Ayurveda: India’s 5,000-Year-Old Diet and Wellness Plan

For more than 5,000 years, ayurveda has been practiced to promote wellness in India. From the Sanskrit words ayurs (life) and veda (knowledge), ayurveda branches from Hindu scriptures called the Vedas, and has influenced Buddhist philosophy, Eastern and Western health care — and it is beginning to find a place in diet trends. Its practitioners consider ayurveda to be a sacred system that unites natural elements, spirituality and diet. In short, nourishment of the body is tethered to nourishment of the mind and soul.

“Ayurveda has an expansive definition of nourishment that goes beyond food, to think in terms of all the things that fuel our life force, including relationships and doing the things we love,” says Annie B. Kay, MS, RD, RYT, lead nutritionist at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass. “With regard to nutrition, it goes beyond ‘you are what you eat’ to ‘you are what, when, how and why you eat,’ to quote writer Thomas Yarema, MD.” With celebrity supporters such as Madonna, Cindy Crawford and Demi Moore — and a slew of new books on the market (according to Amazon.com, more than 30 titles on ayurveda have been published in the last two years) — ayurveda is garnering more attention among mainstream consumers. Here are the basic principles of this ancient practice and new trend.

Doshas and Diet

Ayurveda is centered around three energies called doshas — vata, pitta and kapha. Each person is a unique makeup of these doshas, and that composition is called one’s prakruti.

The doshas govern physical, mental and spiritual health. According to ayurvedic teachings, a person’s prakruti is immutable. Ayurveda advocates preventive care by balancing one’s doshic makeup through diet.
Vata: comprises air and ether, and is associated with lightness, dryness, change and creativity. According to ayurveda, people who are predominately vata are spiritual, positive and adaptable when balanced — and restless, indecisive and fearful when vata is unbalanced. Vatas are said to have dry skin, and experience stiffness, gas, constipation and coldness when the dosha is unbalanced. An ayurvedic practitioner may recommend warm, wet food like soups, oils and herbal teas.

Pitta: encompasses fire and water, and is associated with sharpness, drive and confidence. Those who are predominantly pitta are reportedly competitive, powerful, focused and expressive. They are leaders and visionaries when pitta is balanced, but may become demanding and arrogant when out of balance. According to ayurveda, pittas may suffer from inflammation, acid reflux and overheating, and a diet of sweet, cool foods such as juice, salads, raw seeds and cooling herbs while avoiding alcohol, caffeine and spicy food may help balance pitta.

Kapha: is associated with oiliness, density, languidness and stability. Kaphas are said to be kind, caring and patient. When kapha is balanced, they are providers and nurturers. Out of balance, kaphas reportedly tend toward depression, neediness and secrecy. Physically, they may suffer from weight gain, high cholesterol and congestive disorders. An ayurvedic practitioner may recommend bitter, light and dry food to balance kapha, including salads, beans, citrus and whole grains, and avoiding salt, overeating and sugar.

Ayurveda and Total Health

Ayurvedic medicine is not vetted in the Western medical tradition, and it has its critics (particularly with respect to practitioners whose advice may include rejecting modern drugs). Nonetheless, many of its principles are acknowledged by increasingly mainstream approaches to wellness — from body acceptance to mindful eating to environmental influence on diet.

“I think of ayurveda as the original integrative medicine,” says Kay. “It considers the multidimensional aspects of the whole person. In our Western model, we focus on the physical body, but in ayurveda we also consider the mental, emotional, energetic — from a more expansive view than strictly biochemical — and spiritual dimensions of the person we’re working with.”

Like yoga, which is considered ayurveda’s “sister practice,” ayurveda embraces the idea that people are perfect as they naturally are — a concept that, by stripping away the idea of good food/bad food and guilty feelings — can lay the groundwork for a mindset that embraces food as nourishment, not as a mood regulator.

“The first thing I do is invite the [client] to practice compassionate self-observation, and to see themselves as always good — divine, in fact,” says Kay. “Then we can look at what is really going on — what makes it difficult to care for yourself in a way that aligns with [the life] you want.”

Tenets of ayurveda can be seen in the mindful (or intuitive) eating movement. Clients are encouraged to make mindful eating choices, and to eat in a peaceful, distraction-free setting. No foods are off limits, but clients are guided toward healthful choices to balance their prakruti.

“In the ayurvedic system, certain foods are aggravating for particular doshas,” says Kay, “but we encourage everyone to begin by eating more whole foods; paying attention to the natural rhythms of the day by getting up, going to bed and eating meals at approximately the same time each day; to practice mindfulness and gratitude around meals — these elements are just as critical as what you choose to eat.”

Steamed Collard Wraps

Developed by Talya Lutzker

2 sweet potatoes, julienned
1 bunch collard greens
1 red bell pepper or jicama, julienned
2 avocados, julienned
1 beet, shredded
1 carrot, shredded
1/2 cup chopped raw macadamia or pine nuts
1/2 cup sunflower sprouts (optional)
1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
4 cloves garlic, minced (omit for pitta)
1 ( 1-inch) piece fresh turmeric root, peeled and minced (optional)
1/2 cup Creamy Cucumber-Tahini Dressing


  1. Place a steamer basket in a medium saucepan with about ½ cup water. Bring the water to a boil. Put the sweet potatoes in the steamer basket. Cover. Steam for 5 minutes, or until fork-tender. Transfer the potatoes to a bowl or colander. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, remove the stems from each collard leaf by carefully slicing along each side of the stem so that the leaves are cut in half and each half remains intact. Set aside. Reserve the stems for another use.
  3. Put the steamer basket back into the saucepan and add the collard leaves. Steam for 30 seconds, or just until softened. Transfer the collard greens to a separate bowl or colander.
  4. Prepare the remaining ingredients and place them within easy reach.
  5. Place 2 collard leaf halves lengthwise on top of each other. Place 1 or 2 strips each of the sweet potatoes, bell pepper and avocados across the lower third of the collard leaves.
  6. Top with 1 teaspoon each of the beet, carrot, macadamia nuts and optional sunflower sprouts
  7. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon each of the ginger, garlic and optional turmeric. Drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the Creamy Cucumber-Tahini Dressing.
  8. Carefully fold the end of the collard leaves over the filling and roll up into snug wrap.
  9. Place the wrap on a plate.

Nutritional Info
Serving size: 1 wrap
Serves 8

Calories: 190
Total Fat: 14g; Saturated fat: 2g
Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium; 45mg
Carbohydrates: 17g; Fiber: 7g; Sugars: 4g
Protein: 4g; Potassium: 550mg; Phosphorus: 80mg

From The Ayurvedic Vegan Kitchen (Book Publishing Company 2012).

Creamy Cucumber-Tahini Dressing

Developed by Talya Lutzker

1 cucumber, sliced in half lengthwise, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup raw tahini
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic, minced (omit for pitta)
2 tablespoons minced red onion (omit for vata)
1 teaspoon ground coriander


  1. Put all the ingredients in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth and creamy, stopping occasionally to scrape down the blender jar or work bowl.
  2. Stored in a covered container in the refrigerator, dressing will keep for 3 days.
  3. Shake well before each use.
  4. Makes 2 cups.

Nutritional Info
Serving size: 2 tablespoons

Calories: 60
Total Fat: 5g; Saturated fat: 0.5g
Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 75mg
Carbohydrates: 1g; Fiber: 0g; Sugars: 0g
Protein: 1g; Potassium: 42mg; Phosphorus: 33mg

From The Ayurvedic Vegan Kitchen (Book Publishing Company 2012).

Erin Sund
Erin Sund was an editor with Food & Nutrition Magazine.