda offers a balanced, practical approach. For the ancient Vedic physicians who developed Ayurveda, the act of eating and the choice of what to eat were profoundly important. The principles they arrived at have been refined through the centuries and are notable both for their good common sense and their congruence with current research on nutrition, weight management, and eating disorders. Quite simply, they work.
The following information and techniques can help you transform your relationship with your body, emotions, and food as you let go of compulsive eating habits and food cravings. As you put these Ayurvedic tools into practice in your daily lifestyle, the single most important suggestion we can offer is to be patient with yourself. It’s extremely damaging to criticize yourself each time you perceive that you’ve eaten in an unhealthy or non-nurturing way. If you find yourself overeating, remember that your action arose from a desire to make yourself feel better. Since eating generates endorphins and fosters a temporary sense of wellbeing or comfort, many people often cover up their emotional pain with food. They then berate themselves for not being “disciplined” enough to control their eating, which leads to further emotional pain and more overeating . . . and so the cycle continues until they are able to bring awareness to what is happening. So be gentle with yourself, and as your awareness expands, you will find that any non-nurturing eating patterns that you have will naturally drop away as you become fulfilled in body, mind, and spirit.
Redefining Ideal Weight
The most important principle in achieving your ideal weight is to gauge your healthiest state by personal measures, not by comparing yourself to others. We are constantly bombarded with messages from the media about what the human body should look like, and it’s easy to forget that there is no need to create a “new you” in order to solve a weight problem. As long as you are not clinically obese (defined as being 25 percent above normal weight for your height), what you should weigh is really a subjective matter. Your ideal weight is unique to you and your physiology. It cannot be expressed as a three-digit number on an insurance company’s chart. When you feel healthy, energetic, vital, and comfortable with your body, you are at your ideal weight. You are the sole person who can determine this.
Eat to Balance Your Mind-Body Type
Ayurveda teaches that all health-related measures, whether an exercise program, dietary plan or herbal supplement, must be based on an understanding of an individual’s mind-body type, known as a dosha. Your dosha reflects your innate tendencies, including your temperament, metabolism, energy level, learning style, and many other aspects of your body, mind, and emotions. If you don’t know your dosha, you can take the Chopra Center’s Dosha Quiz at chopra.com/doshaquiz. Once you identify your dosha, you can nurture your inherent wellbeing by making choices to balance your own mind-body type.
The three primary dosha types are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. These doshas express themselves through eating in characteristic ways. However, if you are overweight or coping with addictive eating behaviors, there is usually an underlying Vata imbalance. Keep this in mind as you read the descriptions of each of the doshas that follows. Even if your Dosha Quiz indicates that your primary dosha is Pitta or Kapha, pay particular information on the information on Vata eating habits.
The predominant qualities of Vata are movement and change. If your primary dosha is Vata, you will tend to be always on the go, with an energetic and creative mind. Vatas are naturally thin, with a light frame and characteristic narrow shoulders and hips. They often have prominent joints, veins, and tendons. As long as Vata is in balance, you will be lively and enthusiastic. If excessive stress in your life leads to your Vata force becoming imbalanced, your activity will start to feel out of control. Your mind may race, contributing to anxiety and insomnia.
Irregularity is the hallmark of Vata eating behavior, especially when the dosha is out of balance. Vatas may resolve to follow a structured diet and suddenly become enthusiastic about learning as much as possible about the nutritional benefits of various foods. However, they may just as suddenly feel an extreme craving for something completely different, such as chocolate, cookies, or lasagna. They may also start skipping meals. This “all-or-nothing” behavior can create a sense that life is out of control. If your Vata dosha is out of balance, you may find yourself snacking and popping things into your mouth all day long, which is another manifestation of general anxiety.
If you had to choose one word to describe Pitta, it would be intensity. Pitta types enjoy a strong appetite and ability to digest food, information, and experiences. They like challenges and have a sharp intellect and enterprising character. They have a muscular, medium build and are well proportioned. When the Pitta dosha becomes imbalanced, heat begins to rise in the body and mind. Heartburn, ulcers, hypertension, and inflammatory conditions reflect excessive accumulation of Pitta. On the level of the emotions, too much Pitta manifests as irritability and anger.
As in every other area of their lives, Pitta eating is characterized by a need for predictability and order. Most Pitta types like to eat three meals a day and prefer to have those meals at the same time. They may feel ravenously hungry and grouchy if dinner is even half an hour late. When such disruptions occur, the anger that lies just beneath the surface of the Pitta personality is likely to ignite. Many out-of-balance Pittas overeat as an expression of rage; they are literally swallowing their anger. Without being consciously aware of it, they may see habitual overeating as an act of rebellion – an expression of defiance against the world’s injustices.
People with a predominance of Kapha in their nature have a solid, powerful build and great physical strength and endurance. They are slow and graceful in action, with a tranquil, relaxed personality and strong retentive memory. When Kapha builds to excess, however, weight gain, fluid retention, and allergies are likely to manifest in the body. Excess Kapha in the mind manifests as resistance to change and stubbornness. People with an excess of Kapha tend to hold on to things, jobs, and relationships long after they are no longer nourishing or necessary.
Kapha types have an innate sensuality and love of eating. If they ignore or deny other sources of pleasure, they can easily become addicted to food. Combining aspects of the Vata binge eater with the Pitta’s demand for three square meals a day, out-of-balance Kaphas can end up eating constantly, both at mealtimes and whenever they see something tempting. Kaphas have an inherent desire to avoid confrontation, both with other people and with emotional issues within themselves. They may use food to suppress or “cover up” their intense emotions, but since this only masks the feelings at their core, they may suffer from depression. They may then enter the vicious cycle of trying to cope with depression by eating even more.
Once you’ve identified your dosha type and any imbalances, you can begin to choose foods that will restore your innate balance and wellbeing. Before we go into detail on the specific recommendations for balancing each dosha, let’s first explore the key Ayurvedic concept of the six tastes, which plays a vital role in balancing all of the doshas.
Tasting Your Way to Balance
Ayurveda places a great emphasis on the sensations and pleasures of eating nutritious food and a balanced diet. From the Ayurvedic perspective, a balanced diet isn’t just about getting the right amounts of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and vitamins – it is also about another extremely important quality: taste.
How It Works
Ayurveda recognizes six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. Including all six tastes in every meal not only ensures that all major food groups and nutrients are represented, but it also provides us with the feeling of satisfaction in eating. When we finish a meal feeling satisfied, we are much less likely to find ourselves raiding the cupboards or refrigerator two hours later.
The human brain sends hunger signals when it becomes aware of the need for energy and information. As we eat, our taste buds send messages to the brain informing it if we have ingested foods that provide the energy and information we need. The six tastes are the codes that inform our nervous systems of a meal’s nutritional content. If we sample foods that correspond to each of these tastes throughout the day, our meals will provide awide assortment of health-promoting nutrients. If we do not have all flavors available, the brain is not satisfied and continues to send signals to eat more. As a result, we take in too many calories but remain malnourished.
Here are examples of foods containing each of the six tastes:
Sweet ~ whole grains, starchy vegetables, dairy, meat, chicken, fish, sugar, honey, molasses
Sour ~ citrus fruits, berries, plums, tomatoes, pickled foods, vinegar, alcohol, cheese, and yogurt
Salty ~ soy sauce, seaweed, salted meats, fish, and any food to which table salt has been added
Bitter ~ bitter greens, endive, chicory, spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, leafy greens, celery, broccoli, sprouts, beets, tonic water
Pungent ~ peppers, chilies, onions, garlic, cayenne, black pepper, cloves, ginger, mustard, salsa
Astringent ~ lentils, dried beans, green apples, grape skins, cauliflower, figs, pomegranates, tea
In every category of taste, some foods are highly nutritious and others should be eaten more sparingly. Favor fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, cereals, breads, and nuts. If you do not want to become vegetarian,
reduce your intake of red meats, favoring cold-water fish and lean poultry cuts. Minimize your intake of highly refined sugar and wheat products.
In order to include all six tastes in your meals, you may need to experiment with different food and new spices. The recipes included in this article include a variety of tastes to inspire you. If you find it difficult to include all six tastes in a particular meal, at least experience each of them at some point during the day. Once you get started, you’ll find it easier and easier to incorporate all six tastes.
