Spicy, colorful, and rich in flavor, Indian cuisine is as diverse as the country itself. While there are many healthy dishes to choose from, some traditional favorites can be high in fat and calories.
That doesn’t mean you have to give up Indian food altogether. Knowing what goes into your food and making smart choices can help you enjoy Indian cuisine without derailing your diet.
Here’s a list of the best and worst Indian foods for your health, along with tips on how to make healthier choices.
The Healthiest Indian Food
Indian cuisine tends to be heavy on the veggies and light on the meat. This is good news for your health, since diets high in vegetables and low in animal products have been linked with lower rates of heart disease, obesity, cancer, and other chronic conditions (3).
Some of the healthiest Indian dishes include:
Dishes with dal, or lentils, are a good source of protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. These nutrients are essential for maintaining a healthy weight, keeping your energy levels up, and including more of them in your diet may reduce your risk of chronic diseases (8).
2. Chicken Tandoori
In Hindi, “tandoor” means “clay oven.” Chicken tandoori is chicken that’s been marinated in yogurt and spices, then cooked in a tandoor. This cooking method brings out a rich flavor without needing too much oil or butter. Fish and lamb can also be cooked tandoori-style.
Raita is a yogurt-based dish that’s often served as a side or condiment. It can be made with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables. Adding raita to your meal helps increase the nutrient and antioxidant content. It’s refreshing and cooling, making it a perfect compliment to spicier dishes.
4. Aloo Gobi
This potato and cauliflower dish is a staple of Indian cuisine. It’s typically made with spices like ginger, garlic, turmeric, and cumin. These spices have anti-inflammatory properties that may help protect against chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer (2).This potato-cauliflower combination is also a good source of fiber, potassium and vitamin C.
Meat lovers don’t have to miss out on the health benefits of Indian food. Kebabs, which are grilled or roasted meats, can be a good source of protein and healthy fats.
Just be sure to choose lean cuts of meat and limit your portion size. Grilling or roasting your kebabs on a skewer (rather than frying) helps reduce the amount of fat that’s absorbed during cooking.
Chilla is the breakfast lover’s answer to pancakes This dish is made with chickpea flour, spices, and vegetables. It’s a good source of protein and fiber, both of which are important for keeping you feeling full and satisfied throughout the day.
As a low-carb breakfast option, chilla can help you control your blood sugar levels and avoid midday energy crashes. It may also aid your weight loss efforts.
Jalfrezi is a stir-fry made with vegetables and spices. It’s a quick and easy way to get your daily dose of veggies. You may also add some lean protein, like chicken or tofu.
8. Masala Bhindi
Bhindi, also known as okra, is a popular vegetable in India. It’s often cooked with onions, tomatoes, and spices to create a flavorful dish. The nutrient-rich vegetable is a good source of fiber, vitamins C and K, and folate.
The nutrients in this dish may help manage the symptoms of metabolic syndrome—a condition that’s characterized by high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and obesity.
9. Baingan Bharta
This eggplant dish is a favorite in Indian households. It’s made by roasting or grilling eggplant, then mashing it with onions, tomatoes, and spices. The final product is a flavorful, nutrient-dense dish that’s perfect for vegetarians and meat-lovers alike.
Idli is a traditional South Indian dish that’s made by steaming fermented rice and lentil batter. It’s a good source of protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates (8). Idli is also low in calories and fat, making it a healthy breakfast or snack option.
Chaach is a type of yogurt-based drink that’s popular in India. It’s made by mixing yogurt with water, spices, and salt. Chaach can help regulate your digestive system, thanks to the probiotics in yogurt (6). It’s also a good source of calcium, essential for strong bones and teeth.
Dhokla is a steamed cake made with chickpea flour. It’s a good source of protein and fiber, both of which are important for keeping you feeling full and satisfied throughout the day. Dhokla is also low in calories and fat, making it a healthy breakfast or snack option.
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The Worst Indian Foods For Your Health
While there are many healthy Indian foods to choose from, some dishes are higher in fat and calories than others. These include:
A samosa is a fried pastry filled with potatoes, peas, and other vegetables. While it may be tempting to eat more than one of these fried delights, they’re high in unhealthy fats and calories. The wheat pastry is also lacking in nutrients.
Naan is a type of flatbread that’s often served with Indian food. It’s made with white flour, which is refined and lacking in nutrients. Eating too much naan may cause spikes in blood sugar levels. Other ingredients like oil and ghee can make naan high in unhealthy fats (9).
Pakora is a popular snack made by coating vegetables in chickpea flour and frying them. Like samosas, pakoras are high in calories and unhealthy fats.
Making a healthier version at home with chickpea flour batter and baking the pakoras instead of frying them should help reduce some of the negative health effects.
4. Saag Paneer
Don’t let the spinach fool you—this dish is high in calories and fat. Saag paneer is a spinach-based curry that’s made with paneer, a type of Indian cheese.
