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How to Build a Healthy Plate – Indian Style

Sukham Blog

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 diabetesheart disease, some cancershigh 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].  


The Skinny on a Low-Carb High-Fat Diet

There is an urban legend that the Indian diet is rich in fat. When you think of desi cuisine it brings up images of deep-fried pooris and sautéed vegetables floating in oil. It is further assumed that this fat-rich diet contributes to the high prevalence of heart disease among Indians. On the contrary, my own observation is that in most Indian-American households today only a small amount of vegetable oil, and almost no ghee, butter, or cream is consumed. Also, in my Ayurveda practice I usually evaluate people’s diets and find that most consume less than 30 grams of fat a day. Instead, rice, wheat, dals, breakfast cereals, low-fat milk and yogurt, fruits, potatoes, and other vegetables are listed most commonly in their food logs. The truth is this is a diet rich in carbohydrates, not fats.


This was not the case some 60 years ago. Until the 1950s ghee and freshly churned butter were the preferred fats in the Indian diet. People consumed whole milk. They were also more physically active.

Controversial Hypothesis

Then in 1953 an American scientist named Ancel Keys proposed a hypothesis that dietary fat and cholesterol were responsible for heart disease. Although Keys’s research methods were flawed, the theory caught the interest of some bureaucrats and politicians who advanced it to inform new dietary guidelines for Americans. Low fat became the mantra for a healthy diet, which spread worldwide and remains the conventional wisdom even today.

These dietary guidelines have led to several unfortunate consequences. Following the recommendations of their doctors, people switched from ghee to Dalda, and from butter to margarine, thus consuming trans fats which have since been studied and shown to be linked to heart disease. Many have cut down fat intake to a bare minimum, replacing it with more grains, fruits, and sugary snacks as their main sources of calories and energy. Processed foods laden with refined and enriched flours, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup, yet labeled “low fat” and “heart healthy” have gained favor. Meanwhile, we are witnessing a pandemic of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, dementia, and other chronic diseases.

According to ayurveda, while less fat is beneficial for some people of kapha constitution, or suffering from a kapha ailment, it is not recommended for all. Most people who restrict dietary fat increase their risk of imbalance of vata dosha leading to vata disorders like constipation, arthritis, and sensory and neurological dysfunction.

Snigdham ashniyat (eat unctuous food), recommends Charaka Samhita, an ancient text on Ayurveda. This advice is for healthy people to maintain their good health. The fat enhances the taste of the food and bolsters agni (the digestive fire). Thus, it speeds up digestion and helps with absorption of nutrients. It also aids the downward movement of vata (peristalsis), nourishes and strengthens the body, improves sensory function, and promotes clarity of skin complexion.

Choices of Healthy Fats

The fat most highly recommended in ayurveda is ghee, or clarified butter. It is a tonic for memory, intellect, and the eyes. Ghee has a high smoke point (500 degrees F) and so is especially suitable for tadka, or high temperature tempering of spices. You can also add organic butter, cream or whole milk to your diet. Healthy choices of oils include extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and sesame oil. Among fruits avocadoes, coconuts, and olives are good sources of healthy oils. So are tree nuts like almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and brazil nuts. Cold water fish like salmon contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to be beneficial for heart health. Chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flax seeds are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

How much fat can you include in your diet? Listen to your body and it will tell you. Too much dietary fat makes you feel heavy and nauseous. So, most people are unlikely to binge on fat. Even so, you may want to increase it by only one tablespoon (14 grams) at first in each of your main meals and see how you feel. At the same time, reduce your consumption of sugar (and other sweeteners, desserts, sodas, fruit juices) and starchy foods (rice, wheat, other grains, potatoes) by at least twice as much.

What to Expect

You will probably find that with more fat in your meals you feel satiated with smaller portions. Also, fats and oils keep you satiated for a longer time, and there is less craving for snacks between meals. You will also be training your body to burn fat for energy and not rely as much on glucose. If you had sugar cravings before, they will subside in a few weeks and you will experience an even supply of energy throughout the day.

Oil, being the best remedy for vata imbalance, will help to relieve symptoms of vata like body ache, joint pain, numbness, stiffness, and constipation.

If you simultaneously reduce your carbohydrate intake to less than 100 grams a day, your blood sugars will probably decrease and become more stable. Triglycerides will also drop. You can also expect gradual and sustained weight loss. Contrary to popular belief, it is not dietary fat that makes you fat, it is excessive consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods.
Here are a couple of recipes for reducing carbohydrates and adding healthy oils to your diet.

Salad Dressing
The oil, herbs, and spices in a dressing not only add to the taste, they also help in easier digestion and more complete absorption of the phytonutrients in a green salad. Many commercial dressings contain vegetable oils processed with heat or chemicals. So it’s best to make small batches of dressing at home with the healthiest oils. Choose extra virgin, cold pressed, unrefined olive oil or macadamia nut oil.