Help for the Sweet Tooth
Of all these tastes, sweet is the one people most frequently crave. This may be because sweetness has the most settling effect on the mind-body physiology. It also increases the Kapha dosha more than any other taste. If you crave sweets, make sure that your diet is thoroughly balanced and that you include all six tastes prepared in a fresh, nutritious, and delicious way. One food that Ayurveda specifically recommends to stop sugar cravings is milk. Milk contains the sweet taste and has a settling effect on the entire physiology. If you constantly hanker for sweets, try drinking a cup of warm milk each day, perhaps as part of your breakfast.
You can also use honey to reduce cravings for sweets. Honey is the only sweetener that actually reduces the Kapha dosha. Try drinking a cup of warm water with a teaspoon of honey and a squirt of lemon every day.
Now that you’ve identified your dosha type and understand the six tastes, you can begin to tailor your food choices for your own mind-body type. According to Ayurveda, it is important to eat foods that have a balancing effect upon the dominant dosha or that will pacify (stabilize) a dosha that has become excessive or aggravated.
Recommendations for Vata
- The best tastes to pacify Vata are sweet, salty, and sour.
- Minimize foods that are pungent, bitter, or astringent since these tastes increase Vata.
- To counterbalance the light, dry, cool nature of the Vata dosha, Ayurveda traditionally recommends foods that are heavy, oily, or warm. If you want to lose weight, however, minimize foods that are high in sugar or fat and focus instead on natural grains, and heavy, moist fruits and vegetables. For example, you can enjoy whole-grain muffins made with vegetable purée in place of oil or butter.
- Cook your food for easy digestion.
- All low-fat dairy products are recommended. Milk is easier to digest when warm or heated.
- Favor rice, wheat, and oats (cooked, not dry). Reduce your consumptions of barley, corn, millet, buckwheat, and rye.
- Favor sweet, well-ripened fruits such as bananas, avocados, mangoes, plums, berries, melons, papaya, peaches, cherries, and nectarines. To ease digestion, fruits are best eaten lightly cooked, stewed, or sautéed. Reduce your consumption of apples, cranberries, pears, and pomegranates (these are more acceptable if cooked). Also minimize dried fruits and unripe fruits (especially bananas).
- Cooked vegetables are best. Raw vegetables should be minimized. Favor asparagus, beets, cucumber, green beans, okra, onions and garlic (not raw), radishes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and carrots. Other vegetables may be eaten in moderation if cooked in ghee or extra virgin olive oil, including peas, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, peppers, mushrooms, and celery.
- Spices and herbs that pacify Vata include cardamom, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, salt, cloves, mustard seed, basil, asafetida, cilantro, fennel, oregano, sage, tarragon, thyme, and black pepper. Minimize all bitter and astringent herbs and spices, such as coriander, parsley, turmeric, and fenugreek.
- All varieties of nuts are recommended, in small amounts. Almonds are best.
- All oils are acceptable; sesame seed oil is particularly recommended.
- All natural sweeteners are acceptable.
- Beans can aggravate Vata, so minimize your consumption of them, with the exception of chickpeas, mung beans, pink lentils, and soybeans (in the form of tofu).
- For non-vegetarians, favor fresh, organic chicken, turkey, seafood, and eggs. Reduce consumption of red meat.
Recommendations for Pitta
- The best foods to pacify Pitta are those with sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes.
- Foods that are pungent, salty, or sour aggravate Pitta and should be minimized.
- Since an excess of Pitta dosha overheats the mind and body, favor cool foods and liquids.
- All sweeteners may be taken in moderation except molasses and honey.
- Dairy can be helpful in balancing the heat of Pitta. Favor butter, ghee, milk, and ice cream. However, since the sour taste can increase the Pitta dosha, sour, fermented products such as yogurt, sour cream, and cheese should be used sparingly.
- Favor wheat, rice, barley, and oats. Reduce consumption of corn, rye, millet, and brown rice.
- Sweet fruits such as grapes, melons, cherries, coconuts, avocados, mangoes, fully ripe pineapples, figs, apples, oranges, and plums are recommended. Reduce sour fruits such as grapefruits, cranberries, lemons, and persimmons.
