How To Eat Indian Food To Still Be Healthy And Lose Weight
Close your eyes and imagine this.
You open the front door of your home, and a beautiful smell hits you.
A diverse, yet familiar smell of different spices all expertly mixed together. And cooking what’s set to be a delicious meal.
You start wondering what’s in store.
Is it a biryani? A curry? Or maybe tonight it’s keema?
Your mouth starts to water, and you’re growing impatient as you eagerly wait for the food to be ready.
Now, imagine at the very same time, you’ve got a goal to drop some body fat.
You can’t eat it.
What’s cooking on the stove isn’t for you - it’s for the rest of your family to enjoy and savour. You’ve already decided you were going to go ‘clean’ and stick to your plain old chicken breast and broccoli.
But you feel inspired, struck with a little FOMO, and you want to satisfy your taste buds a little.
So what do you do? Do you break your diet and say ‘screw it’, or do you become a little adventurous and sprinkle on some mixed herbs, instead of the usual salt and pepper?!
Either way, I’m here to tell you it doesn’t need to be like this.
Indian culture is one of the most rich and exquisite wonders of the world. The extravagant flavours means it’s little wonder people of the Western World love to indulge on what India has to offer.
Sadly however, there’s a growing and incorrect misperception that Indian food can only ever be unhealthy, and that our love for Indian food is one of the contributing factors as to why so many struggle to keep their waistlines under control.
It’s certainly a possibility.
But I’d venture to say it’s the way we cook our Indian food that’s more problematic. Traditionally, we use far too much oil in our cooking, and we never place enough importance on protein.
Growing up in a Gujarati household, I know all about this. The missing ingredient is simple: education.
What the majority of Indians lack is the education on not only how to eat, but how to make all the wonderful food they’ve grown up with into something which not only satisfies the taste buds, but positively impacted their lives too.
This is my mission with this article.
I want to educate Indian food lovers on how they can add a healthy twist to their cooking.
So that when you open up your front door next time, you can be excited at the opportunity to sit as a family and enjoy an Indian meal, without compromising your healthy goals.
Much of what I explore in here came from my early bodybuilding endeavours.
It was during this preparation that sparked my philosophy around practically incorporating healthy Indian food into your day.
Because whilst I was getting great results in my own training, I was depriving myself of all the flavours I’d grown up loving. And I knew, as an Indian food lover, this lifestyle wasn’t going to be sustainable until I found a solution.
So the experimentation began.
And back in 2014, I managed to win a bodybuilding competition - the most extreme of all body transformations - whilst eating Indian food every single day. I haven’t looked back since.
What’s crazy ever since I started sharing my recipes with friends and family, is people still can’t believe you can eat Indian food whilst dieting.
Remember, Indians love to eat. But they probably love to feed others even more.
Trying to tell an Indian in order to get into (and stay in) shape you need to give up Indian food is ludicrous.
Sure, there are going to be certain things that just aren’t on the cards (think burfi, bhajya or halva), but most main dishes can be made to fit a healthy lifestyle with a few simple tweaks.
I deliberately wrote this story as a prelude to the body of the article, because I find the biggest thing Indian food lovers need is belief.
Because once you crack this, and you then educate yourself on what to do, a lifestyle solution where you can have your cake (or curry) and eat it, is very possible.
Problems of the Traditional Indian Diet
The problems with the traditional Indian diet is deeply rooted in culture. I talk about this extensively in this thought provoking exploration of Social Stigmas in Asian culture.
When I ask Indians of older generations why being fit and healthy is frowned upon, their answers are interesting.
They talk about how the sign of good health is actually the opposite of being lean.
Being ‘chubby’ is seen as ‘healthy’, and being lean is associated with ill health and malnourishment. What’s interesting is that this is ingrained into them from birth, and with blind ‘tradition’.
You can see this most in how we feed newborn babies. The goal is to fatten them up as quickly as possible with as many trans-fat laden foods as we can fry up.
There’s no regard for their health, their brain development, their motor learning or coordination.
It’s feed, feed, feed.
Even if the parents are somewhat health conscious, the elders will override and accuse them of bad parenting. They’ll scare the parents into thinking it’s bad luck, and that their child won’t be ‘successful’.
