From the India Today archives (2003) | How to diet on Indian food – India Today

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(NOTE: This article was originally published in the INDIA TODAY edition dated April 28, 2003)

Thirty-two-year-old Suhasini Nindrajog is consumed with dieting. Overweight by about 10 kg, she dreams incessantly of a pencil-thin figure. Nindrajog has tried everything- from the globally famous Dr Robert Atkins’ diet to a blood group diet to depressive weeks of just bananas and milk. She seems to be among those whose purses are the only things that lose weight at slimming centres. “I eat salads, boiled, steamed foods, don’t snack and even skip meals at times,” she says. “But nothing works. Besides, I feel lethargic all the time.”


Quite in contrast, Neeraj Bhalla, a fit looking 39-year-old, says he eats all the time. “Because food is for eating,” reasons Bhalla with a satiated smile. He starts his day with two cups of tea, followed by a breakfast of stuffed parathas, curd and pickle, a big lunch (“I eat out almost every day”) and a heavy dinner with at least one non-vegetarian gravy dish. “In between meals, I eat what I like—pastries, chocolates, aloo bhujia or biscuits—but I don’t put on weight at all.”

Both Nindrajog and Bhalla are on polarised trips in life, but it seems that the desired results of their eating pursuits have got mixed up. While Nindrajog suffers from excessive water retention, Bhalla is one of those few lucky gluttons who are genetically predisposed to being lean, besides having a high basal metabolic rate (BMR) that helps them burn more calories than they eat. But while he may keep fat at bay, it does not mean he is healthy. Both Nindrajog and Bhalla know nothing about the golden rule of dieting-moderation. A clever thumb rule of eating right that many Indians seem to be clueless about.

The good news, proven by studies old and new, is that traditional Indian food and methods of cooking offer the best options for a diet that is safe, palatable and promotes health without denying the pleasure of taste. So say goodbye to the obsession with western diets that enveloped India some years back. If dieting has to be consistent and successful, it must originate from one’s own kitchen and the availability in one’s own country. It cannot be an imported reality.

Unfortunately, this objective is hindered by research on food which is published sporadically in corners of various publications without proper analysis. This leads to great confusion. One day, wine and alcohol are good for the heart, the next, they are killers. One study proves the importance of sugar in a diet, another rubbishes it. This contributes to uncertainty about good carbs (carbohydrates) vs bad carbs and good cholesterol vs bad cholesterol. Those keen to knock those kilos chase dieticians and doctors, but seem to be going in circles, attaining little.

“It is the modernisation of the square meal that has led to problems and confusion,” says Dr Kamala Krishnaswamy, former director of the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition. Krishnaswamy, one of the country’s foremost nutrition experts who has written a number of books on Indian food, says that while people are aware of the protective properties of Indian spices they have forgotten the traditional methods of cooking, washing, seasoning and eating food. “The way north Indian food is currently seasoned and cooked is particularly problematic,” she says.


For various reasons, the term “Indian food” has a quicker association with parathas, puris, butter chicken, chaat, pakoras and the bhujiya and gujiya variety than it has with Bengal gram, millet, besan ki roti, appams, idlis, Gujarati steamed dhoklas and khakhdas (dry, paper thin, non-oily snacks) or steamed momos. Given the possibility of health food in the variety that India’s regional cuisines offer, an Indian health food cafe is waiting to be discovered. It is about going back to grandma’s recipes armed with the awareness that recent research has provided.

What intervenes are the trappings of a developing society. The popularity of junk food with the burger brigade, which wants bread for breakfast instead of roti, poha or upma, and the new taste for processed foods have made the Indian dining table a stage for the worst food combos. Oily puris with tinned baked beans or pork sausages. Crisps, colas, cutlets and sandwiches as snacks.


Chocolate souffles and tarts with rabri and kaju barfi. It isn’t surprising then that despite so many people going on and off supervised diets, the Indian population is showing a steady increase in obesity and chronic degenerative disorders like diabetes, cancers and cardiovascular problems.

At the Asian Congress of Nutrition held in Delhi recently, several studies on nutrition, some concentrating specifically on Indian foods, revealed the critical link between dietary habits and health. Even as India is still resolving its malnutrition issues, 20 per cent of the urban Indian population consumes 70 per cent of total fat. The same 20 per cent also consumes the maximum junk food eaten in the country.

Meet the Arora family, which like many north Indian households, took great pride in their kitchen from where their cook would churn out sweets, pakoras, biryani, chicken and mutton with thick spicy gravy and dry vegetables dripping with oil. “I used to save money to buy dry fruits for my son. And I would insist that he eat his chappati with ghee or butter on it,” says a defeated Suma Arora. Defeated because her husband, brother-in-law as well as her 35-year-old son, whom she fed with so much indulgence in childhood, have all been diagnosed with arterial blocks. Arora didn’t know, till disaster struck, that dry fruits and excessive ghee increase cholesterol levels.


