How to Train Your Gremlins: A Primer on the Ayurvedic Diet

Article and graphics by Brandi Lyons

I've come to think of my Ayurveda “doshas” as gremlins.

The doshas are the three energies present in all things that work together to fuel your body and maintain your health as long as you “feed” them correctly, with the right lifestyle activities and foods. If you don't feed them right, they get “aggravated” and turn into health-sabotaging gremlins. So, here are the “CliffsNotes” on how to feed these little buggers so they stay balanced, without swinging wildly into dominating each other or becoming deficient, and how to tell if “you're doin' it wrong.”

There are three doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.

1. The Vata “Air and Space Energy”:

 Vata wants to mummify you! Don't help it! 

Vata wants to mummify you! Don't help it! 

Vata means “life-wind” and includes pretty much everything you'd expect it to when you think of wind. It's great in the form of “dried out” crispy snacks. But you don't want any Vata aggravating beans increasing your “life wind” at a party, because it will do that too.  Digestive difficulties that produce gas are always Vata related.

Feeding instructions: Vata is hyper and antsy, so feed your Vata the same thing you'd feed your kids if you wanted them to sit still and be quiet for a nice dinner: vegetables, all kinds, with some nice berries and nutritious salads full of dark leafy greens. Also, fermented veggies like kimchi or sauerkraut will have it purring like a kitten.

Do not feed it: Dry stuff that lasts forever. Vata wants to mummify you! Don't help it! If you could stock your pantry, cellar, or bomb shelter with it, you can expect it to dry your Vata energy into its gremlin form, which in Vata's case is stiff and desiccated. Vata also takes issue with beans, including soy, peanuts, and yes, even flax seeds, because they have too much harsh, brittle, wind-producing fiber in them.

How do you know if your Vata energy is happy: You feel cool, dry, mobile, changeable, light, and active. If you can move without creaking, groaning, or crackling, you're good.

How to tell if it's become the Vata gremlin: Vata dries things out like a creaky door in need of WD-40. Anything that is dry, stiff, or deficient somehow has aggravated Vata. If something is flaking off, drying out, wasting away, or freezing up, you have a Vata problem. Also, Vata is the absence of stuff like hormones, nutrients, oils, and other important juices like the fluid in joints, so it gets more aggravated with age as our bodies stop making all the stuff kids' bodies make (those little super secreters.)

2. The Pitta “Fire Energy”:

 Pitta makes heat, pain, and stink when it's angry. 

Pitta makes heat, pain, and stink when it's angry. 

Pitta means “that which cooks things,” which is wonderful if it's digesting that half gallon of ice cream you really should not have eaten, but it's bad if it's eating a hole in your stomach. It's overzealous enough to do that.

Feeding instructions: Foods that keep the pilot light going without torching it are best, like mild peppers and black pepper, naturally sour foods like fresh citrus fruits, moderate amounts of clean meats (that aren't fried), eggs, natural salts, and aromatic foods like garlic and spices.

Do not feed it: Table salt, processed meats, fried stuff, fiery spicy foods that you might anticipate burning the same on the way out that it did on the way in. (Turns your Pitta grease fire into a mushroom cloud.) Also, extremely sour things are bad because apparently they cause “flabbiness.” Pitta gremlins can perform the “skinny fat” trick where people look thin but what little meat they do have on their bones is not muscle but flab.

How do you know if your Pitta Energy is happy: You feel hot, bright, penetrating, burning, luminous, spreading…I know that sounds weird, but stick with me. Imagine it as a personality trait, not just as a description of your body. So, think of penetrating as mentally sharp and ambitious, and spreading as super active and influential. Got it?

How to tell if it's become the Pitta gremlin: Pitta makes heat, pain, and stink when it's angry. If heat, pain, or a foul odor are on the list of symptoms, there is Pitta involved. It can also make you have insatiable thirst and that ravenous hunger (that makes you really cranky) that Snickers advertises. It can get rather snippy and anti-social on an empty stomach.

3. The Kapha “Earth and Water Energy”:

 The Kapha gremlin looks like Jabba the Hutt and it's trying to recruit you by telling you that pasta is on your diet. 

The Kapha gremlin looks like Jabba the Hutt and it's trying to recruit you by telling you that pasta is on your diet. 

Kapha means “that which holds things together,” like Jell-O holding fruit cocktail in suspended animation. It's great for things like holding your organs in place and keeping things perky looking, but it can get out of control. Muffin tops and spare tires are side effects of aggravating this guy.

Feeding instructions: Good healthy Kapha foods include cultured dairy like yogurt and kefir, grass-fed butter, coconut oil, and good quality cheeses. Natural sweeteners like raw honey and unfiltered maple syrup are included along with nutrient dense starches like sweet potatoes and buckwheat.

