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Food and water provide the fuel mix of vital nutrients that enable the body to function. Fighting off harmful bacteria, balancing the fluid levels, and many other processes all need chemicals from food to work efficiently.
With the increased focus in the media of illnesses related to a poor diet, there is now widespread agreement on healthy eating and the message is fairly straight forward: eat less fat, especially saturated fat, less sugar, less salt and more fibre. This means eating more vegetable, fruit, complex carbohydrate food such as rice, bread and pasta (preferably unrefined or wholegrain varieties), more fish, leaner meats, and poultry without skin.
Some foods have more to offer than other, these are nowadays referred to as super foods (avocado, beetroot, blueberry, brazil nut, cabbage, carrot, curly kale, garlic, grapefruit, lemon, nettle, oily fish, olive, shitake mushroom, tempeh), but any food can fit into a healthy style of eating at least occasionally. It is the combinations and quantities you choose which are important to help protect your well being. Eating well means enjoying your food and having plenty of variety and balance, so that you get all the nutrients you need. This is something that a healthy low fat Indian diet offers, as many of the recommended healthy foods are present in Indian cookery, and that is what we teach at the Indian spice school.
There are 5 main basic food groups that make up the basic healthy diet, and the normal recommended percentages of what you should eat from each food groups is around:-
1 – Fruit and vegetables 35%
2 – Starchy foods 35%
3 – Meat fish and protein alternatives 12%
4 – Dairy foods 12%
5 – Sugary and high fat foods 6%
The elements found in the above foods fall into four main groups of macronutrients, which are needed in large amounts to provide energy and include carbohydrates, fats and proteins, micronutrients, and water.
This post will covers a few star food types in detail from each of the food groups, which are most present in the Indian diet, and which have special properties that may be valuable in protecting health. Other star food types and not so good food, from each of the food groups are also listed as a guide for what to eat and not to eat.
1 – Fruit and vegetables
Coconut – contains natural sugar and is an excellent protein based, between-meal snack. It has slight diuretic and laxative properties. The milk can be used to treat stomach ulcers and gastritis.
Mango – contains a host of vitamins and minerals and natural sugar. Mango has an astringent effect on the gut which means that it promotes contractions and enhances digestive processes. It aids the digestive system and conditions like colitis, diarrhoea, and ulcerative colitis.
Pineapple – a delicious food that we should enjoy more often, it contains powerful bromelain enzymes, they can help healing, reduce inflammation from many causes. They also help digestion, discourage dangerous blood clots, and may also help angina.
Onion – can do so much good for our health. Some of the health benefits of onions are linked to their volatile smell, which is released when fresh onions are cut. They can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, have a natural antibiotic action, relieves congestion in the airways, can help bronchial congestion, and aids cancer resistance.
Tomato – central to the Indian diet, and now recognised as one of the healthiest in the world, and are one of the most versatile food ingredients. Tomatoes contain substantial levels of antioxidants, notably vitamin E. They can lower the levels of several forms of cancer, as well as heart disease, stroke and cataracts. They contain other protective substances in the form of quercetin and lycopene.
Spinach – has the well known fame of being an iron rich food. It may also reduce the risk of cancer, is rich in antioxidants, may protect against eye degeneration, is rich in folate and can therefore lesson the chance of spina bifida, useful source of iron and can help avoid and relieve anaemia, and very rich in potassium so can help regulate high blood pressure.
Other star foods in this group – date, fig, banana, guava, lychee, papaya, apricot, grape, raisin, peach, plum, prune, melons (all types), berries (all types), olive, orange, mandarin and tangerine, grapefruit, lemon, apple, banana, pear, and pomegranate.
Parsnip, turnip, potato, shallots, beetroot, radish, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, peas, lettuce, cabbage, gourd, okra, corn, cucumber, peppers, courgette, salad leaves, avocado, pumpkin, aubergine, and mushrooms.
2 – Starchy foods
Rice – is a staple food for Indians and also half the world. It is a valuable starchy food to eat especially brown rice. With many varieties and recipes available, rice is something delicious to eat. It is a key starchy food and can helps prevent chronic western diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain cancers. It may also reduce the risk of bowel disorders, steadies blood sugar levels, supplies vitamin B1 (thiamin), and is gluten free and unlikely to cause allergy.
Sweet potato – like carrots orange fleshed sweet potatoes are both sweet and savoury, and contain far more vitamins than ordinary potatoes. They combine valuable antioxidants and minerals, and are the only low fat food with a high vitamin E level, rivalling rich sources such as nuts and seeds. They also contribute to heart health, can help regulate high blood pressure, and can also help anaemia.
Other star foods in this group – bread, cereals and grains (includes corn, oats, maize, wheat), pasta, and potatoes.
3 – Meat fish and protein alternatives
Beans and lentils – or pulses have become neglected in the age of convenience foods, however still popular in the Indian diet. They are well worth eating especially in place of higher fat meat or cheese. High in fibre and protein and low in fat, pulses are a key ingredient of many Indian dishes that taste too good to be abandoned. They can lower blood cholesterol levels and hence reduce the risk of heart disease, and are rich in soluble fibres so can steady blood sugar levels, contain substantial levels of iron and folate which can help prevent or combat anaemia, and high in potassium and folate so can help avoid and regulate high blood pressure.
Almonds – and other nuts are avoided by many people as a result of their high calorie count. But when you get as much from them as almonds provide, they should be eaten more often. They can help reduce blood cholesterol levels, and are a rich source of vitamin E so can help reduce the risk of heart disease, and are also a useful source of calcium.
Other star foods in this group – poultry and game, red meat, fish, shellfish, egg, soya, hazelnut, chestnut, peanut, walnut, cashew, and seeds.
4 – Dairy foods
Yogurt – is one of the most versatile foods, and has a long established reputation as an aid to good health. While all yogurt has a high nutritional value, only yogurt that contains live bacterial cultures has extra therapeutic benefits. These help protect against some harmful bacteria to avoid gastrointestinal and urinary tract infections. They aid recovery from diarrhoea, and help counter the side effects of antibiotics by restoring the levels of gut microflora, and can also stimulates the immune defences.
Other foods in this group – milk, cheese, paneer, butter, spreads, cream.
5 – Sugary and high fat foods
Oil – Some fat is necessary to enjoy a wide choice of food, as most foods contain some fat. Fat is the only source of essential and other important fatty acids. Most vitamin E is in fatty foods and fat is needed to absorb several different vitamins.
Indians cook with a variety of oils. Groundnut oil or sunflower oil is the most commonly used for a curry and deep frying.
Coconut oil with its strong aroma is used more in the south, while dark yellow mustard oil is used extensively in the east (Bengal) in fish dishes. Ghee is clarified butter and many Indian recipes use ghee as the cooking fat. It can be heated to a very high temperature without burning and does not require refrigeration. In most cases oil can be substituted for ghee, and increasingly more Indians are using the lighter vegetable oils as a healthier alternative. I prefer rapeseed oil, as it can be heated to a high temperature for a long time, thereby the food absorbs less oil, it is also high in mono saturated fats, and high in unsaturated fats.
Other foods in this group – fried foods, fizzy drinks, crisps, sweets, chocolate, cakes, buns, biscuits, and pastry
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