Now, I do think there is a shift happening, as my generation begins to take control, educate themselves, and fight back.
But it’s still very much in the process.
Which is why at family events, weddings and festivities like Diwali, we revert back to the norm. When we’re not following a controlled nutrition strategy with a strong education foundation, we slowly end up where we started.
Old habits die hard.
The traditional Indian diet is often laden with poor quality cooking oils.
I was at an event only recently where the dhal being served had two layers of liquid. The top 80% of the pot was in fact, dhal. And the remaining 20% was a dense puddle of oil, waiting to be mixed up.
I felt a little sick seeing this, and not because of the calories. But because of how that type of food makes you feel after. It’s horrible.
Which brings me to an interesting observation I’ve formed in the past decade, having worked with thousands of Indian clients.
I have a theory that after years of eating this kind of food, they often develop a lot of ‘hard fat'. And I think it's due to the excessive use of poor quality oils used in the cooking.
Over time, this begins to create a lot of inflammation and 'hardens' the fat cells. Besides raising inflammatory markers, it'll also negatively impact blood lipid profiles and increased cardiovascular risk factors.
This is all theoretical, and there's no real hard evidence, but I've seen it so often that I'm convinced about it now.
Then there’s Indian genetics.
‘But I’m Asian, so I can’t build muscle or get lean’.
It’s crazy, despite my own journey, and the many others we’ve helped transform, this is still a thing.
But it’s also deeply rooted. This is a culture that ultimately still values wealth, career, status and education, over health.
When you’re young, you’re pushed to put your head in the books, not lift weights or chase sporting dreams.
In the West specifically, there’s a reason you don’t see many Indian Premier League football stars, NBA basketball players, or NFL athletes.
Part of it may be genetic, but I think our culture has a strong part to play too.
Here’s what’s interesting though.
Back at University, as part of my final year dissertation, I studied the impact of diet on fat oxidation, and whether different macronutrient make ups would influence how one burns body fat.
As a separate statistical analysis, I decided to control for the actual macronutrient make up, and look at variances in ethnicity. And surprisingly (or not), it showed Indians to be poor fat oxidisers.
There’s definitely a genetic component in this, and why so many Indians are either skinny fat, or overweight. Very few are naturally built and stay naturally lean year round.
But I digress, and this is likely an article for another day, backed with some more interesting research.
The Immediate Indian Curry Fix
If you want to get lean, and stay in shape, you’ve got to give up Indian food cooked wrong.
That means you might need to cut down on how many Indian restaurants you frequent (unless you’ve found a ‘clean’ one!) and you’ll need to address how you’re currently cooking at home.
The first step will be to ditch all refined oils you’re using, and to stop liberally throwing ghee and butter at your meals.
This might taste incredible, but it adds up to a ton of excess, unnecessary curries.
When cooking your curries, instead of adding oil with your rye (mustard seeds), methi (fenugreek) and jeeru (coriander), skip the oil and just roast this combination. Then add your spices, tomatoes and meats/vegetables etc.
For some ideas, check out some of my recipes here.
This simple switch will save you easily 100 to 1000 calories, depending on how crazy the oil/ghee/butter situation was before (!).
The Missing Ingredient In Indian Food - Protein
I recently travelled to India for a trip to visit my sister, who lives in Mumbai.
When you go to traditional Indian restaurants, or observe street food options, the majority of dishes exclude protein.
Now when meat or fish is involved (usually only at dinner), this of course changes the dynamic; but most Indian staples are typically vegetarian, and this creates a problem.
Protein is important for many reasons, including building muscle mass, satiety and overall cellular repair in the body.
And with it being a critical part of overall healthy functioning of the body, the lack of protein makes the skinny fat or overweight physique a more predictable one.
In this next section, I’m going to dive into the common food choices that make up the Indian diet, and what you need to adapt and consider when incorporating them.
Most Indians believe that lentils, which is a staple in most preparations, is high in protein.
The truth is that whilst it does have protein, it isn’t a complete protein. This means that you can’t get all the different types of amino acids by eating just one type of lentil.
The best thing to do is to include other sources of protein apart from lentils to ensure your body gets the complete amino acid profile.
