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Ayurvedic Aids for Weight Loss

By Karta Purkh Singh 

We are all the descendents of famine survivors. Our prehistoric ancestors lived during times of alternating food bounty and scarcity. They needed an efficient way to store fuel for the lean times. When nutrition was abundant, their bodies adapted by storing fat. In times of severe deprivation—when they "dieted," not by choice—the fat could then be for fuel and heat production. This survival adaptation is still with us today.

When you diet, cutting your caloric intake, you are signaling to your body that you are in the lean times. Your metabolism slows and you start storing fat. As everyone knows, you will eventually lose weight with this deprivation. The problem is, you’ll lose not only the unwanted fat, but also vital lean body mass.

Thermogenesis is the production of heat in the body when you burn food. But thermogenesis slows down as we age. Probably the leading theory in metabolic weight control today involves the boosting of food burning to use up excess calories through body heat. Many leading herbs for weight loss work in this way. One such herb is green tea.

Several pungent Ayurvedic herbs, including cayenne and ginger, have been demonstrated to promote thermogenesis. Now add another to this list. Researchers fed rats high fat diets, but added garlic. After four weeks, the rats had lost weight, and had lower levels of triglycerides, as well as increased sympathetic nerve function. They concluded that garlic assists in burning fat through increasing metabolism. Use pungent herbs as often as possible in your food—the more the better.[1]

Slimming Herbs

An Ayurvedic resin, called guggul in Sanskrit, is a standby medicine for the management of body fats. Particularly valuable in lowering cholesterol, guggul rivals any other natural substance. Without dietary adjustments, guggul has lowered total cholesterol by over 20 percent, while increasing good HDL cholesterol by 36 percent.

Like its effect on blood lipids, guggul can assist in managing overall body fat. Guggul seems to exert its effect at least partially through the thyroid, which could account for its fat-loss benefit. A study done in 1999 combined guggul extract with Garcinia cambogia extract and tyrosine. Over six weeks, twenty obese people had a significant decrease in body fat mass and average body weight. The subjects lost body fat, but not lean mass. Fatigue went down, and there were no adverse effects. Guggul can be taken in a dose of 1,500 mg, three times daily.

The most well known herbal formula in Ayurveda is triphala (three fruits). Containing amla (Emblica officinalis), bibitaki (Terminalia belerica), and haritaki (Terminalia chebula), it has a light laxative effect and is well studied as a supreme general detoxifier and antioxidant. The combination of guggul and triphala recently showed a surprising effect in controlling body fat. When 48 obese subjects took these Ayurvedic combinations three times a day for three months, with no attempt to control their food intake, the resulting weight loss averaged almost 18 pounds, along with a drop in total cholesterol of 18 points. The dose used in the study was only 500 mg of the combination, three times per day.

The name of the famous Asian herb,Gurmar, means “killer of sweet.” Gurmar (Gymnema sylvestre) is an extensively studied and widely used herb in the treatment of diabetes, which of course, in our culture, is closely related to long term obesity. Gurmar has been proven in study after study to increase the production and activity of insulin produced in the body. This insulin increase is thought by many experts to be the primary successful method of promoting fat burning.

Now it looks like gurmar will also lower blood fats. Recently this herb demonstrated a startling ability to lower all types of lipids in the blood. Gurmar is extremely safe, with no known side effects. So it seems that we have an ideal herb for treating the diabetic/obesity syndrome that is so common in America. Gurmar is available as an extract from the health food store. The typical extract dose is 1,200-1,500 mg per day.


Fiber is critical to many functions in the intestinal tract, including digestion and waste elimination. It also has a mild cholesterol-lowering effect. Many new studies propose that water-soluble fibers may also help individuals lose weight. Taken with a meal, they produce a feeling of fullness. The other anti-fat benefits of fiber include reducing the absorption of total calories, promoting blood sugar control, and enhancing the effects of insulin. In clinical studies of weight loss, fiber reduced absorbed calories by 30-180 calories per day, the equivalent of 3 to 18 pounds of fat loss over a year. Dietary fiber is the cell walls of plants. Whole, unprocessed grains, beans, fruits and vegetables all contain lots of fiber.

One Ayurvedic herb, psyllium seed, looks especially promising. An experiment done last year with non-dieting subjects revealed that the participants felt much fuller than normal one hour after the meal, and ended up eating 15 grams less fat per day than usual. Use 2 grams of psyllium seed powder, stirred into water three hours before each meal, and another 2 grams with each meal. It is best to work up to these doses gradually, allowing your body to adjust, to avoid any gas or intestinal discomfort.

The typical dose of fiber used in such studies is 5 to 7 grams per day. Fiber is basically a food, and aside from the occasional feeling of fullness, it rarely has any side effects.

Ayurveda for a Balanced Diet

The three Ayurvedic doshas, or primal metabolic tendencies, give us a great strategy for figuring out how to maintain a healthy weight. If you have too much kapha active in your body, you will add fat. Most American obesity problems are the result of accumulating kapha. Pitta tends to contribute to a balanced body weight. Since this is the hot dosha, we can increase it to burn off the fat of kapha. Vata tends to favor reducing weight. When you are healthy, and your doshas are balanced, your weight will be stable.

To achieve balance, the diet for treating each dosha will have the characteristics that are opposite that of the dosha that is dominating and causing the problem. For example, if you are retaining water, feel sluggish, and have a chest full of mucus, you may be experiencing a kapha imbalance, and should use a kapha-balancing diet until your body is again balanced and healthy. If you are hot, irritated, and have regular inflammation such as bursitis, you may be experiencing a pitta imbalance, and should use a pitta-balancing diet. If you have trouble keeping weight on, are spaced out, feel weak or exhausted, and are constipated, you may be living with a vata imbalance, and should use a vata-balancing diet.

Overactive DoshaQualitiesDiet Should Be
KaphaCold, Wet, HeavyWarm, Dry, Light
PittaHot, Wet, LightCool, Dry, Heavier
VataCold, Dry, LightWarm, Moist, Heavier


Foods for Balancing Kapha

Energy NeedsWarm, Dry, Light (Avoid cold, oily, heavy)
TastesPungent, Bitter, Astringent
StrategyEat low fat, low calorie, less total food; hot spices, occasional fasting, less frequency, largest meal midday
EmphasizeDry and astringent fruits (apple, raisin), Vegetables, especially raw, Dry grains (rice cakes), Hot spices (black pepper, chiles), Cooked beans with warming spices, Spicy herbal teas (ginger)                             
AvoidSweet fruits, Nuts, Milk products, Oil


Foods for Balancing Pitta

Energy NeedsCool, Dry, Heavier (Avoid Hot, Wet, Light)
TastesSweet, Bitter, Astringent
StrategyMild, bland food, served cool, raw, no hot spices, low oil, eat when calm, three regular meals
EmphasizeSweet fruits, Sweet and bitter vegetables (greens), Beans in general, Natural sweeteners (maple syrup), Mild cheeses (cottage cheese), Sweet and cooling drinks (apple juice)         
AvoidSour fruits, Pungent vegetables (onion), Nuts, Hot spices (chiles), Fermented milk products (yogurt), Oils


Foods for Balancing Vata

Energy NeedsWarm, Moist, Heavier (Avoid Cold, Dry, Light)
TastesSweet, Sour, Salty
StrategyNourishing, easy to digest, warm, filling, heavy, moistening, strengthening, small frequent regular meals, mild warming spices, calm and concentrate while eating
EmphasizeSweet fruits, Cooked vegetables, Cooked grains (oatmeal), Nuts, Natural sweeteners, Mild warming spices (basil), Milk products in moderation, especially warm                                                                      
AvoidDry fruits, Dry grains (rice cakes), Raw vegetables, Cabbage family (broccoli), Beans in general, Any food which causes gas


Personalize your Exercise Routine with Ayurveda

For Balancing KaphaFor Balancing PittaFor Balancing Vata
Get hotDon’t overheat, cool airStay warm
SweatDon’t be fanatical - take a breakMild only - don’t overdo
Vigorous aerobicDrink plenty of waterRegular routine - stick with a program
Work up to pushing your limitsVary the routine to avoid boredomSlow, gradual progress
DisciplineVaried overall fitness programWalking
Powerful calisthenicsModerate length workout to avoid overheatingStretching, yoga


Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, Yogaraj, DN-C, RH, is the president of the American Herbalists Guild. He mentored in Ayurveda with Yogi Bhajan for 32 years. The Healing Cures of Yogi Bhajan is his homage to Yogi Bhajan and the wealth of information he had the blessing to learn from his master. Karta Purkh has presented over 150 times at professional conferences, has written over 3,000 articles on health topics and is the author or editor of 30 books on health, including his latest, The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs. He is curriculum director and lead instructor in the Portland Community College Nutritional Therapy Program and heads the herbal education department of the Northwest Institute of Ayurveda. He lives in the Northwest with his wife and daughter. [email protected]