Ayurveda and the Ketogenic DietAug 18, 2020 01:09PM ● By Josh Whiteley
This fundamental tenant is referred to as the microcosm-macrocosm principle. Simply put, that which is outside of us is also contained within us. We use this mirror as a means to determine what will help us align more closely with nature and live a happier and more balanced life as we learn to flow with the natural cycles of life.
Through the years as we began to recognize the importance of what we are eating, many dietary systems have come and gone, some with better lasting results than others. The ketogenic diet is one that comes up in conversation fairly regularly with patients wondering about its benefits. The ever popular desire to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight level and some promising studies of its effectiveness has made this diet particularly popular.
In brief, the keto diet aims to put the body into a state of nutritional ketosis, causing it to burn stored fat as energy when glucose and carbohydrates are unavailable as a fuel source. This is accomplished by eating high-fat and low-carbohydrate foods and is said to help people lose weight and balance blood sugar, as well as a string of other health benefits. As a newer dietary practice, we do need to keep in mind that more time is needed to fully understand how eating a keto diet affects the body long-term.
Many of the diets that have come and gone over the years have their positive as well as negative aspects. Some of their principles are quite sound, while many are unsustainable or unhealthy in the long term. Many can relate to wanting to throw their hands up in frustration at one time or another asking, “If this is just another diet that will leave me feeling hungry, having increased cravings, or if its results aren’t lasting, what’s the point of even trying anymore?” Return to the principles of Ayurveda, which often already include the positive aspects of any findings on a specific dietary practice or “super food”—while also integrating it into a larger context of a well-balanced and sane approach to enjoying meals without having to carry around a box of supplements, count calories, starve or eat foods which bring no satisfaction.
Traditional diets such as ayurvedic cooking provide a rich and bountiful framework for us to create delicious and nutritious meals that meet both our physical and emotional needs, helping to maintain the body’s optimal state of health. By favoring fresh, unprocessed and seasonal foods tailored to each individual, Ayurveda teaches us the way to maintain our connection to the Earth and its cycles as a whole, rather than a seeing food or its nutritional contents in an isolated bubble. So while there do seem to be some real health benefits to the ketogenic diet in specific situations, we should ideally plan our diet in terms of a bigger context over the course of a year and through a lifetime. This is very important as we have the tendency to eat something or take a supplement that we have learned is beneficial and think this means we should be doing it all of the time for an even better effect.
This is where the yo-yo diet cycle comes into play for many. Our bodies are intelligent, and dietary practices that are lacking in one or more macronutrients leave us craving that which we aren’t getting over time. Falling off of a diet is not necessarily just from a lack of willpower. Our brains are wired to seek out the densest and most varied range of nutrient sources possible. This may have made more sense in a historical context when food was not as widely available as it is now and our lifestyles weren’t as sedentary. When we came across these foods in nature and before there was a grocery store on every corner, it was more natural to indulge in these foods that were found during nature’s seasonal cycle but then disappeared by the next season.
In the case of macronutrient restriction or overindulgence either in the wrong season or on a year-round basis, studies show that carbohydrate restriction has been linked to changes in mood and lower levels of overall happiness by way of limiting the creation of serotonin in the brain. There have also been studies on the long-term negative effects of a high protein meat-based diet to consider as well.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have come into favor as being healthy sources of nutrition for the body. Ghee in particular, long used in ayurvedic medicinal preparations and cooking, has become a popular source of “healthy fat” showing many benefits in supporting the gut-brain axis as well as its ability to affect the gut microbiome and produce butyric acid, which is important in the elimination of toxins and unneeded fats in the body. However, as has been mentioned, the overuse of fats or any food in the diet year-round may have unintended health consequences regardless of how healthy it is.
If a diet is not sustainable over the long term, we are bound to fall off the wagon at some point or our health may suffer from preventable consequences. This yo-yo effect also can further throw our body’s organ and hormonal systems out of balance in the process. Traditional diets like ayurvedic cooking have been created and tweaked over countless generations of experience to include most of the nutrients we need, taken in the necessary amounts and at the proper time of year to help us live a healthy life to the best extent we are able. Most of these traditional diets include times in which we may eat more of one macronutrient group over another.
This will be followed by a natural reset cycle in the next season where this ratio will change. In the case of Ayurveda, a generally higher fat and higher protein diet (similar to keto) is taken in the winter time in preparation for the low yield of available vegetation in late winter and early spring. Spring season provides a chance for the body to cleanse and burn off this excess with light, bitter and astringent foods including roots, greens and berries. Summer follows, with its abundance of sweet and cool fruits and vegetables to balance the heat created during this time and support healthy digestive microbes. As we adopt this cyclical way of eating, our immunity becomes stronger, we sleep better, have more natural energy, digest our food better and maintain a healthy weight set point.
Ayurveda, in all its wisdom, has so beautifully organized this into an easy to apply system called ritucharya (seasonal regime) that works with these natural seasonal cycles and can be validated both from a western nutritional perspective as well as through its original ayurvedic lens. One thing that a ketogenic diet does have in common with an ayurvedic diet is the cutting out or limiting of simple carbohydrates, refined sugar and processed foods—something most would agree is a great place to start regardless of dietary choices.
Josh Whiteley is a licensed acupuncturist, Chinese herbalist and practitioner of ayurvedic medicine. Having studied these ancient sciences for the last 15 years, he has found a synthesis to bring the best of these traditions together for his patients’ health at Rupa Ayurveda. Connect at 575-425-0283, [email protected] or RupaAyurveda.com.