The trouble is that it’s also quite high in carbohydrates, which is why you have to be careful about how much lentils you eat, to accurately balance your macronutrient intake.
The table below shows the breakdown.
This means that if you control for your oil, cream and/or ghee usage, you can comfortably cook some Punjabi Chana (chickpea base) or Rajma (kidney bean base) at home and stay on track.
However, when you start adding dhal with 2-3 rotis or chapatis into the mix, your carbohydrate and calore intake will skyrocket.
To give you perspective, 1 cup or 100g of 100% wholewheat chapati flour will give you around 4-5 medium sized chapatis, equating to 367kcal, 77g of carbs and 11g of protein.
Which means a meal of 4-5 chapatis with Punjabi Chana (using 100g chickpeas) will equal the following macronutrients:
Calories - 745kcal
Protein - 31g
Carbs - 140g
And this isn’t including any potential oil you may be adding into the food too, which is why this was the first point to address!
This sample breakdown is why when your goal is weight loss, or even healthy maintenance, you may be at or close to half your daily calorie quota in one meal.
Not to mention the fact you’ll have put a serious dent into your carbohydrate intake, with minimal other macronutrients considered.
This is why we need to take a different approach, which we’ll come onto later.
100g of dried channa when cooked weighs about 220g. Once cooked you get about 400g depending on how much onion and tomato you add to your dish. You can then portion it out to 100g of cooked chana which will give you around 5g of protein and around 180 calories (if cooked with no oil).
Paneer is one of the most popular dishes in Indian restaurants.
It’s a form of cottage cheese which is also a particularly good source of protein, so long as you opt for low fat options, which unfortunately very few restaurants offer.
The other concern when eating out is paneer will typically come with lots of ghee and cream too to boost flavours, which makes this a very rich dish to say the least.
The good news is, if you cook at home, the low fat option can be a great protein source, with a 100g of paneer packing 22g of protein inside with ~174 kcal.
Making a simple palak (spinach) paneer with low fat paneer cooked carefully with minimal oil and no addition of heavy cream will more than satisfy your taste buds as well as your protein needs. You’ll also benefit from all the wonderful nutrients in the spinach!
Some other paneer recipes can be found here and here.
Indians love yoghurt.
When I speak to Indians who are thinking about going vegan or plant-based, yoghurt is always the food that trips them up.
So many dishes, sauces and accompaniments include yoghurt. The trick is to use low fat or even zero fat options when cooking at home.
That way you can use a 100g of yoghurt to consume 10g of protein whilst keeping fats and carbs close to zero (brand dependent).
This simple switch will pull your macronutrients into balance whilst keeping your flavours in check.
You can whip up a simple raita just by adding some mint or cucumber, making it the perfect accompaniment to any Indian meal.
If you eat meat or fish, making healthy Indian food at home is easy. Of course, using fatty cuts whilst adding oil, lots of cashews and heavy cream will make it taste incredible.
But I’ve cooked many a chicken curry over the years that taste just as good whilst having a quarter of the calories.
In fact, I won my first bodybuilding competition in 2014 eating chicken curry every single day.
The trick is to lean on herbs, spices, onions and tomatoes for your flavour, rather than unnecessary excess fats.
Marinate your meat or fish overnight in the fridge with all your favourite traditional Indian herbs and spices to maximise the flavours when it comes to cooking. You can then bake, grill or cook in a pan depending on the recipe.
Carbohydrate Strategy With The Indian Diet
Even though carbohydrates are not technically 'essential' to get through the diet as our body has the ability to make its own, they are still nothing to be afraid of and should make up a good portion of a healthy, nutritious diet.
The good news is carbohydrates aren’t in shortage on the Indian diet. What we need is a better strategy.
If weight loss is the goal, my favoured approach when incorporating Indian food is to make the protein source the key focus, then gradually reduce the ‘additional carbs’ that you might traditionally think of.
This includes your rice, rotis, chapatis, and any other ‘side dishes’ that end up on your plate.
For most, having a lentil or bean dish with rice and rotis is just not going to work. It’ll mean too many carbs, with too little in the way of protein. And it’ll mean the other meals in your day are going to need to be protein only.
