What is the role of protein in the Ayurvedic diet?
For years, I’ve received many questions from my clients surrounding this topic.
So, I decided to compile all the answers and send them to my letter subscribers. (It took me four emails to cover all the essential information).
And now, I want to share it with you in this blog.
My intention is to bring some light from an Ayurvedic but, also research-based perspective.
I hope this will dispel the confusion, help you take more informed decisions when it comes to protein, whether it is animal or plant-based, and make your adherence to Ayurveda easier and much more enjoyable.
Questions about the role of protein in Ayurveda
Some of you have asked me to discuss in-depth the topic of protein in the Ayurvedic diet, which I know can be both contradictory and complex.
I bet you too have plenty of questions about it.
These will be the points we will be examining today:
- What are my protein requirements?
- Is soy healthy?
- What does Ayurveda say about protein and, specifically, about animal protein?
- What are the best sources of protein for my dosha?
- Are protein powders a good choice?
- What is the correlation between vegan or vegetarian diets and hair loss?
- On which occasions is meat recommended in Ayurveda?
- Can I build muscle with a vegan or vegetarian diet?
- Is more protein better?
A lot. So, let’s dive right in.
1. What are my protein requirements?
Protein has become a buzzword.
It is associated with being healthy, growing muscle, and looking toned. And while it is a must to provide structure to our bodies, for biochemical reactions, and to make hair, blood, connective tissue, antibodies, and enzymes, food marketing is often misleading and deceptive.
I mean, there are products with elevated amounts of protein that are clearly ultra-processed, hard to digest, and tamasic.
Yet, the magic words of high-protein transform them somehow into “healthy” items people want to consume.
Research on how much protein is the optimal amount to eat for good health is ongoing, and is far from settled, according to Harvard University. The debate goes from 0.5 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day! A big difference.
Ayurveda doesn’t micromanage.
Ayurveda doesn’t split foods into carbs, proteins, and fats.
And, Ayurveda does not look at foods in isolation.
Instead, the time-tested medicinal wisdom considers the whole picture.
It proposes the intuitive concepts of food combination, tastes, gunas, and energetic qualities to build our plates and feel satiated.
There are nine essential amino acids which the body absolutely needs to function properly. They can come from animal or plant-based protein sources.
Animal products, soy, quinoa, millet, algae, and avocados are examples of complete proteins. They provide us with all nine amino acids.
However, incomplete proteins like legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, and some vegetables, can easily become complete proteins when we combine them.
Therefore, we need to consume one of the following to support our body’s need for protein:
- Complete animal protein such as meat, fish, eggs, or dairy.
- Complete vegetable protein: soy, quinoa, amaranth, millet, spirulina, or avocados.
- A combination of incomplete proteins like legumes with grains (rice and beans) or legumes with nuts and seeds.
Protein is vital.
The role of protein in the Ayurvedic diet is crucial.
However, rather than counting the exact number of grams of protein you should eat, I suggest:
* Assuming a holistic view of food. Consuming a lot of protein, sometimes, can cause more harm than good. And the truth is, it is very rare for people to be protein deficient in developed or high-income countries. Learn about food qualities and how they make you feel physically and emotionally. Understand your dosha. Prepare good food combinations.
* Choosing foods that are high in Prana. Foods that are alive. Protein powders and other pre-packed, highly processed, high-protein foods can cause systemic issues you can avoid by looking holistically at what you eat.
* Focusing on your digestive capacity first for lasting health. Read my complete guide for better digestion to improve yours.
2. Is soy healthy?
In Prana app — the Ayurvedic app I am currently working on and will be available soon! — you’ll find delicious recipes that include tofu, tempeh, soy sauce, miso, and other soy products. And although you’ll be able to swap them, I think it is critical to discuss the pros and cons of soy from the beginning, so you make the changes to your menus from a place of confidence, not fear.
Soy has been demonized by many. And the point of living an ayurvedic life is to also see through the propaganda and determine what foods Mother Nature delivers that are best for you.
According to Ayurveda, soy is sweet and astringent, with a cooling virya and a pungent after-effect.
It pacifies pitta, and might aggravate both vata and kapha, if you eat it in excess or don’t prepare it properly.
For pitta dosha, I suggest cooking it with cooling spices. Sometimes, salt and pepper is all it takes. But, I like to add cumin seeds and turmeric for a lively color.
Vata and kapha constitutions should use fermented forms of soy and warmer spices, like ginger, to render it more digestible.
Furthermore, Ayurveda advocates for a vegetarian diet and soy can be a wonderful addition to a vegan or vegetarian approach, as it is a complete protein that contains all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot make. Just make sure that you get it organic, non GMO, and in minimally processed forms.
I have written a comprehensive article about soy, so you can learn more about it.
3. What does Ayurveda say about protein and, specifically, about animal protein?
Ayurveda does not analyze foods based on their protein / carb / fat content.
Rather, it offers an all-embracing approach where the energetic qualities, taste, post digestive effect, and gunas or attributes are considered to determine if an ingredient is a good choice for your body type or not.
