My article All That You Need to Know About Nutrition for South Asians introduced a framework to develop individualized, varied and nutritious meals that you would enjoy every day. This sequel provides suggestions to develop and sustain nutritious, healthy eating habits on a South Asian diet, distilled from conversations with Dr. Ranjita Misra, Editor of the 2nd edition of the AAPI Guide to Nutrition, Health and Diabetes, and Dr. Padmini Balagopal, Editor of its first edition. Dr. Balagopal – a Clinical Nutritionist with a commitment to community education in preventive health – is a Registered Dietitian and a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) who practices both in the United States and in India.
This is a practical guide to help you get from where you are to where you want to be.
Dr. Balagopal recommends the ABCD approach: use Anthropometric, Biochemical Clinical testing as the starting point to develop your Diet plan. Anthropometric measurements include height, weight, BMI, weight-to-height ratio, and waist-to-hip ratio. Biochemical includes metabolic, blood chemistry and other tests your physician would order, and Clinic stands for the examination he or she would perform – blood pressure, reflexes, heart and lungs etc. These measures, a customized interview and your physician’s guidance provide the basis to develop and sustain a nutritious, healthy diet optimized for you and your health condition.
Drs. Misra and Balagopal stress the role of a lifestyle change. “People would do better to focus on all aspects of their health – the whole chakra – and not just their particular health condition,” says Dr. Balagopal.” Physical activity, relaxation and mental health are also critical. “No diet is complete without physical activity, and chronic stress can create a lot of damage.” Meditation, exercise, yoga are essential supplements to your dietary plan.
How you implement your new diet is also critical. Dr. Misra suggests you begin where you are and make a series of small, incremental and sustainable changes to your diet. She points to rice as an example. Most Indians are used to and like white rice. “If I asked my dad to switch to brown or red rice, he would throw a hissy fit,” she says. Instead, start with an equal-parts mixture of rice and quinoa or millets (available in India and in some stores in the US). If you must, have just a little white rice at the end of your meal to satisfy your palate. “Cut your portion sizes and eat in moderation”, she advises. Allow yourself to indulge once in a while. “Food should be an enjoyable experience and you don’t have to give up everything you like.” Train yourself to take a balanced approach. A small cup of ice cream for comfort food after a bad day is okay if it makes you feel better and helps with your mental wellbeing, as long as you get back on track the next day. “Be aware of what you eat!” A slice of pizza once a week is better than one every day.
The first step in adapting the Dietary Guidelines for South-Asian cuisine is to address grains. Less processed is better. Use brown or red rice. Consider alternatives like quinoa, bulgur wheat, and millet as substitutes for rice, or use a combination; they provide more protein with less carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates “end up in the belly area” as triglycerides. If you must, have a very small quantity of white rice at the end of the meal to soothe your palate. Many South Asians have hypertriglyceridemia resulting from high refined carbohydrates – the white rice factor. Use whole wheat flour for chappatis and rotis. Ensure you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Introduce more color in the diet. Fresh is best, frozen is the next alternative. Canned food should be a last resort. Add non-fat or low-fat yogurt to your meal for probiotics that are good for digestion and gut bacteria. The DASH meal plan is a good model to follow, especially for low sodium diets. Eat at least three hours before going to bed to aid in digestion and keep your blood glucose in check.
A plant-based diet comprising fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains is the ideal way to go. It is also consistent with the Sattvik diet described in the Bhagavad Gita and other Yoga Shatras. Furthermore, studies have shown that the prescribed plant-based diet diet can help prevent and treat diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, high blood pressure, and other long-term conditions. A recent article provides evidence that this kind of diet also helps with Crohn’s’s disease, and it’s not difficult to reach the Guidelines’ goal of nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
‘Tadka,’ or ‘Oggarane’ – tempering – is a fundamental step in South Asian cooking; it provides those mouth-watering flavors by liberating essential oils in spices and condiments. Drs. Misra and Balagopal encourage this – we must enjoy our food – but urge us to minimize the quantity of oil, and suggest that canola and olive oil are better than other options, since they have lower trans- and saturated-fat content. Avoid saturated fats and limit ghee to occasional use. Avoid deep-fried food. Above all, never reuse oil left over from deep frying. “When you heat oil to a certain temperature, it generates acrylamides – chemicals known to be carcinogenic,” Dr. Balagopal warns.
Another essential key is portion control. “Set your tummy thermostat to half-full and get up when you get there,” Dr. Balagopal urges. A high-fiber, whole-grain diet, while good for other reasons, also makes you feel fuller, and helps in this context.
We’ve given you a plate-full of suggestions to get started. Future articles will focus on the health benefits of certain spices and condiments, and eating with chronic illnesses.
With sincere thanks to Anna Pelzer at Unsplash for the use of her beautiful photograph.
Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.
Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides information, and access to resources on matters related to health and well-being, aging, life’s transitions including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death in the family and bereavement. If you feel overcome by a crisis and are overwhelmed by Google searches, Sukham can provide curated resource help. To find out more, visit https://www.sukham.org, or contact the author at [email protected].