Let me start by reminding you that Ayurveda does not subscribe to a solely vegetarian diet. Each person is different based on his or her constitution, genetic predispositions, and age. Climate and geography also play a large role in what one should eat. For example, if you lived in the mountains of Colorado in the middle of winter, it would be quite difficult to maintain a sustainable plant-based diet because most above ground vegetables won’t naturally grow at that time.
With that being said, Ayurveda generally recommends for an unprocessed, 90 to 95 percent plant-based, whole food diet, including small amounts of cultured dairy (mostly yogurt, ghee, buttermilk, and soft cheeses like paneer). Rice, beans, fruits, vegetables, tubers, nuts, seeds, and whole grains make up the bulk of an Ayurvedic diet—all eaten seasonally. Generally, there are no eggs, stimulants, or meat, except for medicinal purposes.
Most people equate meat with protein but you can get protein from both animal and plant products. The important thing to note here is that all proteins are not made equal. There are 8 essential amino acids which the body absolutely needs to function properly. Protein sources which contain these are called complete proteins. Those which only contain some are called incomplete proteins. Luckily for vegetarians and vegans, these incomplete proteins can be combined together to give the full complement of essential amino acids.
Complete Proteins include all animal (e.g. fish, meat (red and white), eggs and dairy) and a few plant proteins (e.g. Soy, quinoa, millet, algae (e.g. spirulina) and avocado). Incomplete proteins include most plant proteins such as legumes, grains, nuts and seeds and vegetables. The body breaks down dietary proteins into amino acids and these form a pool of available amino acids, which lasts for about 48 hours, for use around the body. We need to eat protein at least every 48 hours and ensure that we have all 8 essential amino acids during this 48-hour period or else the body starts to break down the tissues and organs to get hold of the amino acids it needs. This means that daily we either need to eat animal derived protein or a combination of incomplete protein (e.g. legumes and grains or legumes and nuts/Seeds).
From a protein consumption perspective, In Ayurvedic nutrition, legumes are a part of almost every meal of the day. They are even used to make desserts and snacks. The protein in legumes is very different from what is found in meat products, cheese, eggs, and fish and is considered optimal compared to animal protein due to its high nutrition quality including fiber and vitamins which all further support the digestive agni. Emphasis on gut health is one of the fundamental pillars of Ayurveda; this belief is embedded in the fact that we do not live in a separate state from nature.
Cutting meat isn’t a requirement to follow an Ayurvedic diet, rather the emphasis on eating seasonal fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and foods from the sources closest to the environment is considered optimal. This means, if you do decide to consume meat, procuring it locally from a farm, pasture raised meat would be preferred. At the intersection of Ayurvedic eating are two fundamental themes, first is the focus on your individual digestive agni and second a connection between the body and mind. Following an Ayurvedic diet can be done with optimal flexibility as along we maintain these two principles.