From using ketones as a source of energy, to eating like the hunter people from the Paleolithic era, to giving up milk and dairy in your diet, to consuming exclusively raw foods—we are on a hamster wheel of diet regimes. Paleo, Keto, vegan, raw diets—there is a constant churn of diet fads to fulfill people’s need for the right body mass index, or right body shape, right skin, right balance with the environment, or simply a need for a healthier relationship with food. While they definitely have shown promise with emerging research to support their usefulness and impact on our bodies and mind, there is a basic problem with diet fads, the answer to which is provided by Ayurveda, an ancient and timeless body of wisdom.
Ayurveda maintains that diet is a fundamental pillar of our wellness; however, it also recognizes that there can be no generic diets that suit everybody’s body constitution or Prakruti. Also, the strength of our digestive fire is unique for every individual. What is healthy and nutritious may not necessarily be easy to digest. For example, you may think a bowl of raw salad is healthy and there is no way of going wrong with it. But if you understood Ayurveda, you would know that raw salad can actually work against people with vata dominance.
Ayurveda mentions three doshas that govern our unique constitutions—vata, pitta and kapha. The goal of Ayurveda is to bring all three doshas into balance within the body. Since each individual has unique dosha dominance, our diet needs to be personalized too with the goal of supporting the doshas that are weak or sluggish and reducing consumption of foods that aggravate or increase vitiation. Keeping this basic principle in mind, let us take a look at the diet trends from an Ayurvedic point of view, along with benefits and caveats.
The Ketogenic or Keto Diet
This low-carbohydrate high-fat diet was first introduced in the 1920s as part of epilepsy treatment, but it has made a comeback in recent years with celebrities across the globe endorsing it. One of the reasons behind the rise of the keto diet was the finding that it wasn’t fat that was the major culprit behind America’s obesity problem as was once thought, but sugar.
The ketogenic diet relies on the consumption of healthy or good fats. The fats consumed in the ketogenic diet convert into ketones, compounds that provide an excellent source of energy for the brain. By ingesting high amounts of fat while also practicing intermittent fasting, the body enters a state known as ketosis where it starts using ketones for producing energy rather than sugars. This state of ketosis is shown to reduce inflammation, boost memory, and increase energy. Furthermore, this diet can be helpful in treating conditions such as cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
Does the Ketogenic diet cause diabetes?
Many wonder if the ketogenic diet causes diabetes due to the condition called ketoacidosis. It does not. Ketoacidosis is a condition that occurs in diabetic people when their cells aren’t getting enough insulin, thus they are unable to process blood sugars. As a result, the body begins burning fat for energy, causing ketone levels to rise to extremely high levels. If not managed, this condition can cause acidity to rise in the blood and can take a fatal turn.
With the ketogenic diet, ketone levels in the blood do not increase to such extreme levels. In fact, in some cases, this diet can even work to enhance glucose regulation in the body. Therefore, the keto diet won’t cause diabetes. (However, if you do have diabetes, always ask your doctor before starting a new diet.) Despite all the benefits of the ketogenic diet, it’s not a magic bullet.
Although the ketogenic diet is effective for weight loss, other studies show that a regular low-carb diet can be just as effective. However, while low-carb diets are often considered safe, the keto diet is associated with adverse metabolic and emotional effects consequences.
Other side effects of a long-term ketogenic diet include
- Arterial stiffness
- Gastrointestinal disturbances such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation
- Fat intolerance
- Renal stones
- Iron deficiency.
Unfortunately, in some cases, long-term adherence to the ketogenic diet can be life-threatening.
Ayurveda’s Perspective on the Ketogenic Diet
Ayurveda always recommends eating a natural, seasonal diet, and the ketogenic diet doesn’t suit this criterion. In fact, keto requires consuming incredibly high levels of fats, which may not be suitable for every season or even as commonly available in every season.
Although it’s true that entering ketosis is beneficial, historically our bodies have regularly entered this state each year during the late winter/early spring. It may not be necessary to artificially induce this state by loading up on high fats. In fact, ketosis was brought about naturally as our ancestors fasted while waiting for new crops to grow. These yearly fasts only spanned a few weeks, which is in accordance with the research suggesting that ketosis is more beneficial in the short-term rather than the long-term.
Additionally, vata and pitta dominant people can manage a keto diet but kapha people may struggle to digest so much saturated fat, due to their slow metabolism. Also, the ketogenic diet requires fasting for 12–14 hours each day. Fasting is not typically recommended for people with vata and pitta constitutions, while kapha-type could benefit from it.
Therefore, although certain elements of this diet can benefit certain people, when taken as a whole, this diet is full of contradictions and unnatural practices. So, if you feel compelled to eat this way, it’s best to only follow the ketogenic diet for a few weeks at best.
The Vegan Diet
With benefits that include helping the environment, saving animals, and improving our health, it’s easy to see why the vegan diet is a big draw with health-conscious people in recent years. This subset of vegetarianism promotes eating only plant-based foods, nuts, legumes, cereals while restricting all animal products, including meat, eggs, and dairy products. This is also a decent option for those with lactose intolerance.
Although this diet can be quite healthy if people stick to healthy foods, veganism doesn’t necessarily preclude adherents from eating processed foods, for example-potato chips and onion rings though unhealthy, are vegan.
So, when eating vegan food, it’s definitely best to eat only whole foods. Doing so can have many benefits, such as
- Increasing your nutrient intake
- Promoting weight loss
- Lowering blood sugar
- Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
- Fighting certain cancers
- Reducing your risk of heart disease
- Improving kidney function
- Reducing pain from arthritis
- Support digestive health
- Have greater diversity in gut bacteria.
Ayurveda’s View on Veganism
Ayurveda largely agrees with the principles of veganism. The only difference is that Ayurveda traditionally holds dairy products in high regard, especially for those with a vata-based constitution. When taken from ethically raised, grass-fed cows, foods such as ghee, milk, and paneer are considered to be pure. In fact, dairy products can be a great source of B12 and healthy fats that vegans may need to source from supplements.
Add nuts, seeds, and other plant-based sources of fats and oils, lentils, green moong beans to have your share of proteins and spices like cumin, cardamom, asafetida, ginger, and fennel to your diet. You can go for almond or soy milk instead of dairy.
Avoid very spicy food and nuts even if they are vegan. Have more cooling options like cucumber, melons, root vegetables, grains, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, legumes, and berries in your diet.
A vegan diet is best suited for kapha people because of their sluggish metabolism. Have foods that are naturally ripened and in season. Beans, nuts, lentils, whole foods, soy, and seeds are all ideal for you.
The Paleo Diet
This is the diet that includes fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meat, nuts, seeds, and oils extracted from seeds—drawing inspiration from what hunter-gatherers ate in the Paleolithic era almost 10,000 years ago, before the advent of agriculture and farming. So you will not find dairy, grains, sugar, salt, potatoes, legumes, or pulses in this diet.
Ayurvedic Take on the Paleo Diet
On the lines of paleo, ayurvedic diet also gives preference to dosha-specific naturally grown seasonal fruits and vegetables, recommends against processed foods, or processed dairy, refined sugar, and white salt.
Grains and legumes are sweet, light and cooling and help pacify all three doshas. They are also grounding and sattvic foods despite being grown through cultivation. So eliminating them from the diet may force you to look for good equivalents to balance the doshas.
Dairy or milk or clarified butter is strongly also recommended in Ayurveda for oral consumption as well as a topical application for specific dosha types. It has a nourishing and Ojas-enriching quality, along with key minerals. The Paleo diet may find its replacement in almonds and honey.
The Paleolithic digest can also be demanding on one’s digestion, simply because the modern man does not have the digestive capacity of the Paleolithic man anymore. Poor digestion can lead to accumulation of ama, increase in tamas, or dullness in the body. And consumption of excessive meat without sufficient intake of key food groups such as legumes and grains can affect kapha and pitta balance.
Rawism or Raw Foodism
A raw food diet, as the name suggests, is all about uncooked and unprocessed foods including vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruits. But you can use different methods of preparation such as blending, juicing, soaking, drying, and sprouting.
Food that is non-refined, non-pasteurized, organic, pesticide-free, and under 40-48°C qualifies for rawism. Most people who follow rawism are also vegan, some people may choose to add raw eggs or dairy to this mix. The rationale here is that heating can destroy essential enzymes and nutrients present in raw food or compromise the prana or life energy of the food. Some of its benefits can be weight loss, more energy, a sense of lightness, lower consumption of fossil fuels, and more vitality.
Ayurvedic Take on the Raw Diet
Raw foods are suited for pitta and kapha people but not for vata. It may in fact aggravate vata dosha. According to Ayurveda, having raw or cold foods exclusively and all the time can be hard to digest. So we may need to cook (perhaps sauté lightly or steam it if you are averse to cooking it too much) to make some foods more digestible even if it comes at the cost of losing some enzymes and nutrients. Studies have found that certain foods when consumed raw, can actually block the consumption of specific nutrients. Cooking increases the bioavailability of certain minerals and nutrients in vegetables.
The Bottom Line
Diet fads may have their own merits and people may even report that it worked for them. But diet is something that must be personalized. What foods are dosha-aggravating for you and foods that are rejuvenating, balancing, and nourishing for you cannot be dictated through dietary fads. To know this in some detail, you may need to reach out to a dietician, perhaps an Ayurvedic nutritionist, to give you specific dietary recommendations based on your unique constitution, the current state of health, and doshas that need to be balanced. The end result of this is to achieve holistic wellness. When you are on the right diet that suits you, you will feel light, your gut will be healthy and your mind happy.