So what is a Healthy Indian Diet?
The typical diet in all corners of South Asia is based on mostly plants. A plant-strong diet is healthy. According to the American Dietetic Association, “A considerable body of scientific data suggests positive relationships between vegetarian diet and risk reduction for several chronic degenerative diseases and conditions, including obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and some types of cancer.” (American Dietetic Association 1993.)
Dals and other Legumes
The versatile dal (lentil) is a staple food in all parts of India. Dals and other legumes like chickpeas have fed people in India, Persia, Ethiopia, and Europe for hundreds of years. Today people in these regions still eat lentils regularly because they taste good and are, when combined with whole grains, the best source of protein in the plant kingdom.
Nothing is more quintessential to Indian cooking than spice. The kinds and amounts of spices used in cooking is what make Indian culinary traditions stand apart from the world's other great culinary traditions. People in South Asia learned over generations to use spices not only for taste, but to prevent and treat disease from Ayurvedic practices that coalesced around 1500 B.C.
The best illustration of an Indian spice's role in health is turmeric powder (haldi in Hindi). Studies have shown it can, for example, reduce pre-cancerous lesions in the colon when taken in its purified form curcumin (Cruz-Correa 2006 Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology). At the molecular level, turmeric powder reduces the type of inflammation that cancer cells use for growth.
India has among the lowest rates of cancers, including lung, breast, and prostate cancers (Rastogi 2008 International Journal of Epidemiology). Although Indian diets have worsened thanks to modernization, the heavy use of spices in cooking has not. Thus, adding turmeric powder and other spices like black pepper and ginger in Indian food likely explains why.
Dahi and other Fermented Yogurts
Dahi (yogurts), raita, lassi, curds, butter and ghee -- all made from milk -- have always been commonly enjoyed in India. This is why Hindus hold cows in high-esteem, having relied on them for basic sustenance since ancient times. Foods made from fermented milk keep the digestive tract healthy, especially the colon thanks to good bacteria from the Lactobacillus family. Furthermore, yogurts and dahi limited the development of cancerous cells in the colon (Wollowski 2001 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition).
And because dahi and other fermented dairies are packed with calcium, eating them regularly can help you keep from gaining excess body fat. Doing this even helps people trying to lose weight shed even more pounds off (Zemel 2005 International Journal of Obesity). Finally, eating calcium-rich fermented dairies daily helps at-risk people prevent developing insulin resistance, which is often a precursor to both diabetes and coronary heart disease (Pereira 2002 Journal of the American Medical Association).
Pickles and Chutneys
Indians love pickled versions of mango, turmeric root, and other foods. The tradition of pickling plants has been around since antiquity because it was the only reliable way to preserve foods. Like fermented dairies, Indian pickles are made by anaerobic bacteria include the Lactobacillus family, which are considered good for the health of the digestive tract. Chutneys are a popular food, some of which are also pickled foods, that add a tangy flavor to dishes.
Whole Grains and Brown Rice
Rice and leavened breads like naan and chappati are common sights all over India. Before modern food practices were developed, these foods were made of whole grain foods such as brown rice and stone-ground atta (whole wheat). But since the 1900s, most of what has been eaten is refined, such as white rice and finely-ground grains like maida (refined wheat).
Switching to brown rice within an Indian diet is probably the best one thing you could do for your health. In addition to being a whole grain (which has the fiber-rich bran and nutrient-rich germ parts of the wheat, missing in refined grains), brown rice can help you from developing diabetes. A large study showed that eating white rice regularly makes your more likely to develop diabetes, while brown rice makes you less likely (Sun 2010 Archives of Internal Medicine).
The abundant amounts of fiber in whole grains (like most plants) help prevent coronary heart disease and improve cholesterol levels (Lichtenstein 2006 Circulation). Also, eating whole grains daily helps people control their weight better than refined foods like white rice as they grow older (Koh-Banerjee 2004 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). Thus, the traditional Indian ways of eating grains -- that is, eating brown rice and breads made from whole grains -- keeps your well-being intact and away from the deadly grasp of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Oil and Ghee
Did you know that eating a moderate amount of ghee daily (about 2 tablespoons) does not worsen your cholesterol levels according to any scientific study. In fact, many experts doubt there is a real link between eating lots of saturated fats and developing heart attacks (Mente 2009 Archive of Internal Medicine). When it comes to coronary heart disease, bad carbs seems to cause more of it than saturated fats, like the fats in ghee (Mozaffarian 2004 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition).
We all use cooking oils from plants and other fatty foods like ghee or butter for cooking and dressing foods. These foods provide us with most of our dietary fats. In general, you can use ghee or coconut oil (also high in the saturated fat lauric acid, which is considered a good fat) when cooking at medium heat. Canola oil, which is dense in monounsaturated fats, is also ideal for cooking. Olive oil is better for dressing food.
Nuts are heart healthy and enjoyed all over India as a snack but sometimes in ice cream or dals. Eating almonds, walnuts, pistachios, peanuts and other nuts increase your HDL-cholesterol (i.e., good) and lower LDL-cholesterol (bad), especially if you have high cholesterol levels (Sabaté 2010 Archives of Internal Medicine).
Eating them regulary (a handful of nuts at least 4 times a week) not only improves cholesterol levels, it actually reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attacks (Fraser 2002 Archives or Internal Medicine, Hu 1998 British Medical Journal). How do they work? Phytonutrients in nuts probably behave as antioxidants, which likely reduce oxidative-related inflammation in the coronary arteries. Nuts also contain good fats like omega-3 fatty acid, which also seems to protect the heart by reducing the kind of inflammation that causes problems.
Disclaimer: The facts, advice and opinion on www.healthyindiandiet.com are based on scientific evidence published in journals. However, no content should be construed as medical advice. You should seek the counsel of your physician before making changes based on the content, especially if you have a medical condition.