- The vegetables to favor include asparagus, potatoes, sweet potatoes, leafy green vegetables, pumpkins, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, okra, lettuce, green beans, peas, and zucchini. Minimize tomatoes, hot peppers, onions, garlic, and radishes.
- Pitta types need to use seasonings that are soothing and cooling. These include coriander, cilantro, cardamom, saffron, and fennel. Hotter spices such as ginger, cumin, black pepper, fenugreek, clove, salt, and mustard seed should be used sparingly. Very pungent seasonings such as chili peppers, and cayenne are best avoided. Chew on fennel seeds after meals to cool down acid in the stomach.
- Most nuts increase the Pitta dosha, with the exception of pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
- Favor coconut, olive, soy, and sunflower oils. Reduce almond, corn, safflower, and sesame oils.
- Favor chickpeas, mung beans, and tofu and other soybean products. Reduce lentils.
- For non-vegetarians, chicken and turkey are preferable. Red meat and seafood generally increase Pitta and should be minimized.
Recommendations for Kapha
- Foods with pungent, bitter, or astringent tastes are most beneficial for pacifying Kapha.
- Reduce foods with sweet, sour, or salty tastes as these increase Kapha.
- Since Kapha is heavy, oily, and cold, favor foods that are light, dry, or warm.
- Reduce your intake of dairy, which tends to increase Kapha. You can use small amounts of ghee, low-fat milk, and low-fat yogurt.
- Honey is the only sweetener that balances Kapha. Other sweeteners should be avoided because they increase the Kapha dosha, contributing to problems such as blocked sinuses, allergies, colds, lethargy, and weight gain.
- Drinking hot ginger tea with meals helps stimulate slow digestion and sharpen dull taste buds. Drink 2 to 3 cups of ginger tea daily.
- All beans are good for Kapha types. However, limit consumption of kidney beans, soybeans and soybean-based foods such as tofu.
- Favor lighter fruits such as apples, pears, pomegranates, cranberries, and apricots. Reduce heavier fruits like bananas, avocados, pineapples, oranges, peaches, coconuts, melons, dates, and figs. Also minimize dried fruits, which contain a great deal of sugar.
- In general, all vegetables are recommended but reduce consumption of sweet and juicy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and zucchini.
- All spices except salt are pacifying to Kapha. Use pungent spices like pepper, cayenne, mustard seed, and ginger freely in your diet.
- Reduce intake of all nuts and seeds. Favor pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
- Fats and oils: Use small amounts of extra virgin olive oil, ghee, almond oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, mustard oil, or safflower oil.
- Favor barley, corn, millet, buckwheat, and rye. Reduce intake of oats, rice, and wheat.
- For non-vegetarians, favor fresh, organic chicken and turkey. Limit consumption of red meat.
- A Kapha diet should be lively and full of energy to help spark the digestive and metabolic systems. Eat your largest meal at lunchtime and a smaller meal at dinnertime. Eat your dinner at least three hours before you plan to go to bed, as this will facilitate digestion.
- Try a liquid fast one day per week, ingesting only fresh vegetables and fruit juices, and puréed vegetable soup.
Mind-Body Tools for Conscious Eating
In addition to eating a dosha-balancing diet and including the six tastes in every meal, there are many other practices and tools we can use to increase our enjoyment of food, stop cravings, and arrive at our own ideal weight and balance. Here are a few of the practices we share with guests at the Chopra Center.
Breathing Awareness Meditation
The Breathing Awareness Meditation is an extremely effective technique for dealing with emotionally based-cravings and binges. Through awareness of your breath and regulating your breathing pattern, you can strongly influence your state of mind. When you feel the craving for a particular food, try this guided meditation. Afterwards you may find that your craving has dissipated.
- Reserve some quiet time alone. Begin by sitting quietly, holding your hands lightly at your sides or in your lap. Close your eyes.
- Start to breathe lightly and easily, letting your attention follow your breathing. Feel the breath flowing down into your lungs. There’s no need to inhale deeply or hold your breath; just breathe normally, with awareness.
- When you exhale, let your attention follow the air up out of your lungs and softly through the nostrils.
