Unlike most of the other countries I’ve covered in this series, India is not renowned for any aspect of its health. Many Indians continue to suffer from malnutrition, and their rates of chronic disease (especially diabetes) are on the rise.
Unfortunately, there have been some key shifts in their diet over the past few decades that are likely contributing to their poor health. These include a shift towards rice and wheat as the predominant grains, an increase in added sugars, and a transition away from traditional fats towards industrialized fats and oils. (1)
Nonetheless, many traditional Indian foods remain (albeit to a lesser extent), and Indian cuisine has long added delicious variety to the global palate. As with any other country, there’s no one ‘Indian diet,’ and staples vary significantly depending on the region in question. But generally speaking, the traditional Indian diet is lacto-vegetarian and based on grains such as rice, millet, barley, and wheat, along with dried legumes (such as lentils), local vegetables and fruits, dairy (often in the form of butter or ghee), and of course, a huge variety of spices, which give Indian food its signature flavor. (2)
In this article, I’ll highlight some of my favorite components of the traditional (and to some extent, modern) Indian diet. As always, if you’ve ever lived in or visited India, I’d love to hear your input!
Ghee is one Indian food that has become increasingly popular in ancestral health circles. Ghee is made by heating and straining butter to remove the moisture and milk proteins, leaving only the pure butterfat. It contains all of the fat-soluble vitamins that make us love butter so much, and it’s an ideal cooking fat because there aren’t any milk proteins that can burn at higher temperatures. Additionally, it’s pure enough that even people with dairy sensitivities can often tolerate it.
In India, ghee is considered almost sacred, and is often treated more like medicine than food. According to Ayurvedic tradition, ghee promotes longevity, prevents disease, and increases digestion and assimilation. (3) Ghee is also a favored food for pregnant women. (4)
If you remember from my article on African cuisine, ghee is also highly prized in the African countries that consume dairy. It’s interesting to me that both cultures, which subsist on a primarily plant-based diet, have such a high regard for ghee, while cultures such as the French certainly enjoy their butter, but don’t necessarily value it so highly. I suspect these cultures knew inherently that the ghee could give them vital nutrients they couldn’t get elsewhere in their diet. Unfortunately, this wisdom is rapidly being lost.
Unsurprisingly, researchers have tried to blame ghee for cardiovascular disease in India. However, a recent study on rats found that a diet with 10% ghee actually improved blood lipids, even after the ghee had been heated further to attempt to oxidize the cholesterol. (5) This paper also discusses a study on psoriasis patients that showed improved blood lipids and reduced psoriasis symptoms with a ghee-supplemented diet.
In a refreshing display of common sense, the study authors also point out that ghee has been used in India for generations, while Indians maintained low rates of heart disease. On the other hand, the recent uptick in heart disease coincides suspiciously with the replacement of traditional ghee with ‘vegetable ghee.’ (6) This ‘vegetable ghee’ is made of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and the resulting product can contain up to 50% trans-fatty acids. (7) Vegetable ghee is now commonly used in home cooking, by street vendors, and by food manufacturers across India. With all we know about how harmful trans fats can be, it’s no wonder heart disease rates are increasing.
Fermented Grains and Beans
Like other cultures that have subsisted mainly on plant foods, Indians traditionally ferment many of their grain-based dishes. One of the most popular of these dishes is idli, a steamed bread-like breakfast food made from fermented ground rice and beans. Stephan Guyenet has an idli recipe here, if you want to check it out.
The fermentation process idli undergoes increases the content of vitamin C and the B vitamins, decreases phytates and enzyme inhibitors, increases the bioavailability of iron, and even increases the content of methionine, an essential amino acid that is abundant in muscle meat but limited in plant proteins. (8) This significantly increases the protein quality, helping to compensate for their vegetarian diet.
I came across a recent paper with some interesting research on the probiotic potential of yeast strains found in idli dough. The authors tested twenty different yeast strains for their viability as probiotics, and found seven that were able to survive in conditions resembling those of the human gut. These strains exhibited antimicrobial activity against common pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella, and could produce phytase, protease, lipase, and other enzymes that could improve digestion. It’s too early to tell if this research has any practical application, but I thought it was interesting!
The most prominent characteristic of Indian food is undoubtedly their liberal use of spices. One paper estimated that Indians consume 1.5g per person per day of turmeric alone, compared with less than 1g of total spices in other countries. (9) Another showed that for the average Indian, spices contribute up to 7.5% of their daily value for trace minerals such as manganese, zinc, iron, and chromium, although I question how bioavailable those minerals actually are. (10)
Common Indian spices such as coriander, turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon have been studied pretty extensively for their health-promoting properties. One useful property is that they can reduce lipid oxidation, so using spices in cooking is a great way to protect delicate fats and cholesterol. (11)
They’ve also been tested for anti-diabetic, antioxidant, and anti-cancer properties, and most of the research validates their use in traditional Ayurvedic practice. One paper, entitled “Curcumin: The Indian Solid Gold,” reviewed the medicinal properties of curcumin, which is a component of turmeric. Curcumin showed potential for fighting chronic illnesses such as diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.
Two other relatively recent reviews compiled a lot of the research on Indian spices. (12, 13) Several studies have found that spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander can inhibit cholesterol and lipid oxidation in rodents. Rodent models also demonstrated that saffron, ginger, and turmeric can inhibit cancer by protecting against DNA damage and increasing detoxifying enzymes.
Clinical evidence in humans is more limited, and slightly less promising than in vitro or animal research. However, one study gave smokers 1.5g of turmeric per day for 30 days and found that it reduced urinary mutagens, and another showed a reduction in precancerous lesions after smokers consumed 1g of turmeric per day for 9 months. (14)
There’s certainly no downside to adding these spices to your food, and there very well could be a benefit, so enjoy some Indian cuisine this week! There are plenty of recipes online that are Paleo-approved as well, such as my Lamb Korma recipe, PaleOMG’s Indian Chicken and “Rice”, or this primal Saag Paneer (contains dairy).