Eat According to Your Individual Nature
Robert Keith Wallace, PhD
This article is adapted from 16 Super Biohacks for Longevity: Shortcuts to a Healthier, Happier, Longer Life.
How important is diet for longevity? In traditional medicine it is everything. In modern medicine it has only recently become important. From the point of view of western medicine, one of the biggest concern with diet is obesity since it is a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. With the discovery of the microbiome, however, diet has gained more significance because our diet alters our gut microbiome, and the gut microbiome have been implicated in numerous disorders.
Should we follow a Mediterranean, Paleo, Vegan, or a Ketogenic diet? The US News and World Report consider the DASH and Mediterranean diets as the healthiest. DASH stands for Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension, and includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy. It also recommends reducing salt, saturated fats, and high-sugar or artificially sweetened drinks. The Mediterranean diet is similar, with a few variations. The main feature of the Mediterranean diet is that it consists of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, and vegetables, with a moderate consumption of fish, dairy products (mostly as cheese and yogurt), wine, and fewer meat products.
The most common and consistent recommendation among alternative health experts is to eat locally grown organic and non-GMO foods. But they also warn against the perils of gluten, dairy, and sugar, and often recommend a diet like the Keto Diet. The ketogenic diet is a very low carb, high fat diet that generally eliminates gluten, dairy, and sugar, although there are variations and exceptions. The idea is to put the body into a state of ketosis in which you burn fat for energy for most of the body, and turn fats into ketones in the liver for the brain. While not everyone is up to the Keto or other more radical diets, there are many people trying gluten-free, sugar-free, and dairy-free diets.
The Gallup Poll estimates that one in five Americans is experimenting with gluten-free products while the number of people who avoid wheat and other grains containing gluten continually rises. One of the big problems with dairy is lactose intolerance. Lactose is composed of two simple sugars, glucose and galactose. When you were a baby, you produced an enzyme called lactase, which breaks the lactose into glucose and galactose—a necessary step to allow these sugars to be absorbed into the cells of your small intestine. Over time, however, and depending on your genetic make up, many people stop making the enzyme lactase. Approximately 75% of all African Americans, Native Americans, and Jewish Americans are lactose intolerant, along with 50% of Mexican Americans and 90% of Asian Americans. About 90% of Americans of Northern European descent are able to produce the enzyme lactase even as adults, and are, therefore, able to absorb the milk sugar into their bloodstream. If lactose isn’t digested in the small intestine, it goes to the large intestine, where it is fermented by the gut bacteria. The result is excess gas, causing abdominal pain, bloating, and other intestinal problems. Each individual is different and there may be periods in your life during which you may be more or less sensitive to dairy. Medical tests and experts can help to evaluate whether you are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk proteins.
Sugar is a highly controversial topic among alternative health experts, some recommending that you eliminate it completely from the diet. The American Heart Association conducted a highly comprehensive study on sugar, which led to the conclusion that excess sugar increases the risk of developing obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and obesity–related cancers. They now recommend that children consume less sugar as part of a healthier diet. Shamefully, the food industry still helps fund many important health associations, such as the American Heart Association and the American Diabetic Association. An article in The New York Times revealed that Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, has provided millions of dollars in funding for researchers to play down the link between sugary drinks and obesity.
Fructose is a simple sugar present in fruits, but it has been commercial produced as high-fructose corn syrup and added to drinks and kinds of food. It turns out that about 40% of the population has trouble digesting and absorbing fructose, a condition called fructose malabsorption. (This is not to be confused with hereditary fructose intolerance, which is a far more serious condition caused by a deficiency of certain enzymes in the liver.) A piece of cherry pie might not bother us, but when we have it with a soda containing high-fructose corn syrup, it is too much for the small intestine to absorb. Instead, it goes down into the colon where it is fermented by the gut bacteria that produce excess gas. Excess gas often results in abdominal pain and bloating, along with either diarrhea or constipation.
Modern Digestive Disorders
One of the clearest signs that diet and digestion is affecting health and longevity is the rise of Intestinal Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is the number one digestive disorder in the US, affecting between 25 and 45 million people of all ages, 2 out of 3 of which are women. If you don’t have IBS, you probably know someone who does. This disorder can have multiple and sometimes conflicting symptoms, such as an alternation between diarrhea and constipation. You may also have indigestion, excess gas and bloating, or nausea. IBS can be both uncomfortable and debilitating. It is often accompanied by unpredictable abdominal pain, which can be problematic for your professional and social life. The exact cause of this disorder is unknown, but a number of factors contribute to it, including diet, stress, and gut bacteria. IBS has been treated by probiotics with some success.
