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Ideal Meals

A nourishing Ayurvedic diet naturally guides you to the body weight that's right for you.

By Niika Quistgard

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While living in an ashram in Northern India years ago, I loved playing auntie to two young girls—Chaya and Lakshmi—from a nearby village. When I visited their small house, I would applaud Lakshmi as she recited her English alphabet or admire Chaya's pencil drawings of the trees along the river where their mother pounded the family laundry clean on big rocks.

When Lakshmi neared puberty, she started to gain weight. As she grew softer and wider, her mother continued her usual mealtime practice of putting balls of rice and lentils into Lakshmi's mouth, well past the point of satiety. The family became more and more delighted, parading her ahead of them as they walked to temple, showing off their daughter's fleshly abundance. "Look how round and healthy she is," they'd say. "She's going to catch quite a husband!"

Meanwhile, back in California, the women in my own extended family were worried about a distant cousin—a beautiful, creative girl who happened to be a little chubby in her elementary school years. "We've got to help her control her weight," they'd whisper with desperation. "We don't want her to feel bad about herself for being heavy."

Despite their good intentions, both families showed more commitment to cultural norms than to understanding the needs of their girls' bodies. A person's perfect weight can't be sized up by the eye or measured by a scale. According to the principles of Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of health, everyone has an ideal weight that's unique to their prakriti, or constitutional nature, made up of the three life energies, or doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha.

Because your ideal weight is unique, it can't be compared with your sister's, your neighbor's, your best friend's, or your own five years ago. Your ideal weight is affected by your age, the season, the climate, and, if you're a woman, your menstrual stage. The right weight has nothing to do with numbers. Instead, it's a reflection of feeling and being truly healthy—being comfortable and stable in body and mind, experiencing normal bodily functions, and having the strength and endurance to engage in vigorous exercise and the demands of everyday life.

All that comes about when your appetite and the foods you eat; how and when you eat; the medicines you take; your digestion and metabolism; the nature of your environment; and your physical activity, mind, and emotions are in harmony. Knowing your dominant dosha can help you achieve that kind of balanced living and establish healthful eating habits and dietary choices. (Take our survey designed to reveal your prakriti at www.yogajournal.com/prakritiquiz). Over time, by living and eating according to your dominant dosha, you'll settle into the best weight for you—and only you.

Vata | Find the Rhythm

Vata-dominant people have slight or deer-like builds. When out of balance, you might tend toward irregular digestion, usually losing weight when stressed. It's gaining weight that can be the challenge. If vata dominates your prakriti, you can become imbalanced after emotional trauma, and your weight may yo-yo up and down as your system attempts to insulate, ground, and protect itself with excess tissue.

You may find that you commonly forgo eating for daydreaming or are drawn to a diet that is based on a lofty philosophy but doesn't actually honor the needs of your body. It's important to remember that being too thin isn't somehow healthier or more spiritual. Good health requires adequate weight and muscle tone.

You'll find balance in your weight and life by following a rhythm: eating three meals a day at regular times, with the main meal of the day around noon, when digestion is strongest. Warm, moist, and heavier foods with sweet, sour, or salty tastes will nourish tissues, emotions, and overall body weight. Foods that are bitter, pungent, or astringent should be avoided. Warming spices like cumin, garlic, or cinnamon support a stable agni (digestive fire, or metabolism), which tends to flicker in the windy conditions of a vata-dominant prakriti.

You might crave sweets, caffeine, or other substances that affect the nervous system—especially if life has you running in rapid, unpredictable circles. Instead of turning to these food stimulants, try developing faith through a devotional or spiritual practice to help you disengage from anxious, repetitive thinking. Warm oil, applied externally with an all-over self-massage, can calm a tense or hypersensitive digestion and bring you back toward a comfortable, stable, balanced body weight and muscle tone.

Pitta | Go Fresh and Light

If you're pitta dominant and live in balance, you'll most likely sport a medium, equine, well-proportioned body. Associated with fire energy, the pitta dosha governs digestion and transformation in the body and mind.

