Do You Eat for Your Dosha?

Ever think about how food makes you feel? I'm not talking about emotional pleasure or food preferences, but rather physiological reactions -- how your body processes and reacts to the stuff you put in your mouth.

The expression "You are what you eat" seems appropriate here, but in the ancient Indian healing science of ayurveda, the additional question is, "Who is eating?"

The connection between diet and body type was the theme of a lecture I attended this weekend at Tranquil Space, my home-base yoga studio in Dupont Circle.

Leading the conversation was yoga instructor Anne Thiel, who has been studying since January, 2006, at the School of Ayurveda at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass.

Anne, who had long been concerned by erratic energy levels and her quick, impatient reactions to stress, said that "with ayurveda, things started to click."

The first task on her journey of exploration was to determine her prakriti, or body constitution. According to ayurveda, we all have three elements of energy (aka doshas): vata, made of space and air, which governs the energy of movement; pitta, made of fire and water, which governs our digestion and metabolism; and kapha, made of earth and water, which governs our bodily structure - bones, muscles, joints and skin. But typically, one dosha is more dominant than the others, which ultimately determines physical and emotional makeup as well as the relationship between body type and diet.

Short of having a consultation with an ayurvedic practitioner, you can determine your dominant dosha in a detailed questionnaire (here's one from the National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine in New York).

Once you learn which doshas run promimently through your body, you learn to identify their qualities and how, with food, to maintain a balance and physiological harmony.

To wit, Anne learned that she is predominantly pitta, with kapha running a close second. What that means is that her body type is generally hot and wet (fire and water), with oily tendencies. As a result, she needs foods that are cooling, dry and heavier, with astringent, bitter and sweet qualities. Translated that means rice, beans, cumin, coriander, sweet fruits, olive and coconut oils and most vegetables all work at pacifying the pitta dosha. Pitta no-nos, on the other hand, are pungent, spicy and oily foods, including anything fried, garlic, chiles, onions, coffee, hard cheese and sour fruit (oranges, grapefruits). Whew. Sounds like most of my diet has just been wiped out.

As Anne went from dosha to dosha, my head was spinning. In order to achieve physical harmony, a theme close to my heart, would I have to completely overhaul my diet and only eat kichari, the mung bean-rice porridge revered for its noninvasive digestive properties?

No need to worry, says Anne. The idea is to become more mindful of what and how we eat, and to make gradual changes rather than drastic ones. She shared a few pointers from which all doshas can benefit:

Eat without distractions -- no television, reading or any other kind of multitasking. Create rituals around eating -- sitting at table, lighting a candle and turning off all noise.

Chew thoroughly, as in 32 times per bite of food

Eliminate ice cold beverages with meals (including water)

Make lunch or your midday meal the heaviest, and the other two meals lighter, particularly in the evening

Eat until you have just a little bit of room left in the stomach, to give your body extra digesting space

Such practices, which may seem like common sense for some of us, also help to stimulate agni (say agg-nee), our digestive fire. In fact, one of the big take-home points for me is this idea of thoroughly digesting my food rather than plowing through it., which inevitably makes me feel sluggish and often gastro-uncomfortable.

In Anne's case, she changed her routine to make lunch her heaviest meal. In addition, she uses "more cooling fats, such as coconut milk and ghee (clarified butter)" and cooling spices such as cumin and coriander. She eats fewer tomatoes than she once did, and now when she eats fruit, she eats it by itself. She says that these small changes, along with eliminating coffee, have helped her feel more energetic and calmer in response to stress.

As a fellow pitta (with kapha notes), I began to do a mental checklist of my diet. Could I ever give up my daily cup of joe in the morning? Hard to say. Would I ever consider doing away with garlic, onions and chiles, which could tilt my pitta self into overdrive? I doubt it.

Like Anne said, maybe I need to think of this in gradual terms. What would be easiest to let go? For me, that would be fried foods and drinking just a bit less wine in the evening and drinking a bit more water or herbal tea in its place.

Ever think about ayurveda or put its principles into practice? Share in the comments area below.

An online resource worth exploring is the Web site of Ayurveda Institute in Albuquerque, N.M. Its chart of eating according to your dosha is useful and eye opening.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 14, 2007; 11:23 AM ET Nutrition
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All three say to avoid chocolate. Not going to happen! But it is ana interesting concept.

Posted by: md | May 14, 2007 1:18 PM

This is cool. When I took the test, I was nearly equal in all three, but I made my hub. take it for me and he got an overwhelming Pitta. On the Food Guidelines, most are my favorites, and to avoid food I wouldn't have anyway. Except for Dairy. I need yogurt.

Posted by: MD | May 14, 2007 1:46 PM

I had an ayurvedic consultation 4 years ago. I am a pitta with vata in second place. The diet reccomended for me was not appealing at all, but I have cut down on a lot of foods that aggravate my dosha makeup. I have completely given up coffee, caffeine and eggplants. I rarely eat potatoes (another member of the night shade family) and I only eat tomatoes when I really crave them. I have found it next to impossible to make lunch my big meal, but lately I have noticed that I eat less in general with the shift to warm weather. I still eat my bolognese sauce, but more often in cold weather. Most of the suggestions were very helpful, but my Italian stomach rebels against most of the Indian spices that were recommended for me. I don't care for cumin in great quantities and tumeric is not pleasing to me at all. I refuse to give up garlic and onion.
In addition to the reccomendations of my ayurvedic consult, I have begun a vitamin and supplement routine that has helped me almost as much as avoiding the pitta aggravating foods. I reccomend the book the Mood Cure for anyone who is wondering how diet can change your disposition.

Posted by: Nancy Pritchard | May 15, 2007 10:34 AM

Over the years, I've come to realize that all of my mother's strictures on what to eat and what not to eat come from Ayurvedic prinicples that she learned growing up. I'll have to start looking into this to see if I can apply any of it to myself.

Posted by: Little Red | May 15, 2007 1:17 PM

Hi All,
Just wanted to add here that nobody needs to give up anything - not chocoloate, not yogurt etc.! Indulging is a good thing (I think, and, fortunately, Ayurveda teaches that as well). We should all have a piece of chocolate every day, or another sweet, as it satisfies a need for the sweet taste we all have (and, yes, I say 'need', not 'desire'). The key word here is "balance" - think about what aggravates your dosha and *cut back* on it (not cut our).
Plus, if you really think there is something you need to substantially cut down on (or really may have to cut it out), then think about doing it gradually.
Your body is used to it and depriving it of this substance suddenly will throw it off center.
I hope this helps and make Ayurveda more accessible.

Posted by: Anne | May 16, 2007 9:41 AM

I LOVE Ayurveda! Come by and see my site, all about life, love and Ayurveda: I have a free e-mail newsletter that comes out on Tuesdays, and a free 6 week e-course called Ananda: Blissful Living.

Posted by: Lissa Coffey | May 18, 2007 1:25 PM

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