- Let your breath move gently and easily, with your attention following. Then make your breathing a little lighter. Don’t force any of this.
- Thoughts and images will continue to appear and swirl through your mind. Don’t pay attention to them; just patiently keep coming back to your breath.
- Continue this relaxed breathing for about five minutes, with your eyes closed and your mind focused on the easy, natural flow of your breath.
Listen to Your Appetite
Your body sends messages to your mind to meet its needs. One of the most important signals the body sends is that of hunger. Although many people who have struggled to keep excessive pounds off view their appetite as an adversary, listening to and honoring its message is one of the most important aspects of a healthy nutritional plan. The rule is simple: Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are satisfied. If you think of your appetite as a gauge ranging from empty (0) to full (10), our recommendation is to eat when you are really hungry (at a level 2 to 3) and stop when you are comfortably full but not stuffed (6 to 7). By not filling your stomach to capacity, you allow your digestive power to work at an optimal level. Just as your clothes do not get fully cleaned if you overstuff your washing machine, your food will not be fully digested if you overstuff your stomach.
Many people eat because it is time to eat, not because their bodies are asking for food. You usually wouldn’t fill up your gas tank if it was still half full but many people eat, even when they are still full from the previous meal. Start listening to your body. Its wisdom mirrors the wisdom of the cosmos.
For the next two weeks, start eating only when your hunger is at level 2. This may mean eating meals at unusual times of day or not eating for prolonged periods of time. The entire process should be based on comfort. Always stop eating before you reach level 8. With practice, you’ll be able to identify your level of satisfaction at any given moment and you will become aware of your body’s inner signals. You will likely find your biological clock adjusts after two weeks, and you will begin to eat meals at around the same time every day.
It is easy to overeat if your environment distracts you while you are eating. Although many of us were conditioned to eat while watching television, it is easy to lose awareness of your body and overeat when an engaging drama or exciting adventure story captures your attention. Similarly, eating while working on an intense project or business transaction will often result in missing the signals that your body has had enough food. Have the intention to protect your mealtimes so you can enjoy your food in a relaxing environment. If you suffer from digestive imbalances such as heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome, creating a calm, comfortable mealtime will improve your digestion. Sit quietly for a few minutes after your meal. Focus your attention on the sensations in your body, and then take a short walk.
Favor Fresh Foods
There are foods that accelerate aging and entropy and others that renew and revitalize the body. In general, “dead” foods contribute to degeneration and decay, while fresh foods enhance regeneration and vitality. For most foods, the closer to the time it is harvested you are able to eat it, the more energy and intelligence it provides. This means minimizing canned, frozen, and packaged foods to the extent possible. Ayurveda also discourages eating leftovers or microwaved meals.
Use Food to Feed Your Body, Not Your Emotions
From the day we are born, we associate food with safety and comfort. The breast or bottle offered us when we were uncomfortable soothed both our physical and emotional distress. It is natural that as adults we resort to food when we are feeling stressed or anxious. Unfortunately, if you are trying to fill your need for love with food, you are unlikely to be very successful and the unnecessary calories will be stored as fat. Have the intention to use food to satisfy the energy needs of your body and develop nourishing relationships to satisfy the needs of your emotional heart. We also strongly recommend that you learn the skills of conscious communication, which will help you get your emotional needs met.
Eat More at Lunch, Less at Dinner
Your digestive power is strongest at noontime. Until the Industrial Revolution, most people ate their main meal in the middle of the day with a lighter meal in the evening. Respecting these time-honored patterns can improve digestive function and enhance sleep. Try eating a larger lunch and a smaller dinner and see if you notice an improvement in your vitality and wellbeing.
Final Thoughts and Encouragement
Once you’ve learned to live in accord with your biological needs instead of fighting against them, you will naturally arrive at the perfect weight for you. Cravings for unhealthy foods will evaporate, and the loss of self-esteem that frequently accompanies struggles with weight will be replaced by a sense of emotional and physical wellbeing. The lack of energy and sedentary habits will give way to a new enthusiasm for life and feelings of renewal. By regaining balance in this vital area of your life, you will take an important, inspiring step towards fulfilling your truly unlimited potential.