One strategy is to swap any rice or wheat based carbohydrate with potatoes, because you’ll get more bang for your buck in terms of food volume. 100g of white potatoes has about 18 grams of carbs, is full of fibre, more nutritionally dense, and can help with satiety.
Making a simple aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower) stir fry with all your favourite herbs and spices will help satisfy your taste buds whilst also keeping your carbohydrates in check.
The trick is to keep an eye on the oil, using a one cal spray plus a splash or two of water. Eating this with a bowl of raita made with a low fat yoghurt will make this more balanced meal.
Parboil the potatoes before adding to the stir fry, this way you won't need to use as much oil for the dish to cook.
My preferred strategy however is to focus on making your vegetables ‘taste Indian’. If the goal is weight loss, you want to use every trick available to maximise flavour whilst minimising calories. Adding herbs and spices like coriander, turmeric, paprika, ginger, garlic and cumin can transform bland vegetables into a delicious addition to your meal.
Using Oils And Fats With The Indian Diet
Fats do not make you fat. Fats are essential for our body to function and healthy fats are important for the proper functioning of the brain.
Ghee, which is commonly used in Indian cooking, is high in saturated fat with little nutritional value.
To get a similar texture without compromising the taste of the meal, canola oil can be a better alternative as it has a very neutral flavour whilst also being high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (the heart healthy fats!). Interestingly, canola oil has the lowest saturated fat content out of all plant oils, including olive oil.
There is no need to avoid fats completely but you must be cognisant of the portions you’re using. And to understand that a little goes a long way, meaning it’s important you’re measuring it out before adding it in.
If you’re pouring oil ‘by feel’ into your curries and stir fries, or adding them to the dough while making rotis or chapatis, you’re adding a ton of calories with no real benefit - except for unintentional weight gain or lack of weight loss results.
Use a 1 cal cooking spray instead of measuring oil in a teaspoon. It’s just enough to grease the pan without adding too many extra calories. Also, using a good quality pan will ensure that your food won’t stick to the bottom and burn.
So Can You Follow The Traditional Indian Diet And Still Lose Weight?
Ultimately, if your goal is sustainable weight loss, there’s two parts to the puzzle.
The first is to find a way to get into and stay in a calorie deficit for a long enough period of time to achieve your goal.
The second is to learn how to eat to maintain your results for the rest of your life, so you never need to diet again.
The Indian diet is just like any other diet. It works if you know how to work it, and if it fits your lifestyle and preferences.
I could tell you portion control is all you need, but let’s be honest. It won’t work with the Indian diet. Because you might think you’re controlling your portions, but each bite in reality could be up to 100 calories in density.
The reason I’ve written this article is because the Indian population is one which suffers more than most (based on my observations) from being skinny fat or overweight.
What’s worse however are the health problems that are rife in the population, with diabetes and cardiovascular issues considered to be a norm.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to be at an event and have elders compare how many medications they’re on, with the one taking the most boasting the hardest!
What we need is a deep rooted cultural shift that begins with education. This means a mindset and behavioural shift in our approach to cooking.
No more lathering in oils, butter and ghee just for the sake of it.
No more stacking of rotis to see who can eat the most.
No more protein absent meals making up most of the meals.
I often say the biggest transformations I’ve been able to personally witness are the ones in my family.
Seeing my mum and dad change their eating habits in front of my eyes was something that took me over a decade to accomplish, but it’s one that I hope inspires generations to do the same. Because a large part of making an Indian diet conducive to being healthy, fit and strong, is changing the habits of our elders.
Which is why if you’ve made it this far, please take this article and share it with your loved ones. Teach them some of the new knowledge you’re now armed with, and let’s transform a generation to feel, look and perform at their best.
I hope this article has given you the belief that you can eat Indian food and get in shape (whether you’re Indian or not!)
You might need to change some of your eating behaviours, there’s no doubt about it. And you might need to taper down your visits to Indian restaurants.
But with new cooking skills and techniques, coupled with a greater attention to protein, it can be done.
RNT Fitness Radio Podcast
The team and I recorded a podcast to explore how to navigate the Indian diet, which is now out on all your favourite platforms.