Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
Feb 16, 2010 07:00 AM

Is Indian Food really healthy?

For disclosure, I am not an expert in Indian cuisine.

I have eaten in a few Indian restaurants and really grow fond of Indian food in America, which I am told is more aligned with Northern Indian cuisine. I have picked up a beginner Indian cookbook for a year and really like some of the things I have made. They are tasty.

I think we always have the impression that Indian food is healthy because Indians are largely vegetarian. However, I notice that many Indian recipe calls for liberal use of milk, ghee (clarified butter), oil, conconut oil ... , which are not the extremely healthy. Not to mention that American style Indian food also emphasize on meats, like chicken and goat.

I am not saying Indian food is unhealthy, but it is not extremely healthy neither. What do you all think?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Eating any type of food in excessive quantity is unhealthy; 1 nan bread is good, eating 4 of them because they are cheap, is not healthy.

    Indian is considered healthy because it uses more vegetables and "legumes" (beans, ,,,) and traditionally a bit less meat than other types (occidental) of cuisine.


    4 Replies
    1. re: Maximilien


      Yes, I notice Indian food use more vegetables and beans, but it also use a lot of oil including conconut milk/oil which is very high in saturated fats.

      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

        The unhydrogenated saturated fats may not be as bad as once thought. Coconut oil over half medium chain triglycerides which may have some health benefits since the are metabolized much faster in the liver.

        1. re: scubadoo97

          +1 on the unhydrogenated sat fat.

          Coconut oil is also an excellent source of Lauric Acid. Lauric Acid is an essential fatty acid found in mothers milk that has been proven to act as an antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal agent. Lauric Acid has just 3 dietary sources; small amounts in butter/ghee and much larger amounts in coconut and palm oils. This is so important that they now use coconut and palm oils in infant formula.

      2. "I think we always have the impression that Indian food is healthy because Indians are largely vegetarian."

        Bear in mind that this is more applicable to the southern part of the sub-continent. Meat and fish form a not insignificant part of the cuisine in northern India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

        I have never actually seen it suggested that the cuisine of the sub-continent is inherently healthy (or unhealthy for that matter). As with any other, it is the balance of your intake that is important, together with the overall calories that you consume.

        1. Indian food is healthy because it's made with natural foods and fats. It's not deep fried in canola oil or covered in white flour or sugar.

          4 Replies
          1. re: MandalayVA

            There are deep frying dishes in Indian cuisine. I have a deep fried fish recipe in my cookbook and according to the book, the best of fish is reserved for deep fried. In fact, many of my other Indian dishes are shallow fried in pan. Indians also deep fried bread, like this:


            If Indian food is healthy solely because it is made with natural ingredients, then what isn't healthy? Doesn't all international foods are made natural ingredients? Chinese, Ethiopian, Greek, Thai, German, Japanese...

            1. re: MandalayVA

              Just because something is "natural" doesn't automatically mean it's healthy. And Chemicalkinetics is right -- there is deep-fried foods like pakoras and samosas in the cuisine. Or were you objecting to use of canola oil? Naan is made from white flour. And have you tried Indian desserts? Most of them are very sweet -- way too sweet for my taste.

              My Indian friends (who are from the North) tell me that what they eat at home is nothing like what they eat at restaurants. Having eaten their food (non-vegetarian), I would say the food is a lot less greasy (no pools of oil) and "cleaner" tasting. When I cook Indian food at home, I typically halve the amount of oil (depending on the recipe). I don't cook with ghee but may add a spoonful at the last minute to a dish like dal. It really does add a buttery rich depth that cannot be achieved with vegetable oil alone and adds very little saturated fat to the dish. And depending on who you speak to, there are many people out there who feel that saturated fats are perfectly fine (eg. ghee, coconut oil, lard, etc.) Personally, I try to limit it.

              1. re: Miss Needle

                I agree w/you, MN, based on my trips to India. Not only is the food less greasy but also way more spicy than anything I've had in the States.

                And they do love their sweets, which are too much for my taste.