Another major digestive disorder is Leaky Gut Syndrome, which, for a long time was only recognized and treated by alternative health experts. This condition covers a range of digestive symptoms that include gas, bloating, cramps, nausea, indigestion, heartburn, and food sensitivity. Much of what is now understood about a leaky gut comes from the work of Dr. Alessio Fasano, one of the world’s leading experts on celiac disease. Dr. Fasano has shown that gluten in wheat contains a short protein called gliadin, which triggers a series of biochemical events that cause a leaky gut. The cells that line the walls of our small intestine are normally held together by tight junctions (which consist of specialized proteins that bind the cells as a rope might bind two pieces of wood). In a healthy state, a tight junction allows only water and very small particles to go from the gut into your bloodstream and throughout your body. But if you are a celiac patient and you eat wheat, the gliadin causes these junctions to momentarily come apart.
In these patients, even a tiny amount of gliadin can trigger a long-term opening in the tight junctions, which creates a “leaky gut.” When the gut lining is breached, larger molecules and even bacteria can enter your bloodstream and cause an inflammatory response. If a celiac patient continues to consume foods that contain gluten, the result is chronic inflammation and even a full-blown autoimmune response, during which the immune system becomes so agitated that it begins to attack normal, healthy body tissues. The only real solution for a celiac patient is to stop eating anything containing gluten—wheat, barley, rye, etc.
In traditional systems of medicine such as Ayurveda, diet and digestion are the most important factors for health and longevity. Food is regarded as medicine. There are three fundamental concepts which are critical to understanding diet and digestion in Ayurveda: agni, ama, and dosha. Each of these plays a huge role in health and longevity.
Agni refers to the fire of digestion. In modern medicine, we might equate agni with the digestive enzymes that break down various types of foods, as well as enzymes controlling metabolism in different cells. The agni in your lower gut correlates with the gut bacteria present in the large intestine.
Ama is food that has not been properly broken down and digested. If your agni is weak, ama accumulates and clogs your system, causing health problems. It is particularly harmful when it leaves the digestive system and enters other parts of the body, accumulating in the tissues. Symptoms of excess ama include fatigue and a feeling of heaviness, congestion, constipation, and mental confusion or “brain fog.” Ayurveda considers excess ama to be the root cause of all disease. This is a concept similar to leaky gut, where food, which has not been digested properly, leaks into the blood stream and aggravates the immune system, creating health problems.
Dosha Specific Diet
The meaning of dosha is not easily translated into modern science. In Sanskrit the word literally translates as “fault” or “defect.” In Ayurveda the three doshas are referred as three basic energies which maintain the body. How can it be a fault and a basic energy? The idea is that when the doshas accumulate abnormally then they cause disease. When they are in balance they act as forces or energies which underly all functions of the body. The three doshas are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
Vata refers to all the functions and systems of the body that control movement, including the nervous system. Pitta refers to the bodily functions concerned with metabolism, such as the digestive system. Kapha refers to those functions involved with structure and lubrication, such as the bones and joints. In the quiz in our ToolKit Chapter 15 we referred to the unique combination of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha each person has as their Energy State.
At birth we each of us have our own individual nature or Prakriti, which is a combination of the three doshas. This is similar to the genes we are born with. At any given time after birth an Ayurvedic physician or Vaidya, will assess your Vikriti, which refers to the current state of balance of all three doshas. In terms of modern science, we can think of this as the immediate state of gene expression during which certain genes are turned on and off. We know from the science of epigenetics that everything in our environment including diet can turn genes on and off. By knowing our Prakriti and Vikriti, an Ayurvedic Vaidya can personalize our diet, lifestyle, and herbs, to prevent disease, maintain our health, and extend life.
People with a primarily Vata constitution or nature, have a variable digestion. When the Vata digestion is out of balance, they often become constipated, and may produce gas. Vata individuals tend to have a sensitive gut and are more susceptible to minor disruptions. Stress easily affects their mental state, causing worry, anxiety, and even fear.
Pittas have a strong digestion. If they are imbalanced or stressed, however, they can have a hyper-acidic stomach. In terms of emotional balance, the seemingly simple act of not eating on time can make them irritable, resulting inthea condition that has come be known as “hangry.”
Kaphas are described in Ayurveda as having a slower digestion and metabolism. When imbalanced, they can overeat and easily gain weight. An imbalance in Kapha can also lead to a lethargic and depressed state of mind.