12 tablespoons (3/4 cup):olive oil, extra virgin, cold pressed, unrefined
4 tablespoons (1/4  cup): juice of one lemon                    1 teaspoon: pepper, coarsely ground black ½ teaspoon : salt or Himalayan pink salt
Mix all the ingredients in a dressing mixer or a small glass bottle. Shake well before dispensing.

Almond-Chickpea Roti

If roti or some kind of flat bread is your comfort food, try various kinds of flour and you may find a mix that satisfies your taste buds without elevating your blood sugar too much. Chickpea flour has only half the carbohydrates as wheat, and more dietary fiber and protein. Almond meal and coconut flour are very low in carbohydrates, but by themselves they don’t bind well and are difficult to roll into flat bread. My mother tried various mixes and came up with this delicious recipe that is gluten-free, low in carbs, and has a substantial amount of protein.

almond meal: ¼ cup
chickpea flour (besan): ¼ cup
Himalayan pink salt: ¼ teaspoon
water: as needed to knead the dough

Mix all the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add water in small amounts to knead into dough of medium to stiff consistency. Roll into thick flat breads. Roast on a tava or cast iron griddle. Makes 2 small rotis.

The ideas and opinions expressed here are for educational purpose only. They are not intended to replace the advice of a physician or medical practitioner. Before beginning any diet program including any recommendations discussed here, it is recommended that you seek your physician’s advice.

Ashok Jethanandani, B.A.M.S., is a graduate of Gujarat Ayurved University, Jamnagar, and practices ayurveda in San Jose, Calif. www.classical-ayurveda.com.

First published in October 2015

Sweet as Honey: Delicious Indian Desserts (Balushahi and Dry Fruits Milkshake)

Sweet as Honey: Delicious Indian Desserts

Honey was man’s first sweetener. Honey was also an important condiment in medieval times. We crave sweets, as our stone-age forefathers have been deprived of it for centuries. Humans (Homo sapiens) evolved some 50,000 years ago, whereas bees were making honey 40 million years before that. Honeybees as a group probably originated in South East Asia. It seems they developed social behavior and structural identity similar to what we observe in modern honey bees, some 30 million years ago. Apis mellifera, known as the western honey bee, is a commonly domesticated species. It is believed to have originated in Africa and spread later to Europe and Asia. Honey was the staple sweetener in Europe till the 1500s. The name “honey” comes from the English word “huning.” In 1622, European colonists brought these sub-species to Americas. Cooking with honey was a mark of privilege and it was long used for preserving fruits whole or as a jam.
Cave paintings in Spain from 7000 B.C show the earliest records of bee keeping. Honey is also mentioned in Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform writings from 2100 B.C. From available evidence, we know that humans have been collecting honey for 10,000 years. But the interplay between bees and flowers is understood much later in 1000 A.D.
The pre-historic cave paintings at Bhimbetka in India show men despoiling beehives built on rocks, perhaps around 6000 B.C. Even as early as the Rigvedic period (2nd and 1st century) the Rbhu brothers were credited with building artificial hives of reeds and straws. The Mahabharata (4th century B.C.) has references to apiary keepers, flower gardens and pollen yielding plants, indicating some degree of commercialization by then.
Bees were domesticated in artificial hives both in India and Egypt about 4500 years ago. The earliest record of bee keeping in Egypt is found in the Sun temple (near Cairo) believed to be erected in 2400 B.C. In 1800s, when archaeologists were working in Egypt, they found a large jar of honey, and found that it tasted perfect, even though it was thousands of years old.
Honey is truly an insect product of high nutritive value. The food value of honey may be estimated by the presence of about 80% sugar in it. One should not mistakenly assume that honey is only a plant product because the nectar, pollen and cane-sugar are all secretions from flowers. As they are digested by bees, it gets mixed with their saliva and it soon undergoes certain chemical changes due to the action of enzymes. At this stage sugar (sucrose) is converted into dextrose and levulose. At the same time some ingredients of bees are also added to the mixture and the water content reduces. The whole mixture is then collected in the crop until the honey bee reaches the hive. As the bee reaches the hive this compound is regurgitated in the hive cell and is known as “Honey.”

Honey Dipped Balushahi
* 1 cup all-purpose flour
* 2 tsp. yogurt
* 1 tsp. sugar
* 1/2 tsp. baking soda
* 2 tsp. clarified butter
* ghee for deep frying
* Honey for dipping
Mix all the ingredients together, except ghee and honey. Prepare smooth fluffy dough. Divide them into equal parts and shape them as you please. Now, heat the ghee to medium hot (not too smoky) and fry these balushahis to golden brown. Then, dip them in honey until it coats all over it. Serve chilled as a dessert.

Dry Fruits Milkshake
Honey Jar* 3 fresh figs
* 5 dates
* 5 almonds
* 3-4 cashew nuts
* 4-7 pistachios
* 1 large banana
* 2 tsp. honey
* 4 cups of organic milk
Blend all the above mentioned ingredients together till smooth. Serve chilled in tall glasses.

Malar Gandhi is a freelance writer who specializes in Culinary Anthropology and Gourmet Indian Cooking. She blogs about Indian Food at www.kitchentantras.com

First published in May 2017.