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Indian diet

When it comes to any discussion on diets for weight loss, carbohydrates (or “carbs”) seem to be everyone’s punching bag, an easy scapegoat for everything that resulted in weight gain. It is quite common to see, hear and read about people proudly swearing by a “low carb” or “no carb” diet as they embark on their weight loss journey.

However, the problem with this approach is that people are often making ‘sacrifices’ with their food that they don’t have to or should not. The real culprit behind weight gain is often not the carbs themselves but a combination of factors such as an imbalanced diet, improper eating habits, lack of exercise and undesirable lifestyle choices. So, let’s dispel some of the common myths about carbs, highlight their importance and make a case for their inclusion in a wholesome diet.

Four good reasons to include carbs in your diet-

1. Fuel for the brain: Carbs provide the glucose that is the fuel for the brain. Without this essential supply of fuel, one will experience what is often referred to as ‘brain fog’ which is characterised by a lack of mental alertness, lethargy and low-energy. For us to be productive at work, the sense of being ‘tuned-in’ mentally and energy running through us are important, and we know the source of that, don’t we?

2. Get better sleep: Advocates of “carbs deprivation” recommend avoiding carbs completely at night. What is often not understood is that without feeding carbs to the body for dinner, one’s sleep is likely to be impacted. This is because carbohydrates make tryptophan more available to the brain; tryptophan gets converted to melatonin – a hormone that induces sleep- in the brain. Lesser the amount of tryptophan available to the brain, lesser is the melatonin produced, and consequently, lesser is the quantity of sleep one will get. As we have emphasised from time to time, sound and restful sleep is necessary to lose weight and also prevent NCDs (non-communicable diseases) or lifestyle ailments like diabetes

3. Essential for fat loss: There is an old maxim that is repeated often in the world of diet, nutrition and weightloss: “Fats burn in the flame of the carbohydrates”. What it implies is that fats are ‘burnt’ and utilised for energy in the presence of carbohydrates. So, if you are looking to lose fat and weight, you do need carbs to help you accomplish that goal!

4. Source of valuable fiber: The non-digestible component of carbohydrate food (plant fibers) like that found in whole grains, rice, banana, wheat, etc – known as prebiotics– stimulate the growth and induce changes to the composition of gut microbial populations. The gut microbiome (probiotics) play a very important role in the overall health of a person—which is why there are benefits of traditional Indian pickles – whether it be in contributing to weight loss or fighting against diseases like cancer or diabetes.

Do’s and Don’ts with consuming carbs

Now that the importance and benefits of carbohydrates in your diet are clarified, let’s note some tips on the type of carbs to take in and the ones to avoid.

1. Do include millets in your diet: Complement your intake of regular sources such as rice and wheat with millets such as jowar, bajra, ragi. These millets are nutritionally superior due to higher levels of protein with a more balanced amino acid profile, crude fiber and minerals like zinc, phosphorus, calcium, iron. As importantly, production and consumption of millets can contribute substantially in the fight against targeted hunger and mitigate the effect of climate change in long run. So, not only will you be benefiting yourself by complementing your diet with millets but also benefiting the cause of environmental sustainability! In fact, a proposal has been submitted by the Indian Government to the United Nations to declare 2018 as the International Year of Millets, to create global awareness about the benefits of millets.

2. Don’t consume carbs from refined and processed food items: Avoid packaged food like muffins, breads, biscuits and cakes that are loaded with trans fat, preservatives, emulsifiers, added colours etc. Feel free to enjoy our home-made meals like roti, thepla, bhakri; our traditional Indian breakfast items such as dosa, poha, idli; not only are they good sources of carbs, but also provide fibre, vitamins, amino acids, minerals and other nutrients.

So, the key takeaway that we’d like you to leave with is: when it comes to weight loss, think less of “low carbs” and “no carbs” and be discerning about the good carbs and the right ones!

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Confused by the misinformation about potential health problems with traditional Indian foods? Get in touch with award-winning Mumbai dietitian and nutritionist, Munmun Ganeriwal, a strong advocate of the holistic, wellness benefits of fresh, local, and traditional Indian foods.

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A common apprehension expressed by several clients who come to me for a diet consultation is related to the efficacy of diet and fitness regimen due to they being vegetarians. I realise that this often stems from misplaced notions about the lack of adequate proteins in vegetarian food. The good news is that one can maintain a fit, strong and healthy body with a pure vegetarian Indian diet; there are ample sources of proteins for vegetarians.

Don’t just take my word for it- numerous examples abound of celebrities with extremely fit and enviable “hot” bodies who are vegetarians. Shahid Kapoor with an amazing physique, is a self-proclaimed vegetarian, as are several top-notch leading ladies from our very own Bollywood. Several members of the present Indian cricket team- which now has a reputation for establishing stringent fitness benchmarks- are also lifelong vegetarians.