We will consider many different aspects of each of the main dosha mind/body natures throughout this book. Here our focus is on the best diet for health and longevity. The following are some general principles of digestion for all dosha combinations on how to eat. Ayurveda recommends:
- Eat your main meal at noon when the digestive power is strongest.
- Always sit when you eat.
- Eat in a settle environment and avoid stimulation, such as the TV or telephone, or heated emotional conversations at the table.
- Eat when you are hungry.
- Don’t overeat, fill up to approximately ¾ capacity.
- Before, during, and after a meal, avoid cold water and especially ice because cold liquids reduce the fire of digestion.
- Sip small amounts of room temperature or warm water with your meal instead.
- Remaining seated for about five minutes after you have finished eating will help your digestion.
- Take enough time to digest one meal before starting the next and avoid snacking between meals.
- Discover your own Energy State and learn which foods and spices are best for you (see below).
- Different foods and spices are prescribed to balance each Energy State.
- It’s ideal to eat organic food rather than taking in more toxins in the form of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
- Also, it is good to avoid GMO or genetically modified foods but don’t strain, but do the best you can to eat pure, delicious food.
- The freshness of food is of great importance in Ayurveda.
- Since Ayurveda is about detoxing and improving digestion it is good to periodically go on a cleansing diet.
- Probiotics can be helpful and have been shown to reduce symptoms of IBS.
We have created The Rest and Repair Diet which combines principles from Ayurveda with modern ideas about health. The Rest and Repair diet is designed to detox your gut, allow it to repair itself, and improve digestion and health.
Dosha Specific Diet Recommendations
- Favor foods that have a sweet, sour, or salty taste.
- Avoid foods that have a pungent, bitter, or astringent taste.
- Eat on a regular schedule.
- Favor warm, heavy foods because they’re easier to digest and assimilate.
- Avoid light, dry, and cold foods.
- Use oils frequently and generously. Butter, especially clarified butter or ghee, and olive oil, are very good.
- Sip hot water throughout the day to promote natural detoxing and improve digestion.
- An ideal breakfast for a Vata is cooked cereal with roasted nuts and a little fruit. If you’re gluten intolerant, pick appropriate non-gluten grains.
- Roasted nuts and seeds are good, especially almonds. It’s best not to eat raw nuts, but we can only do what we can do. Roasting nuts helps their digestion and assimilation. Ayurveda recommends first soaking them overnight and then roasting.
- All organic dairy products are highly recommended.
- A modest amount of any natural sweetener helps to calm Vata.
- Hot cooked food is better for a Vata than cold or uncooked food. Small leafy salads, however, are OK.
- Favor rice, and if you can, wheat, and oats (cooked, not dry).
- Eating fresh corn in season is fine! Otherwise, not so much.
- Reduce your intake of millet, barley, buckwheat, and rye.
- A Vata is vulnerable to excess gas, so reduce the intake of all bean products accordingly. (Tofu is hard to digest. But if you love it, then take small amounts, and only if it’s very fresh.)
- Fruits should be very ripe, sweet, and juicy!
- For non-vegetarians, favor fresh organic chicken, turkey, fish, and eggs.
- Avoid stimulants like coffee, tea, and other caffeine-laden beverages. Try to cool it on the alcohol.
- If you’ve been using skim milk to reduce your fat intake, Ayurvedic doctors recommend that you buy whole organic milk and dilute it with purified water. This will reduce your fat intake, but will also ensure that you benefit from the important synergistic value of all the nutrients in the milk.
- If you’re not sleeping well, cook a cup of whole milk for about several minutes (ideally, bring it to a boil four times). While the milk is cooking, add cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and coconut sugar, to taste. Drink while it’s still nicely warm, but not too hot. If you find that the milk clogs you up overnight, then add a little powdered ginger to the mix. (Too much ginger can be over stimulating and keep you up, or give you a stomach ache.).
Favor: asparagus, artichokes, beets, carrots, green beans, okra, sweet potatoes, turnips
Acceptable when cooked with oil: broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, celery, leafy green vegetables, mushrooms, peppers (not green), peas, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini
Reduce/Avoid: cabbage, sprouts, raw vegetables.
Favor: apricots, avocado, bananas, berries, cherries, dates, figs, mangoes, melons, nectarines, papaya, peaches, pineapple, plums
Reduce/Avoid: apples, cranberries, pears, pomegranates, uncooked dried fruits.