Pitta types commonly send digestion out of balance, resulting in weight gain or loss, in one of three ways. First, with a propensity for ambition and hyperfocus, you might keep your nose to the grindstone far past lunch, honing your mental aim with acidic coffee.

A second pitta mistake is attempting to quell hunger with whatever is available while juggling a packed schedule. Sadly, fast food usually means junk food. The salty, fatty, processed ingredients, artificial flavors, and preservatives can aggravate acid production, eventually weakening the liver, gallbladder, and small intestine.

Finally, when you do sit down to enjoy a meal, you're likely to indulge a craving. Strikingly sour and hot tastes that deliver sharp stimulation—like red wine, garlic, chilies, peppers, pungent spices, tomato sauce, roasted peanuts, fried potatoes, and vinegary pickles—just add intensity to the fire. These foods don't translate directly into weight gain, but according to Ayurvedic thought, they do lead to intestinal inflammation, which creates circulatory congestion, or fluid retention, a precursor to obesity.

To eat for balance, you must take time for regular meals, making lunch the biggest meal of the day, as digestion is at its peak at midday. A pitta metabolism is naturally strong with high agni, which demands fuel; if the digestive fire isn't fed regularly, it overheats. Acids and enzymes then concentrate, disrupting normal digestion and contributing to the formation of ama, the toxic byproduct of a faulty digestive process that Ayurvedic theory suggests can clog various bodily channels and cause weight gain.

Fresh, light, lower-fat fruits, veggies, and grains with bitter, sweet, and astringent tastes (like cucumbers, green beans, apples, quinoa, and dandelion greens) calm the dosha's overheated passion and ease digestion. Soaked almonds and sunflower or pumpkin seeds make for tasty, cooling protein. Simple sweets like rice pudding or cooked apples offer calming nourishment.

Kapha | Savor the Bittersweet

Kapha-dominant types tend to have stockier builds and round faces. You fall out of balance slowly, and are most likely to gain weight over time and hold on to it once it's yours. A slide into extra weight might begin with long hours at a sedentary job. Add a few slices of birthday cake, a couple of rainy weekends sleeping in, a movie instead of yoga, and a few servings of rich comfort food (like lasagna, which requires significant agni power to digest completely), and extra pounds appear.

If kapha dominates your prakriti, you'll find a healthy weight when you feel lighter emotionally (less stubborn and sentimental) and eat smaller meals of fresh raw and light foods with bitter, astringent, and pungent tastes. Eating your main meal around noon is good for everyone, but especially for balancing digestion in kapha-dominant prakritis.

Dessert, unfortunately, is not on the menu. The sweet taste just creates an imbalance of kapha energy that can lead to weight gain. Instead, try an after-meal cup of green tea with dry ginger to boost digestion and metabolism and reduce dependence on heavy, cloying sweets. However, dried fruit and treats sweetened with the herb stevia can actually bring kapha energy back into balance. Fresh berries, apricots, and apples are great choices, too.

Raw, unprocessed honey is thought to have special heating properties that can reduce excess weight. Take a scant teaspoon followed by sips of hot water after each meal. According to Ayurvedic texts, the older the honey, the more effective it is for weight loss. Never cook honey, though; these same texts note that overheated honey is indigestible.

While your natural sense of stability can become stagnation that resists even healthy change, once you have made a commitment, your slow and steady nature will keep you on a sure path until you reach your goal for a naturally balanced and healthy body weight.

Simply Satisfied

The most basic piece of advice you can follow, regardless of your prakriti, comes from the Caraka Samhita, one of Ayurveda's classic texts: "The senses are fulfilled; hunger and thirst are assuaged; standing, sitting, lying down, walking, breathing, talking, and laughing are effortless; food is digested easily by evening or morning."

I'm living in India again these days, and it's easy to see that the sleek Western ideal is beginning to influence the country's image of physical perfection. But no matter where you happen to live on the planet, what the current body fashion is, or what your family thinks about how you should look—if you live and nourish yourself in a way that brings you health and joy, your body will follow your lead to your perfect, balanced weight.

Niika Quistgard directs a women's Ayurvedic clinic in Kerala, India www.rasaayurveda.com.

February 2009

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