                1. re: Miss Needle

                  I was referring to the oil. When I go out for Indian I usually just go for a saag or curry dish anyway; I stay away from the pakoras and samosas because vegetable oil always seems to be used in frying. If I was told they were fried in coconut oil or lard I'd reconsider. I limit the grains--no rice, maybe a bite of naan right after it comes out because that's when it's best. You are right, there's a lot of Indian places where I'm like "dude, lighter hand with the ghee, please." As for sweets, I don't have a big sweet tooth and since I got off grains it's gotten even smaller. If someone orders gulab jamun I might have half of one ball and that's more than enough sweet for me.

              2. Keep in mind that restaurant food almost always tends to have more oil and fat and cream than home cooking. THat's why it tastes better. ;) I'm North Indian, but cook both North and South indian foods. Dishes with lots of ghee or cream based dishes are a treat in my house, and in most people's houses that I know of. A typical indian meal would be a dal, maybe a meat item, a vaggie and rice or a bread (chapati usually). I don't kow anyone who makes items like chicken makhani or dal makhani or shahi paneer on an everyday basis. Those are usually reserved for parties and other special events.

                1 Reply
                1. re: boogiebaby

                  Agreed 100%.

                  My parents are Bangladeshi and it's usually dal, a veggie, a fish dish, and either poultry or red meat (for those who don't want to eat fish). Starch is usually plain, steamed white rice although my family will eat chapatis (rooti in Bangla) earlier in the day if they're eating desi food at all because it is considered healthier.

                2. I've been eating Indian food since I was a little kid, and in comparison to many of the meals I see people eat on a daily basis, it IS healthier. (I was the weird kid who in the 5th grade, when asked what my favorite food was said Tandoori chicken and naan...) The Indian restaurant I regularly visit doesn't seem to have food that sits in pools of oil, and is generally healthy. There aren't very many fried offerings. Almost every dish contains vegetables, and most of the meals are curries. Slow cooked with lots of spices, some lean meat (chicken or fish seem predominant) and generally delicious. Maybe this is just because of the owners? I don't know. But for me personally, it is better for you than going to McDonald's and getting a Big Mac and fries...maybe that is what the person meant? In comparison it is healthier than what a lot of Americans eat.

                  18 Replies
                  1. re: milkyway4679


                    I don't doubt Indian food is healthier than McDonald, but that sort of set the bar really low, don't you think? Chi-Fil-A is healthier than McDonald too, but I ain't going to say Chil-Fil-A is a health diet.

                    I don't think Indian food is unhealthy, but I also do not see it as a health diet, which I think many believe. Let's me put it this way, if my doctor said to me that I have diabetes with coronary heart diease, I am not sure if eating Indian food is the way to go. Many curries have oil in it. It does not seem like a lot of oil with everything in it but I know my recipes call for tablespoons and tablespoons of oil. It does not look that bad in the mixture of curries, but I know it is in there. As for sweet, Indian sweet deserts are sweeter than most American desserts, that speaks volume of the amount of sugar in them.

                    I am sure you know this. Already, India has the largest number of people with diabetes and the current prediction is that diabetes will explode in India as Indian economy picks up. I am in the healthcare industry and I didn't understand why the prediction model looks so bad for India. I was wondering why would these models predict diabetes explode in a country where everyone eat vegetables. I didn't understand until I started looking into Indian recipes, which then started to make more sense to me.

                    I am not against Indian cuisine. Like I said, I love it which is why I am trying to learn to cook it. I also love a good hamburger too, but I don't pretend a hamburger is a health diet. I have perfect blood work, so I can afford these.

                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      But keep in mind that you can always adjust the oil content. A cookbook author usually wants to make the dish taste as good as possible. It's not neccessarily to make it as healthy as possible. Even if I follow a recipe for an indian item, I don't add the quantity of oil called for. Sometimes I (gasp) use Pam cooking spray, depending on what I'm making.

                      As for indian desserts, yes, they tend to be sweeter than what Americans are used to, but we also eat them in much smaller quantities. A small 1.5 inch square of burfi or 2 small gulab jamun is typical. It's not like having a large slice of chocolate cake or 2 scoops of ice cream. And most indians don't eat these dessert items on a regular basis -- they are usually reserved for special occasions (weddings, festivals, birthdays, etc).