Most spices are good in moderation, with a strong emphasis on sweet and/or heating herbs and spices such as: anise, basil, cardamom, cilantro, cinnamon, clove, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, ginger, licorice root, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, sage, tarragon, thyme. Allspice, anise, asafetida, bay leaf, caraway, juniper berries, mace, and mustard can be used with discretion. Use black pepper sparingly. And minimize or eliminate all bitter and astringent spices.
- Sweet, bitter, astringent, cold, heavy, and dry foods are best for a Pitta.
- Avoid pungent, sour, salty, hot, oily, and light foods, which will imbalance and inflame Pitta.
- All natural sweeteners may be taken in moderation, except for molasses and honey, which are both heating to the physiology.
- Prefer foods that are cooling in nature, avoiding excessive stimulants like caffeine and very spicy foods.
- Favor ghee (clarified butter), butter (non salted), milk, and ice cream.
- Since sour tastes irritate a Pitta sour or fermented products like yogurt, sour cream, and cheese should be taken sparingly, if at all.
- Organic grains like wheat, rice, barley, and oats are good. Reduce your consumption of corn, rye, millet, and brown rice.
- Most nuts are not good for a Pitta. Pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are okay.
- Favor organic coconut, olive, and sunflower oils.
- Avoid almond, corn, safflower, and sesame oils.
- Favor mung beans and chickpeas.
- Tofu and other soy products should be absolutely fresh. (In Japan, it’s not uncommon for people to refuse tofu products that are more than a day old.)
- For non-vegetarians, organic free-range chicken and turkey are preferable to meat and seafood.
Most vegetables are good, including: asparagus, potatoes, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, okra, lettuce, green beans, peas, and zucchini, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cucumber, mushrooms, sprouts, sweet peppers
Cook in ghee or extra virgin olive oil
Reduce/Avoid: tomatoes, hot peppers, onions, garlic, hot radishes
Favor: apples, grapes, melons, cherries, coconuts, avocados, mangoes, pineapples, figs, oranges, and plums are specially recommended
Prunes, raisins, and figs are okay
Reduce/Avoid: sour fruits such as grapefruit, cranberries, lemons, persimmons
The best for a Pitta are balancing spices for both cooking and teas, include: coriander, cilantro, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, and fennel. Mint, dill, and turmeric are also useful. Use only very sparing amounts of ginger, black pepper, fenugreek, clove, salt, and mustard seed. The main thing is to reduce, or better yet, Avoid hot spices, like chili peppers and cayenne, including salt and vinegar.
- Pungent, bitter, and astringent, as well as light, hot, and dry foods, are best.
- Sweet, sour, salty, heavy, oily, and cold foods, have the opposite, unbalancing effect.
- Enjoy smaller meals that are well-spiced and focus on light foods like quinoa, vegetables, and fruit.
- Favor milk with reduced fat and again note: For you to benefit from the synergistic value of everything in the milk, is far better to water down whole milk than to use skim milk.
- In general, it’s good to reduce dairy intake. You can, however, add small amounts of ghee, whole milk, and eggs to your menu.
- Honey is the only sweetener that helps a Kapha. Avoid all others.
- According to Ayurveda, honey should always be unheated.
- Favor barley, corn, millet, buckwheat, and rye.
- Reduce intake of oats, rice, and wheat.
- Beans of all kinds are good for a Kapha, except kidney beans and soybeans. Soy is quite difficult to digest, and the older it is, the harder it is to digest.
- Except for pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, reduce or eliminate the intake of nuts and seeds.
- Use small amounts of extra virgin olive oil, ghee, almond oil, sunflower oil, or safflower oil. Steam or roast, if possible.
- Non-vegetarians should favor fresh organic free-range chicken and turkey.
Most vegetables are good, including: asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, eggplant, leafy greens, lettuce, mushrooms, okra, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, spinach, sprouts
Roast, or use small amounts of ghee or extra virgin olive oil
Reduce/Avoid: sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini
Favor: pomegranates, apples, apricots, cranberries, pears
Reduce/Avoid: avocados, bananas, oranges, peaches, coconuts, melons, dates, figs, grapefruits, grapes, mangoes, papayas, plums, pineapples
The best Kapha balancing spices for cooking and teas are the pungent spices like ginger, horseradish, mustard, cardamom, garlic, cloves, and turmeric, cayenne and peppers of all kinds. Ginger is great for improving digestion! Reduce or avoid salt.
The Rest And Repair Diet: Heal Your Gut, Improve Your Physical and Mental Health, and Lose Weight by Robert Keith Wallace, PhD, Samantha Wallace, Andrew Stenberg, MA, Jim Davis, DO, and Alexis Farley, Dharma Publications, 2019
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