Ayurveda: how I kicked a craving and began eating clean

Earlier this year I interviewed the owner of a salt spa in Boulder for an article published at MileHighMamas.com. When I found out that Dr Nita Desai was both an MD and a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner, I was intrigued. Over the years I’ve been treated for a lung condition with western medicine and with eastern medicine separately, but I’d never found one person who could see me through both lenses and treat me from such dual knowledge.

The term Ayurveda is taken from the Sanskrit words ayus, meaning life or lifespan, and veda, meaning knowledge. It has been practiced in India for at least 5,000 years and has recently become popular in Western cultures. The basic principle of Ayurveda is to prevent and treat illness by maintaining balance in the body, mind, and consciousness through proper drinking, diet, and lifestyle, as well as herbal remedies.

— Source: University of Maryland Medical Center

My first appointment with Dr Desai was in April (I’ll never forget the date because it was the day before Grandma Marshmallow died). Dr Desai looked over the questionnaires I’d completed and examined me — felt my pulses, looked at my face and tongue, hair and skin, and asked me further questions about my eating and sleeping habits so she could figure out my primary dosha.

Before I explain the doshas, let’s first look at the elements. You are probably familiar with these: Ether, Air, Fire, Water, Earth, in order from least to most dense.

  • Vatas, typically ectomorphs, reflect the qualities of Ether and Air. Think wind. In balance, Vatas are a spring breeze. Out of balance, they are a raging hurricane.
  • Pittas, typically mesomorphs, reflect the qualities of Fire and Water. Think flame. In balance, Pittas are a warming campfire. Out of balance, a wild and uncontrollable forest fire.
  • Kaphas, typically endomorphs, reflect the qualities of Water and Earth. Think where water meets earth. In balance, Kaphas are meandering, gentle streams. Out of balance, they are sludgy swamps.

What are doshas?

Just as everyone has a unique fingerprint, according to Ayurvedic beliefs, each person has a distinct pattern of energy — a specific combination of physical, mental, and emotional characteristics. It is also believed that there are three basic energy types called doshas, present in every person:

  • Vata – energy that controls bodily functions associated with motion, including blood circulation, breathing, blinking, and heartbeat. When vata energy is balanced, there is creativity and vitality. Out of balance, vata produces fear and anxiety.
  • Pitta – energy that controls the body’s metabolic systems, including digestion, absorption, nutrition, and temperature. In balance, pitta leads to contentment and intelligence. Out of balance, pitta can cause ulcers and arouse anger.
  • Kapha – energy that controls growth in the body. It supplies water to all body parts, moisturizes the skin, and maintains the immune system. In balance, kapha is expressed as love and forgiveness. Out of balance, kapha leads to insecurity and envy.

Everyone has vata, pitta, and kapha, but usually 1 or 2 are dominant in a particular person. Many things can disturb the energy balance, such as stress, an unhealthy diet, the weather, and strained family relationships. The disturbance shows up as disease. Ayurvedic practitioners prescribe treatments to bring the doshas back into balance.

 – Source: University of Maryland Medical Center

I am a Vata. This means that by nature I am light, dry and cold and not very dense (because Vata is on the weightless, cold and dry end of the element spectrum — Ether and Air). So it makes sense that to balance out my constitution, I crave things that bring me density, moistness and warmth, like sugar and fat, which are calorie-dense and oily.

Yay, sweets and fats!

Previously, I had no problem consuming sweets and fat. The problem was, I had not been choosing good sweets and good fats. With Dr Desai’s guidance, I have (mostly) given up refined sugar, sweetening instead with agave and other whole, natural sweeteners. Dr Desai also switched me from vegetable or canola oil to healthy saturated fats like coconut oil and ghee (clarified butter) and avocados. Olive oil is acceptable, too.

Dr Desai said to stay away from gluten and refined or processed foods. I had never realized how much pre-prepared foods I ate and served until I tried giving them up. Yakisoba bowls from Costco? Frozen raviolis with sauce from a jar? A pan of turkey enchiladas from the grocery store? Previously I had thought these were healthy choices.

Each meal is to include some good protein. Sunflower seed butter is in. As a Vata, though, beans are not easily digestible (airy, remember?). Clean meats make the cut. By “clean,” Dr Desai means animals that aren’t treated with hormones or antibiotics, and she includes grass-fed cattle, free-range chicken, and wild caught, non-colored fish, among other carnivorous offerings. In other words, creatures that eat what THEY are supposed to eat.

And each meal for my type should also  include cooked fresh vegetables, steamed or sauteed in some of those good oils and seasoned with spices that are good for balancing Vatas.

I feared I would gain girth with these new dietary instructions. But Dr Desai said as long as I did BOTH parts — staying away from refined foods as well as adding in healthy oils — I would actually become more healthy and thus, find my best weight and girth.

Other parts of my regimen include taking appetite-regulating herbs in warm water before each meal (Vatas are known to skip meals), sipping on naturally sweet herb and spice tea (made from dried cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, licorice, ginger)  all day long, and abyanga, or self-massage of the scalp, face, joints, limbs and body with dosha-balancing oils — twice a week.

It took 3 months to conquer my life-long craving of sugar, but I finally did it by my July appointment. In addition, I’ve lost 5 pounds of icky fat. Not that that was the point.