                      1. re: boogiebaby


                        I agree with you that restaurant foods are not very healthy in any cuisine, in fact. Why the "gasp" in using PAM? I don't use PAM, but is there something I need to know about PAM?

                        1. re: boogiebaby

                          Ha! you have never been to a gulab jamun eating contest at my house then! It was typical for us to have sweets everyday with tea. However, I lived in pakistan and the cuisine is different.

                        2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          there have been studies on genetic connectors to heart disease and diabetes--it is not necessarily food related. (For instance, my doctor told me years ago that peopleof Indian heritage tend to have higher cholesterol levels, but those levels do not equate to as much heart disease as in other vectors. It is still a very murky field.) The "Indian diet" is not homogenous and can be healthy or unhealthy. I don't think it has any more oil/fat than other cooking, in general. I do think a typical home diet in the North (with which I am more familiar) can be very carb heavy. But it doesn't have to be.

                          You cannot compare the amount of sugar in Indian diets to American by looking at sweets/desserts. The portion sizes are totally different. And a burfi made with milk and sugar is not that different in nutritional value than a pudding or creme in the west.

                          I have never heard of Indian as a "health diet."

                          1. re: cocktailhour


                            Yes, there is a genetic dimension to heart disease and diabetes, but I won't say they are not food related. If food is not a variable, then there is little reason to eat better and there certainly won't be a raise in diabete cases in India. It isn't like Indian genetic started to suddenly change in the last 20 years and causing diabetes in India. It is the food intake.

                            1. re: cocktailhour

                              <<The "Indian diet" is not homogenous and can be healthy or unhealthy. >>


                            2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              It is surprising that you are in the healthcare industry and point to sweets as opposed to the huge amount of carbs that is consumed in the South Asian diet when trying to understand healthfulness and the diabetes prediction. Example: as a relatively cheap source of nutrients, rice is a staple. You take a culture who's cuisine revolves around it, remove the physical necessity for the consumption as socioeconomic standards improve, and leave eating habits amongest the masses unchanged, of course there is going to be a spike in related health problems. You are not going to understand the predicted hike from looking at recipes in a book.

                              Boogie gasped because PAM is not traditional and neither is the olive oil that I try to use where ever I can. It effects the dish, but it is in effort to make something healthier. You may also reduce the amount of oil and use water to keep masalas from burning while they cook. Again, not optimal for taste, but most things that taste good aren't good for you. :) Finally, you also have to think about the fact that while there is oil in the dish, how many servings is that oil spread over? I believe it is generally accepted that a South Indian meal consists of [dish] plus a starch.

                              1. re: adrienne156


                                Sweet is not the only thing I pointed out. I pointed out several things and including oil and fat. I think I only mentioned sweet once? Rice does have an effect on diabetes, but it isn't just carbs. White rice will induce a bigger problem for diabetes than brown rice despite similar carb because white rice get converted into sugar quickly. There is something call glucose shock. Just like a oGTT tests. You can/will kill beta cell much faster with sugar than carb. This is rather getting off topic.

                                I don't think you get my original point about the diabetes in India. Of course, diabetes and heart diease will increase as a country economic background change, but there is more to that. It is the actually predict number.

                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  My comments were in direct reference to the diabetes you mentioned. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear by my first paragraph about carbs - which I know you know - the body breaks down to sugar. I may have misunderstood your comment about [Indian] sweets having a lot of sugar compared to American sweets. Yes, they do have a lot of sugar, but as other posters have noted, they are consumed in a different manner and quantity than American sweets, so I found that mention misleading in a discussion about healthfulness in a day-to-day diet. Too much vitamin C can have adverse effects if not taken in moderation.

                                  As for my example of rice, I meant white rice. While I'm sure there are communities within the subcontinent that eat other types of rice primarily, I am not familiar with them. I’ve read that Bengalis are known for eating parboiled rice which has a better GI than most white rices, but that is not what I have observed. Btw, most family members of mine that are 50+ on both sides of the family have type 2 diabetes and it is a very common ailment amongst the urban, middle-class Bangladeshi community my parents are a part of here in the States. I really do believe that socioeconomics has a lot to do with the predicted spike.

