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!
Use these traditional Indian ingredients to add flavor and powerful nutrients to your next meal.
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).
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My husband lived in India for 14 years and I’ve been there 7 times. One of the main reasons there’s a significant problem with health in India is a mass exodus to indoors and pollution to the max. Their vitamin D levels are crap now. They have dark skin, they need more outside time but the pollution is covering the sky, and they don’t fortify food since most of it is prepared and not boxed. There’s also a lot of dumping of industrial fluoride… “fluoride increases the skeleton’s need for calcium (and vitamin D) by increasing the amount of unmineralized tissue (osteoid) in the bone.” — google for that string. Phytic acid, according to studies cited on Weston A. Price’s site: Other studies show that adding ascorbic acid can significantly counteract inhibition of iron assimilation by phytic acid.22 Adding ascorbic acid significantly counteracted phytate inhibition from phytic acid in wheat.23 One study showed that anti-iron phytate levels in rice were disabled by vitamin C in collard greens.24
Research published in 2000 indicates that both vitamin A and beta-carotene form a complex with iron, keeping it soluble and preventing the inhibitory effect of phytates on iron absorption.25 Here we have another reason to consume phytate-rich foods in the context of a diet containing organ meat and animal fats rich in vitamin A, and fruits and vegetables rich in carotenes.
What about Brazil? Aren’t they strong meat eaters? Are they healthy as a population?
This is a fantastic series and I have a request; I don’t think I have seen it yet–but it would cover a lot of above requests too (Spain, Italy, Greece all mentioned)–the Mediterranean diet. So often we think of Mediterranean as the misguided media portrays it: low-fat, high-carb, grainy, low-fat meat, everything cooked in olive oil instead of meat or dairy fat. But in my experience (traditional Western Mediterranean) there is plenty of fat: delicious eggs (with bright orange yolks, from happy chickens), great cheeses (certainly not low-fat!) and meat topped with more fat (fried eggs served on cuts of meat) in addition to lots of fish (last time I checked, sardines were not low-fat), and like someone said regarding Spain–where are the whole grains? 🙂 So I think a Mediterranean diet is great, but it is quite different from what conventional wisdom is touting as a true Mediterranean diet, wouldn’t you agree?
Wow! I’ve always wondered about this and it is nice to hear your description. I now have images floating around in my head. 🙂
hehe… “Happy chickens”… there is a brand of free-range, semi-pastured eggs now sold in my local Kroger store… they also have very orange yokes and the brand is… “the Happy Egg co.” lol
I am SOO glad that I left that “Low-Fat” diet that was ruining my health years ago.
People always quote the mediterranean diet and always quote olive oil. The spanish boil bones be it fish or meat. They sell chicken carcases in the supermarket for stock. This then goes into their meals. They eat a lot of pork and chicken, they use organ meat and they eat a lot of bread. Maybe this is where people should focus the studies as opposed to salad and olive oil. I think you will find the Italians, greeks, chinese and japanese also boil bones and are not afraid of organ meats.
My fiance and I just moved from Seattle to Jerusalem for the next nine months, and so far I am not encountering the food culture that I expected (very fresh, local ingredients). I am a Nutritional Therapist and was so looking forward to eating lots of salads, lamb, and seasonal produce, but so far the markets have been disappointing and I do not trust that the food in restaurants is very high quality either. I may just need to shift my perspective a bit, but I have become pretty spoiled with all of the great markets in Seattle. I would love it if you could write an article on Israel’s food culture, as I am sort of overwhelmed as to where to begin my food studies here. Thanks and what a great series!
Thank you for writing this very interesting series on international cuisines. Haven’t missed a single one! A suggestion no-one has made yet: Portuguese cuisine. I think you will find food for thought there… Pun intended 😉
Though traditional Indian food includes a lot of vegetables, most of our vegetables are cooked to an inch of their lives! I wonder how much nutrition is left in them. The benefits of diets rich in fruit & vegies comes from them being eaten raw or minimally cooked. I am not sure how much of the phytonutrients are left in the vegetable dishes cooked in most Indian homes.
Any chance of doing an article on Ireland?