Do not feed it: Large amounts of frozen or gelatinous stuff. Big piles of starch, especially processed grains and flours. Also, things that are excessively sweet, including no-calorie artificial sweeteners. A Kapha gremlin doesn't care if its sugar rush is “real” or not. This is why you see all those studies recently about how artificial sweeteners cause all the same diseases that processed sugars do. In Ayurveda, the body's reaction to something trumps the actual effect of the thing itself. So, too bad about all that fake sugar and fake fat. Never going to work…ever.

How do you know if your Kapha Energy is happy: You feel cold, damp, heavy, opaque, and still. That sounds gross, but you know you need a little of that mixed in to have any substance. Think of damp as “hydrated,” and heavy or cold as “solid,” like a brick house. Yeah! Just think of Kapha as the quality of not falling apart, ok?

How to tell if it's become the Kapha gremlin: The Kapha gremlin looks like Jabba the Hutt and it's trying to recruit you by telling you that pasta is on your diet. It insists pancakes are a complete breakfast and offers you half off your next grande syrup-drizzled extra whip frozen frappé concoction. Don't listen!

If any of these gremlins are aggravated don't feed them at all! They're going to bed without dinner. For example, if your Kapha is a gremlin, only eat Vata and Pitta foods. No Kapha until it goes back into it's natural balanced mode, playing nicely with the other two energies!

Sometimes two or three doshas go gremlin at once, and in that case, take Triphala, an herb mixture for drawing all three energies down from their gremlin states into cooperation with each other (like garlic to repel vampires), and see an Ayurveda health practitioner.

Left untreated, dosha gremlins will make you crave foods to increase them to super gremlins. That's why you see waifish extreme Vatas skipping meals to train for their ultra-marathons. Your extreme Pitta friends sucking down three different flavors of margarita at once, with salt on the rim, and a steak for garnish. And extreme Kapha people who already have weight problems developing a mighty need for wheat products and ice cream.

Now that we know about dosha gremlins, let's try out some balancing dietary choices. We're going to Casey's Tavern to do that, because that's my happy place, and I'm writing this article, so that's where we're going.

We're looking for things that won't make our drinking buddies think we're nuts. So, we'll skip piles of dry lettuce, naked burger patties, or whipped cream à la carte. (They will actually give you a plate of whipped cream à la carte here; God bless these people. But, that's not sustainable.) We want balance, but we are eating out, so let's not rule out comfort food. We'll be stricter at home.

For a Vata gremlin, you'll need to get some good comforting food in your poor atrophied little belly. You might not tolerate allergens like bread, but try to pick sweet and cooling things like an Asian Chicken Salad with toasted coconut and little rice sticks to balance. If wheat is still your friend, go for a Clubhouse Sandwich on sourdough bread. Soured bread is easier to digest than regular breads, and the turkey with lettuce, tomato, and mayo come together to make a nice balance of energies. Probably have a hard cider to drink because it's sweet and simple.

For Pitta gremlins, lay off the meat and grease. Maybe try a Meatless Joe. With it you'll get some good flavors that feel satisfying, like corn bread and lentils with rice, along with just a touch of those sour notes you like from tomato sauce, without loading up with fried foods and vinegary condiments that will rev up your digestive “fires” too much. If you have no problems with wheat, try a Mac-N-Cheese or some Bangkok Noodles so that the rest of us can live vicariously through your burning need for extra calories and your ability to digest nails. Oh yeah, and have a nice cooling beer to rub it in.

For Kapha gremlins, we'll want to mix Vata and Pitta foods and avoid starch. A Southwestern Steak Caesar Salad, or actually any of the salads, would be good and surprisingly satisfying. Chew your food and savor each bite and you won’t miss your starches. You could opt for “some kind of steak” with broccoli or asparagus on the side and sub out salad for fries. Hold off on the beer…maybe sip a nice bourbon?

Any one of these options tastes delicious and is satisfying enough that no one would label it “diet food.” Only we know that we're promoting a healthy energy balance by mindfully selecting a meal that will have a harmonious effect on our bodies instead of throwing them completely out of whack (like we might have done last Friday night.)

To find a more complete run down of what energies are in individual food ingredients, reference Ayurveda: A Life of Balance (Healing Arts Press, 1994) by Maya Tiwari. Or, if you want to really become an expert on the full complement of lifestyle choices that accompany Ayurveda as a diet, you can start at the “beginning,” where most practitioners begin learning Ayurveda, which is the book Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution (Lotus Press, 1998) by Dr. Robert E. Svoboda.

These books don't mention anything about gremlins. But if you’re like me, typecasting the Ayurvedic doshas as character archetypes is a much more helpful mnemonic device than memorizing lists of characteristics.


Brandi Lyons has been a student of Ayurveda for seven years and is an author and graphic artist living in Ann Arbor.


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Posted on December 31, 2014 and filed under Food Section.