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Sharon Palmer, R.D.
Fragrant curry, simmering dal, colorful tandoori, spicy korma -- the aromatic, delicious foods of India, with their incredible range of spices, flavors, foods, colors, textures and ingredients, speak for themselves.
It's easy to understand why Indian cuisine is soaring -- who can resist the fabulous flavors?
Looking beyond taste, however, how does Indian food rate in healthiness?
There are many healthy attributes, according to Madhu Gadia, M.S., R.D., dietitian and Indian cuisine expert.
"The Indian diet is rich in beans, vegetables, whole grains and spices. Studies show that people avoid vegetables when they don't taste good. But because Indian foods are full of flavor, it's a delicious way to eat them," says Gadia.
Indian Food & Good Nutrition
There is scientific consensus that a disease-protective diet looks something like this: High in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other plant-based foods; and low in animal fats, salt, refined grains and sugars.
A traditional Indian diet can fit pretty neatly into this description. In fact, the National Cancer Institute reports that cancer rates are lower in India than in Western countries, and that diet characteristics such as high intake of fruits, vegetables, spices and tea might be responsible for protecting Indians against certain forms of cancer.
Here are a few healthy components of the Indian diet:
Indian cuisine includes many vegetables combined flavorfully in dishes, such as beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, corn, eggplant, green beans, greens, okra, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, radishes, spinach, squash and tomatoes.
Whole-wheat flatbreads and basmati rice are popular in Indian home-cooked meals.
Indian cuisine relies upon the regular and flavorful use of legumes like black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils and beans.
Apples, apricots, bananas, figs, grapes, guava, lychee, loquat, mangoes, oranges, papayas, passion fruit, and sweet limes are common fruits in India.
From milk and buttermilk to yogurt and paneer (fresh cheese), dairy products are regular features of the Indian diet.
Herbs and Spices
At the heart of Indian food is a list of culinary herbs and spices that have been used for centuries, many of which are proven to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anticancer effects. Indian spices include amchur (made from mangoes), aniseed, asafetida (a pungent, onion-like flavor), bay leaf, black pepper, cardamom, chilies, cinnamon, clove, coconut, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, garam masala (a spice blend), garlic, ginger, mango powder, mint, mustard, nutmeg, onion seeds, parsley, pomegranate seeds, poppy seeds, saffron, sesame seeds, tamarind and turmeric.
Small Amounts of Meat
Since vegetarianism is common in India, a delicious cuisine has developed to include many vegetarian dishes. Even non-vegetarians tend to eat smaller amounts of meat and frequent vegetarian meals.
The heavy side of Indian food
Sure, there are lots of reasons to love Indian food, but it comes with a few caveats. Gadia reports that traditional, home-cooked Indian food is typically low in fat and rich in vegetables and whole grains. But the opposite is often true of food prepared in restaurants. "At home, you would hardly ever use cream in a curry or sauce, but at an Indian restaurant they often use cream as a base," warns Gadia. In addition, many restaurant dishes -- especially those prepared with a sauce -- are swimming in vegetable oils and added salt. Top it off with a deep-fried appetizer like samosa, and plate-sized servings of naan (flatbread) made with white flour, and it's easy to see how a healthful cuisine can turn into an indulgent food fest.
Most Indian restaurants have fallen into the same restaurant food trap that other ethnic establishments have fallen into -- instead of sticking with authentic cooking traditions, they often westernize recipes and add extra fat and salt. Gadia urges Indian food lovers to complain to restaurant owners to create a movement for healthier food. It's starting to work for Mexican restaurants, with famous eateries such as
The idea that Indian food can morph into something less healthy has even worried public health experts. India's rapid urbanization has resulted in dietary changes in recent years that are linked with increasing obesity and higher disease rates, especially diabetes. In rural India, diabetes prevalence is only 2 to 6 percent, while in urban areas it is 12 percent. And Indians living in Western nations experience a four-time greater overall rate of diabetes compared with those living in India.
Bringing Indian food to the Kitchen
So how do you enjoy Indian food without guilt?
By eating authentic, home-cooked meals where you control the ingredients, says Gadia. While many people are intimidated by Indian cooking, it's not as hard as it looks.
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