While most nutritionists have their own list of bugaboos contributing to conflicting ideas on dieting, they do agree on certain basics. The fact that there is no ideal diet for all people and there is no formula for a miracle diet. That dieting is temporary, but healthy eating is a lifetime commitment. That proper eating will not show results unless it is combined with regular, moderate exercise.

“It’s about understanding your body, understanding the various qualities in the food you eat and their balance,” says Dr Veena Jain, senior vice-president (operations) at weight-loss clinic VLCC. Balance is a keyword. Even the best of diets fail if they are imbalanced because the body begins to experience recurrent fatigue.

Nutritionist and fitness manager Himanshu Kapoor at Delhi’s J. Wellness Centre says that most of her clients are in the 30-plus age group and complain of low energy levels and fatigue. “I advise small, frequent meals instead of starvation diets,” she says, adding that deprivation only leads to bingeing and eventually, overeating.

Kapoor says most diets rebound after people stop supervision because they are given measured food packets at slimming centres but are not advised about the basic properties of food. As soon as a particular diet finishes, savoury foods lure dieters back into old habits. “Indian food has great possibilities for an optimum diet, we just need to modify our ways of cooking,” she says. Options should be explored within the tandoori and grilled variety of Indian food and rotis stuffed with green, leafy vegetables.

Crash or starvation diets are the most dangerous, and research has proved they can cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels and a sudden slump in metabolic rates. Studies released at the recent Nutrition Congress also showed that certain crash diets could lead to permanent organ damage. A fact that Malini Deshmukh’s story validates. Deshmukh, a 23-year-old overweight girl, misinformed by bits and pieces on dieting in magazines, went on a self-styled starvation diet. She collapsed twice during an out of town assignment and had to be flown back. “I was later diagnosed with multiple deficiencies and was sternly told to revert to good, nutritious food in healthy proportions,” says Deshmukh, who had to spend seven days in hospital and go through a battery of tests while suffering blackouts that stemmed from general weakness.

Nutritionists speak in unison when they emphasise that breakfast should be the biggest meal of the day: fulfilling, interesting and balanced so that the body, hungry for the longest gap between last night’s meal and the morning, gets recharged. Lunch should be the next in size, with rice, rotis, dal, vegetables/non-veg and curd. Dinner should be smallest-simple and frugal.

While the spectrum of food that Indian kitchens offer may be a New Age dietician’s delight, the fact remains that given current cooking styles, Indian food needs to be modified. Indications about recommended oils, the maximum quantity of oil a person should consume per day, the effects of re-heating leftover food and the reuse of oil for re-frying are needed. “We have completely forgotten the suitability of food according to personal nature and body types,” says Delhi’s Dr Shikha Sharma, who falls back on the legendary ayurvedic classifications of people and types to counsel her clients.

But dieting, being a trendy religion, has many gurus, each with a different philosophy. While Sharma’s success rate as a dietician is considered enviable, her classification of diets based on blood groups is not universally accepted. “Blood group diets can never really work and nowhere in the world has any study proven that they do,” says Dr A. P. Simopoulos of the Centre for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, Washington DC, USA. Then why do crash diets show initial positive results? Simopoulos says, “It makes a lot of sense to have an expert exclusively devoted to your eating patterns-that is what creates the success response.”

Sharma concedes that behavioural counselling of clients is a huge contributor to success. “People need to be motivated to lose weight. Besides, somebody has to sit them down and tell them that what is good for their neighbour or sister is not necessarily good for them.” Simopoulos, who has studied the good and bad of Indian food, talks particularly about the harmful effects of ghee. Ghee has fried many a debate. No one recommends it. Ghee or vanaspati, the brand sold as a ghee substitute in India, is pure, saturated fat which increases the amount of bad cholesterol in the body.

Even then, the answer to the most common question: “Should ghee be completely avoided?” is in the negative. Sharma says, “It is wrong to throw all fat content out from meals” and that fat from various sources is better than depending on a single oil, but it is the limit of the total intake that is crucial. “A maximum of one tablespoon (15 gm) per person per day is fine.”

A lot of Indian food, especially north Indian, Gujarati and Rajasthani dishes, depends on excess oil, which is a big no no. All plant and vegetable oils are fine, provided they are minimally used. While south Indian food has some of the best bets in healthy eating in terms of idlis, appams, rasam, upma and uttapam, the use of coconut oil detracts from their merit. “The way oil is re-used in Indian kitchens creates poisonous substances,” adds Jain. For instance, tawa fried vegetables, served especially at Indian wedding parties, are cooked on simmering heat and use the same oil for hours, making it toxic.

