Ayurveda and Keto: The Six Flavors

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The first post in our Ayurveda and Keto series talked about the basics of Ayurvedic elements and the doshas (constitutions) which make up all things. Today, we’re going to explore the flavors of Ayurveda, and see how they interact with each of the doshas.

Ayurvedic Flavors and Keto

We’ve talked about the importance of adding flavor to your food on a low carb diet. So much of the food we’re used to is simply enhanced by sugar, and so when transitioning to sugar free and low carbohydrate foods, adding other flavors is so important.

Ayurvedic thought posits that there are six “tastes” found in nature that each help to pacify, and enhance, different actions within the body, in relation to your dosha. The six flavors are as follows:

  • sweet: sugar & starches, protein & fat
  • salty: salty foods & seaweed
  • sour: fermented foods
  • pungent: intense spices like hot peppers, ginger,
  • bitter: bitter herbs
  • astringent: herbs containing tannin (typically not found in foods)
ground and whole spices
By: Clyde Robinson

Depending on your dosha, eating more or less of each of these flavors for optimum health. When you start a low carbohydrate diet, often you become more aware of how different foods make you feel, and you may have intuitively started gravitating towards different foods or flavors.

An ideal meal is said to contain all six flavors, though the ratios in which they are present will vary from person to person, based on their dosha. This is to ensure that you are eating all of the necessary nutrients, and so that you feel satisfied.

Building vs. Reducing Flavors

These six tastes are broken down into two subgroups, depending on the digestive action the flavor is said to take. Sweet, salty and sour foods are said to be building, while pungent, bitter and astringent foods are considered to be reducing. This can also be considered heating (building) and cooling (reducing).

Building essentially means that the food promotes growth, and reducing indicates that the food is detoxifying and promotes weight loss. As you might imagine, someone who is predominantly Vata (find your dosha here!), might want to focus on eating more building flavors, while those that are mostly Kapha would want to add more reducing flavors to their plate. Of course, every meal should still have a combination of building and reducing flavors, to achieve balance.

“Sweet” Foods and Keto

You probably noticed right off the bat that the first flavor mentioned was “sweet.” Traditional conceptions of sweetness (lots of sugar!) are clearly not compatible with a ketogenic or low carbohydrate diet. However, sugar is actually not the basis of “sweet” foods in Ayurveda. Sweetness is said to be a combination of earth and water energies – it is heavy, and flowing (think “unctuous”), and includes all macronutrient groups: carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Ayurveda posits that sweet flavors should be the majority of your plate, which is also true of a ketogenic or low carb diet (with fats, and protein). Examples of sweet foods that are keto-friendly are:

  • vegetables
  • dairy
  • meat
  • fish
  • poultry
  • fats (from all natural sources)

Sweet foods are said to balance Vata and Pitta doshas, but may exacerbate Kapha.

Salty Foods and Keto

Salty is probably the simplest of the flavors to understand. Salty foods are…well, literally salt. Thought to be a combination of water and fire, salty flavored foods work well on a ketogenic diet, as the body holds on to less water. Keto friendly salty foods are:

  • Himalayan salt, Celtic salt or other mineral salts
  • soy sauce/tamari
  • brined and salted foods like olives or salted meats/fish
  • mustard and ketchup
  • chips, salted nuts and other super salty foods

Salty foods are said to decrease Vata and increase Kapha and Pitta doshas.

Sour Foods and Keto

The sour flavor is a combination of earth and fire, and can be found in fermented or vinegar-based foods, as well as sour fruits. This type of food is said to increase digestive fire and aid in liver function. Keto-friendly sour foods include:

  • berries (in moderation)
  • citrus fruits
  • tomatoes, and tomato products
  • pickled and fermented foods
  • wine, beer and other alcohols
  • vinegar, and vinegary foods

Predominantly Vata individuals are said to need to eat more sour foods, though these foods will overstimulate Pitta and Kapha doshas.

Pungent Foods and Keto

Pungent foods, which are a combination of air and fire, are another idea that is difficult to grasp from a Western perspective. The easiest way to conceptual pungent foods is that they create heat. These are foods that we typically consider spicy. These foods are great for stimulating metabolism, a key factor in a ketogenic diet. Keto-friendly pungent foods are:

  • peppers and chiles
  • garlic and onions (alliums in general)
  • black pepper
  • cloves
  • ginger
  • mustard seed
  • salsa, and spicy condiments

In small amounts, these flavors will pacify Vata, though they will exacerbate this dosha in larger quantities. Pitta individuals should consume fewer pungent foods, though this does not mean that they should avoid them entirely. Pungent foods are quite beneficial for those that are predominantly Kapha.

Spicy peppers
By: Alexander Mueller

Bitter Foods and Keto

Bitter flavors may not the most craving-worthy, but do play an important role in diet and wellness. Bitterness is said to be a combination of air and ether, and helps to detoxify the system, stimulate liver function, and help to clear out stagnant energy. In too large of quantities, bitter foods may increase air in the digestive system, causing gas, but these foods are generally health promoting. Keto friendly bitter foods include:

  • leafy greens (lettuce, kale, arugula, etc.)
  • green and yellow vegetables
  • celery
  • broccoli
  • sprouts
  • beets

Too many bitter foods will increase Vata, though can be quite balancing for Pitta and Kapha.

Astringent Foods and Keto

Astringent foods, which are a combination of earth and air, dry out the mouth and organs and act in a diuretic capacity. Many herbs are considered astringent, as are foods containing tannins. Keto friendly astringent foods are:

  • cauliflower
  • pomegranate (in moderation)
  • lentils & beans
  • green & black tea
  • grape skins
  • green apples
  • basil, rosemary, astragalus, bay leaf, nutmeg

Astringent foods may exacerbate Vata, but can be balancing to Kapha and Pitta doshas.

Achieving Balance With Varied Diets

An important aspect of Ayurveda is listening to what your body wants to eat. You may be feeling more Vata at some times, and Pitta at others. So, if you are a predominantly Vata person, there may be times when eating to pacify Pitta is right for you. For instance, menstruation is a very Pitta time for women, so even Kapha and Vata women may want to focus on pacifying Pitta and eating light or grounding foods during this time. It’s all about listening to your body!

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