Eat more kale. Eat less red meat. Eat more oils. Eat fewer carbs. As the hot trends in diets come and go, they often have one thing in common: They are prescriptive across the board, marketed as one-size-fits-all solutions to losing weight and improving health. But not everyone subscribes to this idea, and some local professionals follow different interpretations of eating right for one’s body type in their work to help clients achieve their health goals.
Living in harmony
The ancient Indian philosophy ayurveda teaches that all things in nature are composed of five elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. These elements combine in various permutations to form the three doshas: vata (air and ether), pitta (fire and water) and kapha (earth and water). Practitioners believe each person has a unique balance of the three doshas, called their prakruti.
At Asheville Ayurveda, specialist Greta Kent-Stoll assesses each client’s physical constitution and physiological, psychological and emotional habits. She also looks at the person’s appetite and metabolism, ability to gain and lose weight, ideal number of meals per day and reaction to missing a meal.
Kent-Stoll says one or two of the doshas usually predominate in each person and natural tendencies reinforce these, which can lead to problems. “If we are eating foods and living in such a way that simply exaggerates who we are, and we keep doing that day after day over time, then that will eventually create some kind of imbalance,” she says.
Ayurveda gives practitioners the tools to help the body heal itself, Kent-Stoll believes. “It’s not about what we do once in a while,” she says. “It’s about what we’re doing on a consistent basis.”
Each dosha has its own dietary means to achieving and maintaining harmony. Vata types tend to have drier, colder and lighter constitutions, so if they eat a lot of dry, cold, light foods, it will cause an excess of vata over time and lead to health problems. Instead of cold salads, dry crackers and cold drinks, Kent-Stoll says vatas should balance their qualities with warmly spiced and cooked foods. People with this constitutional type tend to do well with more healthy oils such as coconut, avocado and olive in their diet, plus root vegetables, whole grains, nuts and, if their system can handle it, dairy.
Kapha types are in some ways the opposite of vata, because they naturally have a heavier constitutional makeup, but because they run cool, they need foods that are warm but light. Hot, well-spiced foods agree with them, and they can typically benefit from more leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower and thin, broth-based soups.
Characterized by an intense appetite, pitta types tend to run hot and have strong digestion; they can typically handle more salads, especially in summer. While Kent-Stoll notes that everybody should be eating cooked food in colder months, once temperatures rise, pittas can enjoy cooler foods, including green juices and smoothies.
In choosing corresponding recipes, Kent-Stoll recommends Usha Lad’s Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing and The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook by Kate O’Donnell. Of the latter, she says, “That’s a nice one because if people don’t know their constitution or they’re not sure, she actually does it by season because the doshas are considered to predominate more or less in certain seasons. So she makes more seasonal recommendations for food and then talks about how the summer is the pitta season, fall and early winter are vata season, and spring is kapha season.”
Kent-Stoll adds that ayurveda places as much emphasis on how one eats as it does on what one eats. “It’s really not so much about choosing the perfect ingredient or avoiding this or that. A lot of it is about your habit, lifestyle and how it all fits together,” she says. “There are a lot of guidelines in ayurveda about how to eat your food in order to most benefit digestion. Things like sitting down and eating in a peaceful setting, not being distracted while you’re eating, not checking your phone or email or watching TV while you eat.”
The practice also teaches to eat the right amount, which is only to the point that a person feels 75 percent full. “You don’t want to eat beyond that point or walk away from table hungry,” Kent-Stoll says.
Kent-Stoll’s office is located in a yoga center and therefore tends to attract a lot of yoga students as clients. She sees a range of ages, from people in their early 20s up through those in their 70s, and while she tends to get more women, she says she’d be happy to work with a greater number of men.
“I think it’s people who are looking for a more holistic way to get well and to stay well, so it’s people who are looking for more dietary assistance, herbal remedies [and] lifestyle shifts,” Kent-Stoll says of her clientele. “It generally is not going to attract people who are wanting a quick fix, but it’s people who are willing or at least curious to shift something in the way that they’re living and the way that they’re eating and the way that they’re managing their lives.”
In the vein
In 1996, naturopath Peter J. D’Adamo published Eat Right 4 Your Type, arguing that because people’s blood type reflects their internal chemistry, it therefore determines the foods they should eat.
Dr. Elizabeth Pavka, wholistic nutritionist at Wellspring Wellness Center in Asheville, says when she first browsed through the book, she didn’t believe its findings. But she gradually came around to the approach. “Back then, we were taught — and the government is still teaching — that we’re all the same and we’re all supposed to eat the same way. And that’s just not true,” she says. “We’re all different people. The concept is called ‘biochemical individuality,’ a long term that means you are different even than somebody else in your family, even though you share a lot of genetics and that kind of thing.”
Pavka helps her clients put together an eating plan that’s appropriate for them, with blood type being one aspect of that; however, she notes, it’s been around five years since a client asked her about the blood type diet. “People read books, and they get all excited, and then put it away, and maybe they put it on their shelves and pretend it’s not there,” she says.
