Do you have to be Vegetarian to have an Ayurvedic Diet?

As an Ayurvedic practitioner, I have been asked many of times about Ayurveda’s theory on eating meat.  Overall it seems commonly believed that by eating an Ayurvedic diet, one should avoid eating meat.  Although it is ultimately a personal decision, whether based on morals, personal preferences, religious ideals, or individual healthcare needs, what exactly does Ayurveda say about eating meat?

Like many other areas in Ayurveda, eating meat is not a black and white issue, but rather a choice that should be based on one’s body type (aka dosha type), as well as the individual’s personal healthcare needs.  Although one person may feel amazing living a meat-free life, another individual may become severely depleted and malnourished, especially over time. 

This means one should listen to their body.  If you become vegetarian (or vegan) and after a while notice new health issues such as hair loss, loss of menstruation, anemia, recurring colds and flu, or chronic exhaustion, these are all indicators you may need to introduce meat (at least medicinally) back into your life.  Alternatively, if one eats meat fairly often and is suffering from sluggish digestion, slow metabolism and consistent weight gain, this may be an indicator that meat is not the best food choice for you, at least on a daily basis.

Why is it such a common belief that an Ayurvedic diet must be vegetarian?

My personal theory around this confusion is that is may be getting mixed-up with the traditional Yogic view that in order to live a Yogic lifestyle one must ultimately become vegetarian.  Although I do not necessarily agree with this, it is true, as it is clearly stated in multiple classical texts on Hatha Yoga (i.e. Yoga Hatha Pradipika).  In fact, it is thought to be part of Ahimsa, the Yama (ethical rule of Yoga) that states non-violence or avoiding harm to all beings. 

However, just as you will find this “rule” in the classical Yogic texts, you will also find the opposite point of view in the ancient Ayurvedic texts.  Treatises such as the Charak Samhita clearly mention the use of meat and meat broth multiple times when describing various treatments (typically with Vata disorders).  Therefore, this is not my opinion on the matter, but an ultimate fact that Ayurveda does, at times, condone the use of meat for medicinal purposes. 

What does Ayurveda state about Vata, Pitta and Kapha body types in relation to eating meat?

On a general scale, it seems that Vata types tend to possess the highest need to include meat in their diet.  This is because Vata types tend to be underweight by nature.  They also tend toward restlessness.  Eating meat routinely in the diet can be a beneficial way to ground the energy, strengthen the body and keep an adequate weight level. 

Pitta types also tend to do well with at least a small amount of meat in their diet, although it is not as vital as it is for Vata types.  A typical Pitta individual often possesses a hyper-metabolism and can suffer from low blood sugar between meals.   In these cases, eating meat occasionally can allow Pitta types to feel satiated longer and avoid hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).  But for those Pitta types desiring to become vegetarian, as long as adequate complete protein sources are taken in with each meal, one may be able to practice a meat-free diet without depletion.  

Kapha types, more often than not, seem to do well on a vegetarian based diet.  This is due to their tendency toward a sluggish digestion, slower metabolism and unintentional weight gain.  Meat tends to be very dense and harder to digest.  Certain types of meat can be high in saturated fat and calories.  Therefore, Kapha types may feel best, generally speaking, by reducing, limiting or eliminating the consumption of meat in their diet.  In fact, Kapha types can further benefit going completely vegan, as dairy is recommended to be avoided for Kapha types as well.  If a Kapha type is looking to eat meat, they tend to do best with small amounts of non-oily fish and white chicken meat on occasion.  

Of course this is just a general aspect when it comes to the three dosha types and eating meat.  Ultimately, as with all things Ayurveda, one must look at the big picture and discover what is best for their body and current individual needs.

What if I want to be vegetarian, but I find myself depleted?

This unfortunately is a common issue, and one I can relate to on a personal level.  I was vegan for four consecutive years and vegetarian for four years after that.  I was a young, hard-headed animal rights activist and was determined to be meat-free for life.  During the four years of my veganism however, I had completely lost my menstrual cycle and was undoubtably fighting anemia.  I bruised at the drop of a hat, my weight was reducing (not by choice), and my energy levels were diminishing. 

In the name of animal rights and my strict moral values, I continued my path of veganism, even though my teacher and many others were telling me to eat meat (or any type of animal product) again.  I ended up developing pneumonia during my first wet winter living in Portland, OR.  I was so sick, I couldn’t leave my bed for practically 30 days.  After this torturous time in bed, I was left emaciated and weaker than I had ever been in my adult life.  I just couldn’t understand, as my whole life revolved around eating healthy, exercising and practicing Yoga.  Although this was a major wake up call, it still took another year of weakness and amenorrhea in order for me to finally realize something needed to change.

I started by introducing some raw, locally sourced goat milk into my diet.  I felt better almost instantly and my menstrual cycle came back within a few months.  I was able to keep up with being meat-free, but including some homemade kefir and raw, local goat milk in my diet for about four more years.  I had been feeling much better overall, however, I still felt like there was something missing. 

I eventually went on to study Ayurveda, and was amazed on this newfound idea that “what is right for one, may not work for another”.  It seemed so obvious after learning this.  Suddenly my years of being obsessed with heathy living, yet feeling run-down and weak, all began to make sense.  I learned that my active Vata-Pitta body type needed certain foods and eating solely plant nutrients was just not quite enough for my physical needs.  So I decided to soften my hard-headed (aka Pitta) nature, and introduced meat as medicine back into my diet. 

What is eating meat medicinally?

If you are desiring to live a vegetarian lifestyle, but seem to be experiencing symptoms of depletion (i.e. chronic exhaustion, weakness, hair loss, low immunity, etc), you may want to consider eating meat as medicine.  This can be accomplished in many different ways depending on what will work for you.  One way is to begin taking in homemade bone or meat broth regularly.  This is an excellent way to get animal nutrients without having to eat the flesh of meat.  However, this may still not be enough for every-body.  If meat broth is just not cutting it for you, try adding in a couple ounces of fish, chicken, bison, or beef into the monthly or weekly diet.  Typically only a small amount is needed to replenish the system.  Once you find your perfect balance of animal nutrient needs, try to keep up with the amount in order to keep up with the body’s biological needs. 

Of course since many vegetarians are in it for the protection of animal rights, try to find a good source for local farm fresh meat.  Supporting small, local, conscious farms is huge for helping to keep them in business, which is not easy with all of the factory farms taking over the industry.  This way, you can be supporting your health, while also supporting the humane farming habits of animals.      

Conclusion

My goal for this article is not to try to talk anybody into eating meat or becoming a vegetarian.  It is also certainly not to offend anyone.  I am just here to advocate using awareness when it comes to our diet and our healthcare needs.  In my opinion, if you are avoiding the harm of animals, but harming yourself along the way, this is not practicing Ahimsa (non-violence).  However, if you are eating meat multiple times daily, this may be an indication that you are overtaxing the digestive fire which can eventually lead to multiple health issues. 

As with everything Ayurveda, eating meat should be about finding your personal balance.  One man’s medicine is another man’s poison.  What works for you, may not work for others.  Ultimately, we must discover our present needs (this can change at different times in one’s life).  We must also be non-judgmental toward others and their dietary decisions.  Finally, if we do decide to eat meat, whether routinely or as medicine,  one should always source organic, humanely raised meat as much as possible.

lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu

May all beings be happy and free!

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