While the elusive definition of a balanced diet is still under the grater, there is consensus among nutritionists that vegetables should be eaten in abundance. Plenty of salads with multi-coloured raw fruits and vegetables make the diet a high-fibre one. “Apart from making the diet bulky, fibre delays the absorption of carbohydrates and fats and therefore has great satiety value,” says Krishnaswamy, adding that Indian traditions of scrubbing vegetables and fruits instead of peeling them and washing vegetables before instead of after cutting them, protects the Vitamin C in them.

Sharma thinks that a lot of people will start eating right if the myths woven around food are debunked. Try telling that to Indian grandmothers who swear by the theory of hot and cold foods. Curd and astringent fruits are cold, sesame ladoos with almond and honey laced milk are warm and dry fruits and nuts are hot.

On the contrary, curd has great probiotic (as opposed to antibiotic), protective values which help the body defend itself against infections. “It is also a myth that vegetarianism is healthy while non-veg foods are bad,” says Sharma, clarifying that some people lose more weight and at a faster rate through moderate helpings of non-vegetarian food.

Fish, a highly recommended food, is protein-rich and is wonderful for those suffering from heart problems, hypertension, diabetes and migraines. “There are no hot or cold foods,” says Dr Sushma Sharma, who teaches nutrition at Delhi’s Lady Irwin College, “but some people are allergic to certain foods and fruits, which strengthens the myths.” Responding to the myth that spicy food eaten at night makes people ill, Krishnaswamy says, “Eating a heavy, late dinner is bad because people go to bed before the body starts digesting the food. This can induce acidity.”

Most normal, healthy people need a daily intake of approximately 2,400 calories, depending upon gender, BMR, activity levels, height and appetite. But combined with moderate and consistent exercise, a calorie deficit diet-consuming fewer calories than stated in optimum diet plans-will do away with the need for special food plans. This can be done by understanding how many calories common Indian foods have.

A healthy diet should include all foods: energy yielding (cereals, sugars, fats and oils), body-building (milk and its products, meat, fish, eggs, pulses and nuts) and protective (like green leafy vegetables, fresh fruit, curd, meat).“The tradition of a glass of milk a day was very good, but few people drink milk now,” says Krishnaswamy, adding that the best naturally available calcium is in milk.

Foods popular among children and adolescents are the ones most under fire. Junk foods-cross-breed butter chicken pizzas, fried aloo-tikki burgers, aerated drinks, processed foods like instant noodles, tinned non-vegetarian eats, French fries, chips and crisps-are writing a dangerous footnote in the future health of Indian children.

A study conducted last year at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) by Dr Umesh Kapil, titled “Obesity Among Affluent Adolescent Schoolchildren of Delhi”, found that 23.1 per cent boys and 27.7 per cent girlswereoverweightand8percentout of the total 1,000 students studied were obese. The study also revealed that a majority of adolescents ate snacks between meals, relied on fast food (94.2 per cent), eating it three to seven times a week on average. Worse, they missed at least one square meal a day.

“Junk food should be junked,” says Sushma Sharma, commenting on the high salt and fat content of fast foods and the empty calories in aerated drinks. Clearly, awareness of the good and bad in food should start early in life as vulnerability towards certain illnesses begins in childhood itself.

While Indian children are still surfing on the delights of junk food, their parents are moving towards the other end of the spectrum. Sudden panic about weight leads many to opt for marketed health foods like diet colas, diet chocolates and beer, sugar substitutes for tea and coffee, special oils and flours and packaged sprouts.

“Old traditional foods and flours are being marketed under trendy brand names,” says Dr Kusum Khanna, director of Delhi University’s Institute of Home Economics, adding that jowar, bajra, ragi, and whole-wheat flours are mixed to form these special flours. But she does agree that diet colas, diet chocolate and low-cal sugar substitutes are real dietary saviours. The lack of information about branded health foods is just another indicator that diet counselling should be an industry that does more than just helping people survive starvation. A bitter flipside of dieting that Nindrajog is still coming to terms with.

The new Indian food pyramid gives basic guidelines but it will take more than that to improve India’s food habits. Many experts in the food and nutrition industry insist that it should be mandatory to print nutritional information (calorie value, content, allergic possibilities) on packaged food so that dieticians, nutritionists and the consumers can choose right.

Correct eating is not about not eating gulab jamuns and aloo tikkis, it is about eating them at the right time, in the right quantity and enjoying them. Kapoor’s dictum could be useful, “It is wise eating, not dieting, that works. Dieting has a beginning and an end, but wise eating has a lifetime continuity.” Now, isn’t that a good enough reason to order a large, healthy meal?

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Published By:

Aditya Mohan Wig

Published On:

Apr 30, 2024

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