Now, this might come as a surprise, but regarding animal protein, Ayurveda is not against it.
In fact, the Charaka Samhita, the oldest and the most authentic treatise on Ayurveda, mentions every minute property of several animals and their effect on the human body.
Further, it recommends meat in certain conditions for therapy. (Keep in mind that in Ayurveda, a little of something could be medicinal, while too much of it can be poisonous — including meat).
At the same time, the ancient text acknowledges that animal-based products are rajasic or tamasic, meaning they can disturb the mind. This is important, as there is a strong link between our thoughts and the health of our body.
Meat, therefore, can be an obstacle if you are trying to reach Sattva (purity and wisdom).
There are also moral and environmental considerations. Plus, the way regular meat is currently produced makes most of us sick.
However, if fresh, organic, grass-fed, and ethically sourced, well-prepared, and eaten in minimal amounts, not every day of the week, meat can be added to your Ayurvedic diet. Granted you are morally okay with it.
4. What are the best sources of protein for my dosha?
The following is a general list of proteins (animal and plant-based) that are recommended for each body type.
Plant-based: tofu*, seitan, mung beans, tur dal, urad dal, amaranth, quinoa.
Animal products: cottage cheese, eggs, beef, chicken (dark meat), turkey (dark meat), and fish.
Plant-based: tofu, tempeh, most beans and lentils, amaranth, quinoa.
Animal products: cottage cheese, chicken (white meat), fresh-water fish.
Plant-based: tofu*, tempeh, aduki beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, brown lentils, millet, amaranth, quinoa.
Animal products: cottage cheese, chicken (white meat), fresh-water fish, eggs*, goat’s milk.
This is not to imply that you should completely avoid other proteins, but that you should limit them.
Remember, the feeling of deprivation might cause negative effects that can outweigh the benefits of restraining some foods.
* In moderation, cooked with pacifying spices.
Moreover, learn about eggs with my guide Eggs and Ayurveda. The dos and don’ts.
5. Are protein powders a good choice?
Protein powders are ultra-processed.
They contain protein isolate, which involves the extraction of a few protein factors, separating them from other key ingredients, vitamins, and nutrients. Even plant-based protein powder products are made using manufactured ingredients, rather than actual foods.
Nature didn’t intend for us to eat foods this way, far from their natural state. These companies, however healthy their branding might appear to be, are mass-producing lab foods that are marketed as good for us when they really are not.
Several studies have found that people who eat processed foods have higher risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease. Plus, they are hard to digest, provoke hormonal imbalances, affect our gut bacteria, and, typically, are loaded with sugar to make them more appealing.
Fudge brownie protein isolate, one of the many alluring manufactured tastes, can feel like a yummy way to add more protein to our diet, but from an Ayurvedic standpoint, whole, organic protein sources are a much better option.
6. What is the correlation between vegan or vegetarian diets and hair loss?
A well-balanced vegan or vegetarian diet can be life changing and provide us with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of chronic diseases, like obesity, coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and even cancer.
The plant kingdom is also an incredible source of prana or life force, as vegetables, fruits, cereals, and legumes, nuts and seeds, take the energy directly from the sun and the earth.
Animals, however, might feed us with a more dense form of prana, specially if they have suffered in their lives — which is more the rule than the exception in CAFO’s or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Biochemically, their pain can be found in their elevated cortisol or stress levels.
So yes, generally, a plant-based diet can be healing and even rejuvenating.
But, sometimes it isn’t.
Depending on the foods that make up your diet, you might be lacking nutrients that are essential for healthy hair, including Iron, B12, Biotin, Zinc, Cysteine, Lysine, and Selenium, which can all be found naturally in animal-protein sources.
This is something you might want to consider, specially if you are vata aggravated and morally okay with eating meat.
Nevertheless, it’s entirely possible to be on a plant-based diet and avoid hair loss, as well as reverse any damage that might have occurred, as long as you supplement your diet adequately.
Read my Hair Loss Ayurvedic Guide and discover how to reverse your hair’s damage, stop the shedding naturally, and feel beautiful and confident again.
These are some plant-based options to get the missing nutrients and grow thicker, longer hair.
Iron ↣ lentils, spinach, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, dark chocolate, cashews.
B12 ↣ plant-based foods do not naturally contain B12. Options to supplement a vegan diet include nutritional yeast, nori, and shitake mushroom. Vegetarians can get it from eggs, milk, and cheese.
Biotin ↣ sweet potatoes, spinach, avocado, cauliflower, bananas, carrots, pecans, beans.
Zinc ↣ beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds.
Cysteine ↣ oatmeal, dates, garlic, ginseng, onions.
Lysine ↣ quinoa, chickpeas, tofu, soy milk, brown rice, mung bean, buckwheat, navy beans, kidney beans.
Selenium ↣ brazil nuts, lentils, couscous, sunflower seeds, walnuts, cashews.
7. On which occasions is meat recommended in Ayurveda?
Meat has vata reducing properties.
The classics of Ayurveda provide numerous elaborate descriptions as per the properties of various meats, especially to pacify vata dosha. Meat is an aphrodisiac. It lubricates the body and increases strength.
