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.
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.
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.
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