In ayurveda, digestion is fundamental. What and how we eat, how we nourish each cell of our bodies, that is the most important factor in our health. So Dr Desai’s first charge to me was to get my digestion working better.

That few months dramatically changed what I consider food. The thought of putting a slice of Wonder bread into my mouth feels as ridiculous as eating a sponge. And I’d be equally inclined to sip a Diet Co.ke as I would be to sip drain cleaner. These items no longer seem like food to me. I am much more conscious  — not only with my mind but also with my body’s visceral reactions to foods — about how I nourish myself.

In July at my second appointment, my pulses and other measures indicated that my digestion was calmer. Now we could begin to work on the next level: my lungs.

To do that, we would have to clear up a lifetime’s worth of ama. The more I know about it, the more I wonder if ama is what really took the life of my mother-in-law (underlying the lung and liver cancer that she battled). More about ama and my lungs in a future post.

In the meantime, if you’d like to determine your primary dosha and get some insight into balancing it, take this quiz.  And if your interest is really piqued, find out if the excellent and complete Eat Taste Heal is available at your local library.

24 thoughts on “Ayurveda: how I kicked a craving and began eating clean”

    1. Yes, my guess is that you are primarily Pitta (and secondarily a Kapha). You have that solid, athletic and muscular build.

      I also think you are probably in balance much of the time and already eat according to your type. :-)

  1. I can’t wait to take the quiz! I have a feeling that right now I will not be able to implement huge changes but I hope that in a few months, when things settle down, I will be.

    Does it take way more effort and time to cook for yourself and your family when you can’t fall back at all on processed foods? What happens if differed family members need different things to stay balanced?

    1. Great questions, Esperanza!

      Yes, it does take more time, and more planning. That’s the hard part. I figure the time I spend in the kitchen/health foods store is time I won’t be spending in the doctor’s office/hospital some day.

      And yes, my husband and I are different types. If he decides to eat for his type, we will have more limited choices for what we can eat together. But “clean” eating is a start for both of us.

      Haven’t worked out what dosha my kids might be yet!

  2. Lori! I have missed reading my favorite blogs and yours in particular – I love this post and I’m so happy for you that you were able to kick a bad habit. You have inspired me. I return to my clean-eating and physically roots TODAY. Love you!

  3. Said I was a Kapha – but I have to wonder if I was instantly marked as one based on the 1st question of body type.

    I admire you for being able to do this!

  4. It said I was a Kapha, too: “They are calm and affectionate but, when out of balance, can become stubborn and lazy.”

    That about sums it up.

    I wish I had the discipline to stay focused on a major bodily overhaul like you, Lori!

    1. I was not open to such an overhaul when I was younger. Watching the disease and death of Grandma Marshmallow made me think more about how I want the rest of my life to go.

      You must be in balance, according to the Kapha description :-)

  5. The quiz said I was a pitta — and to answer Dresden’s question, that is counter to my endomorph body type, so it’s definitely not an instant classification based on the first question.

    I wonder how ayurveda and TCM correspond.

    Glad you’re enjoying your new lifestyle!

    1. That’s a great question! The examination was very similar, with the check of the pulses and the tongue.

      And once I learned to make mojitos with agave (and very light on rum), all was good.

    1. :-) I’m not surprised you said that. Let me know if you decide to delve into this further. I think it’s fascinating to realign with our true nature. It’s been oddly liberating, and I wonder if you’d find it so, as well.

  6. I must inform you off the bat that I am a skeptic…

    But it’s interesting. I came up as Pitta also. The only thing that rings true for me is that I don’t drink a lot while eating.

  7. this is very interesting. I took the quiz and think that it’s right on. However giving up sugar would be a nightmare for me. I gave up Diet Coke and finally feel normal after 3 weeks..but it was hard. I love how you take ur needs spiritual and otherwise and turn them into a lifestle that is better for you. I’m envious of the ability to do that. xo

  8. Looks like many of us who follow your blog are Kaphas! Wonder what THAT means? LOL! I have thought of looking into this for so long & your posting may be just the jump start I needed!

    Thanks!

  9. I have Kapha!

    Exercise is one thing, but if you are going to be ingesting anything, I just want you to be careful about it. Ayurvedic formulations are less standardized than allopathic ones.

  10. Lori, this post is an Aha moment for me. I have been having so much trouble with heartburn and basically the six GI specialists I’ve seen have thrown up their hands. I’m a Vata too, according to this. I think I am going to seek out this kind of practice. I imagine I can find one in the Bay Area :) THANKS!!

  11. this is so fascinating to me.

    no doubt processed foods contain all the nasty, but until you start reading labels, you don’t realize how much refined sugar and white flour are in everything.

    kudos on your incredible discipline. I know it’s really hard.
    but you are amazing!

  12. I love this! And even though my “job” is to eat desserts, I am pretty conscious of what I put in my body aside from that (yes, I do have cravings from time to time, but not daily – I usually eat it and then am done for a month). People think I eat it all day, every day. I had a ob/gyn who was very into figuring out hormone imbalances and testing your body before prescribing anything – and typically what she prescribed was some form of vitamin or herb. I always think about her and how wonderful she was. She opened my eyes to modern medicine and how I think Dr’s jump on the bandwagon to fix the side effects – which in turn has many more side-effects. This stuff truly fascinates me!

What say you?