The spicy comfort of Indian food is very appealing, but this potentially carb-loaded cuisine can ravage a healthier diet. Here are a few ways to enjoy the vibrant flavors of India while making diabetes-friendlier choices. (Remember to talk to your care team before making changes to your diabetes meal plan.)
Plan your carbs for the meal
With rice, potatoes and several varieties of breads, lentils and dried beans – not to mention creamy, sweet desserts – the carbs in South Asian cooking can add up quickly. When you have Indian food, choose your two favorite higher-carb foods and enjoy a sensible portion of each.
Skip fried foods and dishes made with paneer and ghee
Dishes like samosas, pakora and poori are deep-fried and loaded with calories and fat. Ghee is clarified butter and paneer is a mild-flavored soft cow’s milk cheese, both of which are high in calories and saturated fat. Avoid these in restaurants and, when preparing Indian food at home, look for recipes for baked versions instead of fried. Substitute heart-healthier canola or olive oil for ghee and use it sparingly.
Go light on the creamy dishes
Rich coconut milk, cream or whole milk yogurt are the foundation of many Indian dishes, making them high in calories and saturated fat. If you’re dining out, choose a creamy dish such as a curry or korma and share it with several people along with salads and vegetables. At home, substitute fat-free milk for coconut milk or cream, and fat-free Greek yogurt for whole milk yogurt. Fat-free milk has a thinner consistency than coconut milk or cream; to compensate, whisk about 1 teaspoon of cornstarch into the milk before gradually stirring it into a dish and bring it to a simmer for just a minute before serving. A drop or two of coconut extract will add flavor and aroma to the dish without adding calories, fat or carbs.
Choose dishes with a tomato sauce
Many restaurants prepare masala, vindaloo or other dishes with tomatoes instead of creamy ingredients. Opt for these in restaurants or from your favorite Indian cookbook.
Focus on tandoori and tikka
Tandoori is a method of cooking where food is marinated in spices and sometimes yogurt and roasted in a high-temperature oven. Tikka involves the same method of preparation, but the food is on a skewer. These dishes require very little oil and are the best choices whether dining out or cooking at home.
Choose whole grains
At a restaurant, ask if brown basmati rice and whole-wheat naan, roti or chappatis are available. Many restaurants brush their bread with ghee, so request that yours be served plain. When you make Indian food at home, always cook with brown rice and prepare breads using whole-wheat flour.
Pile on the veggies
If the restaurant offers vegetable side dishes, ask how they are prepared to make sure they aren’t fried and don’t have a rich sauce. If no healthy vegetable side dishes are on the menu, ask if the chef can prepare a side of steamed vegetables. If you order a meat and vegetable combination dish, ask if the chef can add more veggies to your dish. At home, pump up the veggies in recipes and serve the meal with a green salad.
Choose vegetarian and vegan dishes made with legumes
Dishes made with dried beans, lentils or chickpeas are excellent options. They do have a lot of carbs, so watch the portion size, but they are also high in fiber, which means you’ll feel full with a small serving. On menus, look for dewa, which are lentils, channa, which are chickpeas, or dal, which can mean any kind of bean, dried pea or lentil. These types of dishes freeze well, which make great time-savers when you cook them at home in big batches. Freeze in individual portions for a packable lunch or an easy dinner.
Watch the serving sizes
Indian restaurants can be very generous with high-carb rice and breads. Keep in mind that a ⅓-cup serving of rice or a 1-ounce serving of bread can each have about 15 grams of carbs. If dosa, the potato-filled pancake, is your choice, share it with others at the table.
Have tea instead of dessert
Indian desserts are very sweet, and sometimes deep-fried. Bypass them altogether, or share one sweet with everyone at the table and have only a couple bites. At home, enjoy a few slices of succulent fresh mango for dessert.
When in doubt, ask
Indian food can vary in preparation at different restaurants, so if you are unfamiliar with a dish or not certain what it contains, ask the waiter. The chef may be able to make a dish in a healthier way, or you may need to make another menu choice.
Jackie Mills is the author of 1,000 Diabetes Recipes and The Big Book of Diabetic Desserts. She is also a food writer and registered dietitian who develops recipes for such national magazines as Cooking Light and Family Circle as well as for books such as The American Medical Association Type 2 Diabetes Cookbook. She was formerly the food editor at Redbook magazine. Mills is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2015 The DX: The Diabetes Experience