                                  As others have stated, there are many healthy elements to the South Asia diet, but it is a misconception that vegetables are the center of "the cuisine." I believe it is generally accepted that a South Asian meal is [dish/es] plus a starch and that some sub-cuisines in South Asia are healthier than others. South Asian food certainly can be very fatty. If you do decide to integrate South Asian dishes into your regular repertoire, please do look at the tips that are posted on CH for reducing intake of the “bad” stuff. A lot of the posters on this board – LuckyFatima, Jungmann, Boogie Baby– as well as buttertart and jen kalb (off the top of my head) have posted great tips. Cookbooks and restaurants are not representative of home cooking.

                                  1. re: adrienne156


                                    Like I said, I only wrote about sweet once prior your response. I mentioned many things. I am not sure why you get so excited about one word. I mentioned diabetes projection in a separate paragraph. It would be like I combine your vitamin C comment with the type 2 diabetes statement and say something like:
                                    "It is surprising that you have family member who have type 2 diabetes and point to vitamin C as a reason...."

                                    Yes, I do know carb breaks down into sugar, as I wrote "White rice will induce a bigger problem for diabetes than brown rice despite similar carb because white rice get converted into sugar quickly..." The brown rice comment is not about certain Indian subgroup like to eat brown rice. I fully understand you meant white rice. What I want to say is that it is about glucose shock. The point is that if we are just talking about carb effect, then you think brown and white rice will have similar effect, but they don't. Eating one very sweet desert is actually not good from a glucose shock point of view, but then I do understand most Indians do not eat sweet constantly. That is a separate topic.

                                    Let's step back. My original point is that Indian food may not be extremely healthy or unhealthy. I think it is just as healthy as any, but nothing too particular. Yes, I know economics has a big impact, but like I wrote in my previous respone: "It is the actually predict number" It isn't just there will be an increase or a spike, but also spike looks worset than I thought. That is the final number is quiet high.

                                    For example, we know Japanese have experienced a good economic rise in the last 100 years, right? I am certainly you are also famaliar with Mexican diet as well. It is understood that Mexicans will experience a far worse diet-related health issue than Japanese. Economic has something to do with it, but economic only allows more people to eat what they want to eat, but not force them to eat what they do not want to eat. Japan can have the same economic standing as American (which it has), and it still won't have quiet the same diet problem.

                                    I re-read what I wrote. I can understand why you said the disabete prediction spike is economically driven. I were the one being confusing. I only mentioned there is a spike, but didn't mentioned the final number also looks bad. Of course, there will always be a diabetes spike as a society get wealthier.

                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                      Isn't the bottom line then, that as a people gets further away from their or any traditional diet the incidence of disease goes up? The people of India were doing fine with their seemingly carb laden diet using, using ghee and coconut oil. It would be nice to see traditional recipes, they obviously worked well.

                                      1. re: just_M


                                        I don't know. Let's take Chinese for example. Most Chinese are not eating too bad now because most Chinese are still not wealthy-wealthy. Some 80% of them are farmers and they don't eat a lot of meat or white rice compared to their wealthy counterparts in the cities. But, as the economy of China booms, more and more people can afford to eat what they "want" to eat. In Chinese culture, white rice is considered better than brown rice, and meat is considered better, especially meat with fat in it. So, one can say that the most Chinese are eating quiet healthy right now because they cannot afford to eat unhealthy. If economic allows, they would eat much less healthy food. Chinese food may not be worse than many Western diet, but it is probably not much much better. I think Mexicans are probably even worse in this regard. I think if Mexicans diet-related health issue can get much worse than in America. This is not quiet the same as Japan. Yes, there are plenty unhealthy foods in Japanese culture as well, but relatively speaking they are not horrible.

                                        So my question really is that: If Indians are allowed to eat what they like to eat (not so much retricted by what they can afford), will the food be just a little worse, or much worse?