Besides these anecdotal examples, there is sufficient scientific evidence to show that vegetarian diets don’t have any adverse impact on fitness or athletic/sports performance. Research published by both the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2012 and the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2011 on cyclists and sprinters, respectively, proved that results from sportsmen on vegetarian diets were the same as those from sportsmen on meat-based diets.

Benefits of consuming plant-based proteins

Contrary to the myth around vegetarian diet mentioned above, there are several benefits of adding plant-based protein in your food intake. These benefits are not merely dietary, but also at a much bigger and macro-environmental level.

Fibre facilitates easy digestion: First and foremost is the fibre or roughage that plant-based proteins provide. In contrast, non-vegetarian sources lack fibre even though they contain higher amounts of amino acids– both essential and non-essential. Common vegetarian sources of proteins such as dals/legumes/pulses provide adequate roughage as well, thus making them easily digestible and ‘light’ on the system. The paucity of fibre in non-vegetarian sources- especially red meat- makes them harder to digest.

High quality protein: Plant-based proteins are of comparable, if not better, quality than animal protein. In fact, rice – which many people don’t associate with anything more than carbohydrates- offers one of the best-quality proteins compared to other cereals. While the quantity of protein that rice offers is limited, the presence of all 8 amino acids in proper proportion, makes rice an excellent source of high-quality vegetarian protein. Similarly, rice protein has a “biological value” (defined as the extent of ability to retain nitrogen) of 86, compared to the figure of 70, which is deemed acceptable quality.

Tastes just as good: For many, the lure of non-vegetarian food lies in its taste and texture as much as on its nutritional value. Thanks to the rich Indian tradition of using a multitude of spices in our incomparable array of cuisines, taste is seldom a big issue with vegetarian Indian food. Who can question the taste-worthiness of dals and pulses such as Rajma, chole, etc.? From a tasty breakfast item or snack such as misal pav” — recognized some time back as the world’s tastiest vegetarian snack—to desserts such as moong dal halwa, options galore for adding vegetarian protein into our system!

More environment-friendly: At a macro-level, meat production is a significant drain on natural resources as rearing animals requires more food and energy. It is not only land-based animal meat production that poses an environmental challenge; rampant and excessive fishing driven by the quest to supply omega 3 to humans, is also leading to an irreversible collapse of the world’s marine ecosystem.

Contrast this with pulses and legumes – a major source of vegetarian protein- that actually help keep nitrogen in the soil and retain usable nitrogen concentrations for future crops! Year 2016 was hence, declared as “International Year of Pulses” by the UN. The aim was to increase public awareness of nutritional benefits of pulses and its role in transforming modern agriculture, solve hunger and malnutrition and contribute to food security. One of the areas for change that the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO) propose to deal with climate change, to bring ‘zero hunger’ for everyone on the planet is to eat ATLEAST one meat-free meal every week.

No wonder, there is the growing ‘reducetarianism’, a movement to cut-down on animal-based protein and rely more on vegetarian protein. Infact, fibre-rich, unripe jackfruit is being eaten as ‘meat substitute’ in the West due to the meaty texture and feel it offers.

How to ensure sufficient protein intake

Vegetarians can get their required quantity of proteins through dals, pulses, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. In addition to having these as part of main course along with your grains (rotis/ rice/ bhakri/ thepla), incorporating them in your mid-meals (like a handful of nuts) will give a good protein boost. For example, a small bowl of sprouted moong dal or black channa/cholle (you can add a dash of lemon juice and black salt to make it tastier) can be a great complement to fresh home-made Indian breakfast.

One thing to bear in mind is that vegetarian protein sources have limited amino acids. So it is best that these are eaten in complementary food combinations such that the limited amino acids in one food item is adequately supplemented by amino acids in the other food item. For example, rice is deficient in the amino acid lysine but rich in methionine, while dal is deficient in amino acid methionine and has plenty of lysine. Therefore, to get the full benefits of all the essential amino acids/complete protein profile, a combination of rice & dal works very well. This concept (and wisdom) of using complementary food items and complementary proteins is deeply entrenched in Indian cuisine from time immemorial, as we can see from our staples like rice-dal, khichdi, rice-kadhi, roti-dahi, etc.

As a dietitian with considerable focus and interest in Indian diets, I’d like to categorically state that vegetarians can really rest assured about getting their requisite protein intake without having to switch to eating meat. Don’t switch dietary habit simply on the basis of a misconception. What’s more, in the world of vegetarian ‘mock-meats’ that we live in today, there is the option to “have it and eat it too” (well, almost!).

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Confused by the misinformation about potential health problems with traditional Indian foods? Get in touch with award-winning Mumbai dietitian and nutritionist, Munmun Ganeriwal, a strong advocate of the holistic, wellness benefits of fresh, local, and traditional Indian foods.

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