More specifically, beef is said to cure dry cough, exhaustion, chronic nasal catarrh, emaciation, and excess hunger.
Goat meat was also well known for bulking the tissues and often used for meat soup. Goat can strengthen the body, and it’s good for vata prakruti people with severe debilitating conditions.
Heavier, unctuous, and heating substances, like meat, can help ground vata dosha. At the same time, they can exacerbate pitta and kapha types due to the same characteristics.
In addition, meat increases rajas and tamas and blurs our perception. This is important as it should be avoided when mental disorders are present. Furthermore, Ayurveda points out that muscular tumors and cancers can result from eating excessive amounts of meat.
Lastly, we shouldn’t eat meat if our purpose is to advance in our meditation practice, if there is hyperactivity, or excess ama or toxins.
If you eat meat, just make sure it is grass-fed, organic and sustainable. Cook it with vata-pacifying spices. And only eat minimal amounts of it.
8. Can I build muscle with a vegan or vegetarian diet?
Short answer: Yes.
Contrary to popular belief, plant-based or vegetarian diets can provide us with all the necessary nutrients to support muscle growth and strength.
If and only if, we are talking about a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet that includes healthy sources of protein, carbohydrates, fats, water, vitamins, and minerals.
First, there is an abundance of protein-rich sources within the plant kingdom that can effectively fuel your body’s need for building and maintaining muscle mass.
For example, quinoa and amaranth contain all nine essential amino acids that the human body cannot synthesize and must obtain from food. These essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, soy, and black beans not only provide protein but also offer an array of fiber and essential nutrients.
Additionally, nuts and seeds such as almonds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds offer not only protein but also healthy fats and minerals that support muscle development.
Second, even when most plant-based proteins don’t have all the essential amino acids necessary for muscle synthesis, they can be combined to create a complete protein source that supports muscle growth and repair.
Additional factors we need to recognize for muscle building
Your body’s ability to build muscle can be affected by many elements, besides protein, including:
Plant-based diets provide a wealth of phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber that contribute to overall health and well-being. These compounds help reduce inflammation, support efficient nutrient absorption, and promote healthy digestion, all of which are essential for optimal muscle development.
Plant-based diets are typically abundant in healthy fats, which play a crucial role in hormone production and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Incorporating sources such as avocados, nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils can help optimize hormonal balance, which is vital for muscle growth and recovery.
As you know, Ayurveda places great importance on maintaining a robust digestive system. When our digestion is strong and efficient, we can extract maximum nutrients from our food. Ayurvedic practices, such as mindful eating, chewing food thoroughly, and incorporating digestive spices, enhance naturally our body’s ability to assimilate nutrients from plant-based sources. This ensures that the proteins we consume are effectively utilized for muscle synthesis.
Your body type
Ayurveda recognizes the uniqueness of each of us. While some individuals may thrive on a purely plant-based diet for muscle development, others may find it beneficial to include small amounts of animal-based proteins. Certain constitutions, like Vata dosha, might do better by incorporating moderate amounts of meat. Again, if that is something that aligns with your principles.
Let’s not forget that consistency, proper training — for your dosha! —, and rest are also vital aspects of building muscle, regardless of your dietary approach.
9. Protein in the Ayurvedic diet: is more protein better?
Short answer: No.
Ayurveda teaches us that moderation and balance are key to maintaining optimal health.
And that is the basic principle that explains why overeating protein can have some negative effects.
Here are some considerations:
⋒ Consuming excessive protein can put a strain on our digestive system. Proteins are complex molecules that require sufficient digestive juices and enzymes to break them down into amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. When we overload our system with more protein than it can handle, it provokes digestive discomfort, such as bloating, gas, or indigestion.
⋒ Excessive protein consumption, particularly animal-based protein, can increase the heat or Pitta dosha in our body. This can create imbalances such as inflammation, irritability, or digestive disturbances (heartburn).
⋒ Protein metabolism generates waste products, such as urea and uric acid, which are filtered by our kidneys and excreted through urine. When we consume lots of protein, our kidneys may need to work harder to eliminate the excess waste, potentially putting strain on these vital organs. This can be particularly concerning for individuals with pre-existing kidney conditions.
⋒ High-protein diets, especially those rich in animal-based proteins, are a source of excessive phosphorous, which can lead to increased calcium excretion through urine by hindering the body’s absorption of this vital mineral. This can potentially affect calcium balance in the body, resulting in a higher risk of bone loss and osteoporosis over time. Other negative consequences are muscle spams, numbness, depression, hallucinations, weak and brittle nails, muscle cramps, and fracturing of the bones.
⋒ Excessive protein intake can sometimes cause imbalances in other essential nutrients. When our focus solely revolves around consuming high amounts of protein, we may unintentionally neglect other important food groups, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Of course, personalization is key in Ayurveda. You have unique needs that require a mindful and balanced approach to nutrition and fitness to optimize your overall health and well-being.
I hope the topic of protein in the Ayurvedic diet is less confusing now 🙂