                                        1. re: just_M

                                          Well, I can somewhat see what you are saying, but are you really opening the argument of what the "traditional" cuisine is (rather than saying that food is ever-evolving)? :) :)

                                          I agree that formerly rice was less polished, parboiled rice was much more common in many regions, expensive additions like oil, ghee, and meat were more rare, and processed and junk food almost unknown.

                                          But what kinds of disease are you referring to when you say "the incidence has gone up"? With increasing prosperity, the Indian middle class (Like all other wealthy regions like Japan, US, Europe etc.) has experienced a transition from mostly infectious diseases, to mostly chronic and degenerative disease (which is where diabetes comes in).

                                          This transition, plus the Indian genetic predisposition, plus the modern lifestyle (fast paced, stressed, too much rich food and alcohol/smoking and too little exercise, plus people paying lip service to yoga and meditation rather than actually doing them) has definitely led to the sharp increase in diabetes and heart disease among Indians.

                                          1. re: just_M

                                            It's true that Indians were once doing just fine with their carb rich diets, but economic growth and modernization of India has led to much more leisurely lifestyles. Indians have become much more sedentary and are eating more processed foods now. This combo is what is causing the rise in diseases such a diabetes in the country now, it's not just the trend toward other foods that is causing the changes.

                                          2. re: Chemicalkinetics


                                            I totally did not mean to offend and was truly trying to have a discussion about healthfulness of [South Asian] food and be helpful. The vitamin C comment was an analogy... I didn't read your comment about sweets as an analogy. For the sake of this discussion and not being asked if I am familiar with the eating habits of the Ndebele tribe in Botswana, let just say everyone's semantics were off. (I'm literally laughing out loud right now - have fun with me) I will say one thing though - as I was using the term - socioeconomics, and economics are not interchangeable. Food cultures and what they value vary - and I agree with you that you cannot force people to eat what they do not want to eat, but unless it is made very clear that a change is necessary, problems will arise when people can afford to eat what is valued. And, in the case of *some* South Asian cuisines, what is valued is not what is optimal for health.

                                            The rice example was just saying that we South Asians traditionally eat a lot of white rice/carbs in general on a regular basis which isn't good for us. -1 point for the desis.

                                            All in all, I got your main point and agreed with you, but disagreed with your sources. I just wanted you to know that what you read in cookbooks isn't really what happens in South Asian homes on a day-to-day basis.

                                            ETA: This was written before, but posted after your response to just_M. So, we really are on the same page in some respects.

                                            1. re: adrienne156


                                              Sorry. I probably used some languages that are too strong. Anyway, forgive me. See, that is my problem. I thought what Indians value are very healthy and that the impact of economic improvement will be very small on health. That is more people get more money, less people get hungry, but very few people will only eat bad food -- that was my imagine. I thought Indians value food that is much more healthier than Chinese, so I was surprised that the Chinese and India prediction diabete models are not very different. I thought Chinese eat meat and Indian don't eat meat and the Indians should have significantly less diet-related health issue, no?

                                              Anyway, I have some Indian friends from different regions. The Southern Indian guy said that is because Northern Indian foods are very unhealthy with all the cream and fat, and the Northern Indian gal said Southern cuisine has so much rice..... Let me guess, you are from the Northern part? Or your parents are from the Northern part?

                                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                My parents are Bengali from Bangladesh (Bengal spans parts of eastern Indian and Bangladesh) and I'm first-generation Bangladeshi/Syhleti-American. Bangladesh is a country in eastern South Asian between India and Myanmar. Bangladeshi bengalis do have their own regional cuisine that uses many of the same ingredients and techniques as other South Asian cuisines, but there is also a heavy Mughal influence as it is a Muslim country. There is biryani, there is korma, there is pulao, there is chaat, there are the different types of curries (bhunas, dopiazas, etc.)... I could go on and on, but day-to-day meals are not dissimilar from what other posters posted here - starch, daal, veggie or two, fish, meat/poultry.

                                                ETA: We eat rice.
                                                Further ETA: A lot of it.