Medically reviewed by Shahzadi Devje, Registered Dietitian (RD) & Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE)
Busting desi food myths, redefining healthy-eating and celebrating Indian cuisine.
You may recall professor and author Tom Nichols, who was caught into a kerfuffle after deeming all Indian desi food as “terrible”. Needless to say, Twitter went into a justifiable meltdown. Majority questioned if his determination of a centuries-old, widely-loved cuisine was based on a few underwhelming experiences. Some asked if he considered Indian cuisine to be “unhealthy’, and therefore used a stronger adjective to express his opinion. The latter gave birth to another question: Is Desi cuisine unhealthy?
What Is Healthy Eating?
Nutrition is important for everyone. Eating healthy is an excellent way to achieve physical and mental fitness, alongside regular exercise. Consuming a well-balanced diet consists of many nutrients our bodies need to remain active and agile. These include protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals, and let's not forget water.
This is the more generic definition and guideline for eating healthy. Yes, the above-mentioned nutrients are incredibly important and must be part of healthy eating patterns. However, there is no right or wrong way to healthily consume them. For example, we all understand how nutrient-dense broccoli is. But is boiling the only correct way to ingest it? The short answer is no. Contrary to popular belief, Desi broccoli can be fashioned in a variety of robust ways, such as sabzi, tarkari and tikka, to name a few.
Food is very personal for people; it's an expression of their culture and identity. We eat not merely to nourish our body - but also our life. It also presents an opportunity to pass down cultural teachings to new generations.
The reality is, the mainstream dietary messages we see endorsed in public health policy, research, guidelines, and media target affluent white consumers - undeniably excluding ethnic groups, who do not identify with such narratives. Why are we surprised then by the state of health disparities?
It is important to remember that each individual’s journey towards wellness and healthy-eating is different and incomparable. Similarly, no two healthy food items can be consumed in the same manner. Such atypical belief systems can be damaging to pluralistic, multicultural societies.
Not All Desi Food Is “Indian”:
As popular as Desi food is, it can also be widely misunderstood. It’s also unfairly categorized as “Indian”, despite seven other culturally rich countries existing in South Asia. Yes, India is the largest and most populous country in the region, however; food also provincially varies within the country, according to regional differences, diverse cultures and multiple languages.
It is easy to look at South Asian food and assume that it is soul-destroying oily, rich and fatty. This gives birth to a common misconception: Subcontinental cuisine is unhealthy, and ultimately leads to clogged arteries and Type 2 diabetes. Complaints often range from it-is-too-time-consuming to I-can't-handle-the-spices.
Just like other world cuisines, desi food is extremely diverse. As mentioned earlier, there are eight countries in the region, with over 200 sub-regions and over a thousand languages. How can we possibly fit them under the banner of authentic “Indian Food”?
Is Desi Cuisine Unhealthy?
South Asian food has evolved over three thousand years. It is a symbol of rich culture, diverse heritage and fascinating history. Cooking Desi food is a beautiful art of blending spices and honing them to perfection.
Some of these include turmeric, ginger, garlic, green chillies and cinnamon which possess medicinal and healing properties as emphasized by Ayurvedic Medicine. Traditional Desi cooking also emphasizes on preparing the meal from scratch, and highlights the importance of using fresh ingredients. The idea is to promote wholesome food and lesser consumption of preservatives/ultra-processed items.Food is very personal for people; it's an expression of their culture and identity. We eat not merely to nourish our body - but also our life. #RD #IndianCuisine Click To Tweet
A traditional Desi meal also includes carbohydrates, proteins, fats and fibre – the necessary elements for a well-balanced meal. Different spices are used to whip up a delicious traditional meal, however; these are not what make the dish spicy. Chillies/chilli powder merely add heat to food and can be used less, or omitted completely according to individual preferences.
Another common myth is that South Asian food is fatty. This is where the line between ingredients and individual lifestyle is blurred. The healthiness of a Desi meal is purely dependent upon its preparation and individual portion control. Was the daal cooked in a few teaspoons of oil or an entire tub of ghee? Were the ladoos prepared in six tons of sugar or a single piece of gur? Is Hameed Chacha eating three slices of shahi tukras instead of a few healthy bites? Desi eating patterns become healthy or unhealthy according to how the food is cooked and consumed.
The same example can be applied to other countries. Too much cheese on a pizza might be considered unhealthy by Italians. Excessively drinking hot chocolate with whipped cream could be labelled as unhealthy in North America. And overuse of soy sauce may be frowned upon by the Chinese, since it is high in sodium which is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure. That does not mean that either of the aforementioned items aren’t enjoyed in moderation. In fact, some regard Italy as the birthplace of various “sinful” meals. Yet, it is home to some of the longest living populations in the world. This is because healthy fats, fresh produce, less preservatives, and mindful eating all help contribute to good health and longevity.
All these myths sometimes even encourage South Asians to adopt a Western diet. We forget it’s the unhealthy lifestyle and lack of mindfulness that often leads to chronic diseases, and not presiding ingredients.
Healthy Indian Cuisine:
Desi food and meals are diverse in not just preparation, but also in flavour. Many recipes are plant-forward and vegetarian in nature, however; it would be wrong to assume that non-vegetarian meals aren’t cooked healthily. For example, my Desi meal plan is the perfect blend of plant, chicken and fish-based recipes. It offers a mixed variety of greens, grains, legumes, poultry, fish and fruit – all necessary for a nutrient-dense, well-balanced diet.
Desi Recipes You May Like:
Food should not be labelled as healthy or unhealthy. Instead, our consistent diet patterns determine how hearty or unfavourable they are. This way, we avoid judging our individual food choices, focus more on nourishing meals, and learn to enjoy treats in moderation. Yes, South Asians in North America are prone to long-term health issues. There’s no denying it. However, that has more to do with lifestyle (and in some cases, family history) and little with the elements of a recipe.
Do you think Indian cuisine is unhealthy? I'd love to know your favourite South Asian food recipe - Share in the comment section below!
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Shahzadi is an award-winning registered dietitian (RD) regulated by the College of Dietitians of Ontario and certified diabetes educator (CDE), approved by the Canadian Diabetes Educator Certification Board. A YouTuber and notorious foodie, she's dedicated to helping you end your cooking wars, transform your health, and be the best version of yourself! Shahzadi is an on-air nutrition expert for CTV Your Morning and a regular contributor for Global News and other national media outlets.