According to D’Adamo, who updated his book in 2016, people who have blood Type A have low levels of hydrochloric acid in the stomach and high levels of the intestinal disaccharide digestive enzyme. The combination allows for a more efficient digestion of carbohydrates, but, along with low levels of intestinal alkaline phosphatase, makes it difficult to digest and metabolize animal protein and fat.
As a result, D’Adamo recommends a mostly vegetarian diet for this type. “That’s what I find to be true about myself,” says Pavka, who is Type A. “I limit my meats personally to chicken and some fish, and I don’t do what I call ‘the heavier meats.’”
Type Os tend to have higher levels of stomach acid. Thanks to an increased secretion into the digestive tract of the intestinal alkaline phosphatase enzyme and ApoB48 lipoprotein, they’re also able to metabolize the cholesterol in animal products more efficiently, better assimilate calcium and have an increased ability to heal their digestive tract. At the same time, simple carbohydrates, namely from grains, are more readily converted into fats and triglycerides. In turn, D’Adamo says to eat lean, organic meats, vegetables and fruits and abstain from wheat and dairy.
Those with Type B are considered to have the most tolerant digestive system of all the blood types. Corn, wheat, buckwheat, lentils, tomatoes, peanuts and sesame seeds affect the efficiency of their metabolic process and encourage weight gain. D’Adamo also discourages Type Bs from eating chicken, due to an agglutinating lectin in its muscle tissue that attacks the bloodstream and can lead to strokes and immune disorders. He suggests replacing the popular poultry with goat, lamb, mutton, rabbit and venison, as well as focusing on green vegetables, eggs and low-fat dairy.
As for Type AB, it behaves as a chameleon, exhibiting traits of A, B or both. D’Adamo says Type AB has Type A’s low stomach acid as well as Type B’s adaptation to meats, meaning they lack sufficient stomach acid to metabolize them efficiently, which tends to store the meat as fat. To lose weight, he endorses tofu, seafood, dairy and green vegetables and abstaining from all smoked or cured meats.
While Pavka has seen clients’ health improve by making changes according to D’Adamo’s book, she does not believe that all Type Os, for example, need to eat alike. She also does some testing with Asheville-based Genova Diagnostics, asking certain clients to do blood tests that look at how their immune systems respond to commonly eaten foods, and says the results can be very different from the blood type dietary suggestions.
Individual nutritional needs
Another approach to eating based on body type aligns with one’s body shape and the three somatotypes developed by psychologist and physician William H. Sheldon in the 1940s. These general categories are: ectomorph (long-limbed and not very muscular), mesomorph (muscular and proportionately built) and endomorph (round and more prone to gaining weight). This school of thought overlaps with identifying oneself as one of three fruit and vegetable shapes: apples, who are prone to stomach fat but typically have a slim lower body; pears, who store fat on their hips and thighs; and narrow-shaped chili peppers, who have an even distribution of weight.
Plentiful eating and exercise plans tailored to each shape exist online, but Leah McGrath, registered dietitian for Ingles Markets, doesn’t recommend using this method — which she calls “kind of old-school thinking” — to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
“The body-type diet isn’t a science- or evidence-based approach,” McGrath says. “Eating plans to gain, lose or maintain weight are best if they are individually managed to take into consideration a person’s food preferences, lifestyle, cooking ability, ethnic background, work habits, weight gain/loss/maintenance goals, health and disease.” She says registered dietitian nutritionists are trained to take all those factors into account.
McGrath says she’s constantly asked about whatever diet happens to be in fashion. Lately, she has been fielding inquiries about the ketogenic diet. In 17 years of working for Ingles, however, she has never received a call or email inquiring about the body shape diet.
While there are certainly people with a genetic predisposition to gain weight or muscle in certain areas and who correspond with one of the three shapes, McGrath says eating according to those guidelines has its limitations. “What we look like doesn’t necessarily equate with what foods we should eat, nor does it necessarily equate with our energy/calorie need or food preferences,” she says.
That being said, “carrying excessive weight around your waist may be related to hormonal changes (for women) as much as eating habits, and a higher waist circumference has been linked to increase risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes,” McGrath says.
In addition to being critical of the body shape approach, McGrath notes that the issue of weight and dieting is fraught with problems. She warns against being influenced to follow a diet based on a celebrity endorsement or to “achieve or maintain an unrealistic body size based on artificial cultural norms or expectations.” She also points to the connection between food and emotions, noting that many serial dieters struggle with issues that manifest themselves in limiting food intake to the point of developing an eating disorder.
Furthermore, considering the struggles many Western North Carolina residents face with food security, McGrath feels that it’s insensitive to promote dieting, which she defines as “the ability to refuse or restrict food” and “an exercise that those with access to food can do.”
“I’m not going to endorse any of these diets,” McGrath says. Instead, she recommends a balanced eating plan such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans that encourages variety and moderation. She also advises using tools to track calorie intake, steps and exercise “because it’s not just about calories in, but calories expended.”