The cheese adds unhealthy saturated fats to the dish. Whole milk or cream is also often used, further increasing the fat and calorie content. To lighten the dish at home, use low-fat milk or yogurt and tofu instead of paneer.
5. Butter Chicken
Butter chicken is a popular Indian dish made with chicken that’s been cooked in a tomato-based sauce. The dish gets its name from the large amount of butter or ghee that’s used to make it.
While butter chicken may be delicious, it’s also high in unhealthy saturated fats (5). The calorie content is also quite high, making it a less than ideal choice if you’re watching your weight.
Pappadam is a type of fried flatbread that’s popular in India. It’s made with white flour and often served as an appetizer. Like other fried foods, pappadam is high in unhealthy fats and calories. If you’re watching your weight, it’s best to avoid this dish.
7. Gulab Jamun
Gulab jamun is a popular Indian dessert made with fried dough balls that are soaked in sugar syrup. While they may be small, these sweet treats pack a lot of calories and sugar.
They’re also high in unhealthy fats. If you have diabetes or are watching your weight, it’s best to avoid gulab jamun.
How Healthy Is Indian Food?
There are many delicious and nutritious dishes that can be made using traditional Indian ingredients and methods. Of course, as with any cuisine, there are also some unhealthy choices when it comes to Indian food. But, overall, the health benefits of eating Indian food outweigh the risks. Some health benefits include:
Daal, a type of Indian lentil soup, is loaded with fiber and other nutrients that are good for gut health. Fiber helps to keep things moving along in your digestive system, preventing constipation and other problems.
Raita, a yogurt-based dish, is also good for gut health. The probiotics in yogurt can help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your intestines (6).
Indian food can be a great way to lose weight, thanks to its emphasis on fresh vegetables and spices. Spices like turmeric and cumin may boost metabolism and help to burn fat (2).
And, vegetable dishes like dal (lentils) aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower) are hearty and filling, but low in calories.
Many Indian dishes are rich in antioxidants, which may help protect your heart health (7). Antioxidants scavenge harmful free radicals from your body and help prevent plaques from forming in your arteries, reducing your risk of heart disease.
Saag, a spinach-based dish, is especially high in antioxidants. It also contains magnesium, another nutrient that is good for heart health (4).
Magnesium helps to keep blood pressure under control which lowers the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Some studies show that curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, may help improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels (1). This is good news because Indian food often contains high amounts of turmeric.
Curcumin can also help reduce inflammation, which is a key factor in the development of diabetes. Foods like dal and aloo gobi that are high in fiber can also help regulate blood sugar levels.
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How To Make Indian Dishes Healthy
For you to make Indian food healthier, you need to be aware of some unhealthy ingredients and cooking methods. Here are some tips:
- Use less oil: When cooking Indian food, it is often deep fried. This adds a lot of unnecessary fat and calories to the dish. To make it healthier, cook with less oil and use healthier oils such as olive oil.
- Limit the amount of ghee: Ghee is clarified butter and is often used in Indian cooking. It adds a lot of flavour but is also very high in saturated fat. Use it sparingly.
- Avoid cream: Many Indian dishes contain cream which makes them very rich and high in calories. You can either use low-fat alternatives or just avoid using it altogether.
- Choose leaner meats: When making meat-based dishes, choose leaner cuts of meat such as chicken or turkey. You can also remove the skin from chicken to reduce the amount of fat.
- Add more vegetables: Add extra vegetables to your dish to increase the fibre and nutrient content. This will also help to fill you up so you don’t overeat.
- Watch your portions: When eating Indian food, be aware of the portion sizes. It is easy to overeat when there is so much delicious food on offer. Try to stick to smaller portions and you’ll be able to enjoy all the flavours without overindulging.
- Bake instead of fry: If a recipe calls for deep frying, try baking instead. This will make the dish healthier as it will use less oil.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, there are many good reasons to enjoy Indian food on a regular basis. Just be sure to choose healthier options and watch your portion sizes. With a little bit of care, you can enjoy all the deliciousness of Indian cuisine without harming your health or your waistline.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Curcumin and Diabetes: A Systematic Review (2013, nih.gov)
- Chronic diseases, inflammation, and spices: how are they linked? (2018, nih.gov)
- Critical review: vegetables and fruit in the prevention of chronic diseases (2012, nih.gov)
- Dietary Magnesium and Cardiovascular Disease: A Review with Emphasis in Epidemiological Studies (2018, nih.gov)
- Facts about saturated fats (2020, medlineplus.gov)
- Health benefits of taking probiotics (2020, harvard.edu)
- Indian Spices for Healthy Heart – An Overview (201o, nih.gov)
- Lentils (n.d., harvard.edu)
- Naan bread (2009, forum.diabetes.org.uk)