I recently got an email from Madhav, who wrote from India and asked how people eating a more traditional Indian diet could apply nutrition advice that’s based primarily on Western dietary patterns.
I asked Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian and the author of the book My Indian Table, to talk about some of the nutritional pros and cons of traditional Indian cuisine, how to select the healthiest options, and how to make your own healthy Indian food at home!
Below are a few highlights from our conversation. It has been lightly edited for clarity. Click on the audio player to hear all the enticing details.
Monica Reinagel: Of course, India has lots of regional culinary traditions so “Indian cuisine” doesn’t encompass one single thing.
Vandana Sheth: India has a great diversity in terms of food, spices, and flavors, and the food varies greatly among different states. Although some of the spices and ingredients are similar, the way they are incorporated is quite different. In general, cuisine can be divided into four styles based upon geography (North, South, East, and West). Much of the cuisine that’s typical in U.S. Indian restaurants is from the Northern or Punjab region.
MR: Are there any elements that the various regional culinary styles have in common?
VS: Using a variety of spices and herbs to flavor up food is a common factor among various regional culinary styles. Turmeric, cumin, cardamom, and coriander are all common in Indian cooking.
MR: What are some of the healthiest aspects of traditional Indian diets?
The wide variety of whole grains, beans/lentils, vegetables, fermented foods, nuts, seeds, and spices are some of the healthiest aspects of traditional Indian diets.
VS: The wide variety of whole grains, beans/lentils, vegetables, fermented foods, nuts, seeds, and spices. There are so many flavorful plant-based options.
MR: Is vegetarianism any more or less common in India than in the U.S.?
VS: It was definitely more common in the past, in part connected with religious traditions. With more globalization, more people are likely to add meat to their diets today. But it remains more of an accompaniment rather than the centerpiece of the meal. Vegetarians in India typically consume dairy products but not eggs, which are not considered vegetarian.
MR: What are some of the less healthy aspects of traditional Indian diets?
VS: There’s the potential for overconsumption of fried foods, such as puri (a puffed and deep-fried bread) and samosas, and heavy cream in some dishes. Traditional desserts can be very high in sugar. Refined flour is often used in place of traditional whole grain flour. Some of the traditional accompaniments, including papadum (crispy lentil/rice flatbread) and pickles, can be very high in salt.
MR: Our U.S.-based RD and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans reflect traditional American eating patterns. How would you adapt these to more traditional Indian eating patterns?
VS: A traditional Indian eating pattern can easily incorporate the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by keeping the plate in mind. I encourage my clients to enjoy a wide variety of vegetables (at least half the plate), one-fourth of the plate filled with protein—which can be beans/lentils if vegetarian or lean chicken or fish if nonvegetarian—and one-fourth of the plate filled with whole grains such as roti, chapati, or rice. Enjoy fresh fruit for dessert.
MR: What are some of the ways that you modify traditional Indian preparations to make them healthier?
Reduce the amount of ghee or oil, cut back on salt and sugar, use almond meal in place of flour, and use Greek or Icelandic yogurt in place of regular yogurt.
VS: Some ways I have modified traditional Indian preparations is to reduce the amount of ghee or oil, cut back on salt and sugar, use almond meal in place of flour, and use Greek or Icelandic yogurt in place of regular yogurt. Also, using chia seeds and flaxseed meal to enhance fiber, protein, and more importantly omega-3 fats to traditional dishes.
MR: What is it you’d most like people to understand about food and nutrition?
VS: Food is so much more than fuel. My mission is to encourage people to savor their food, knowing that spices can provide both a depth of flavor and health benefits. Delicious and nutritious food does not have to be time consuming. With a few simple shortcuts, you too can make an amazing plant-based Indian meal with confidence.
Vandana’s website is at VandanaSheth.com and her cookbook, My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes will help anyone interested in trying more vegetarian food not be intimidated by Indian cuisine. It’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold.