Carbohydrates and the Asian Indian Diet

With all the hype in the media about low carbohydrate diets, and carbohydrates being the culprit when it comes to weight gain, one is left confused about which carbohydrates to eat, when to eat them, or whether or not to eat carbohydrates at all! Some might wonder, “What is a carbohydrate, and how does it play a role in my Indian diet?”

 Carbohydrate foods can be divided into two groups: simple and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates which include whole grain breads, beans, cereals, brown rice, sweet- potatoes and vegetables, take longer for the body to digest, therefore, providing the body with a steady stream of energy throughout the day. These foods also provide the body with fiber, minerals and vitamins.  Complex carbohydrates are clearly the better choice.

Simple carbohydrates are rapidly digested and provide the body with quick energy.  These simple sugars are found in foods such as milk and fruit and provide the body with vitamins and minerals. However, simple sugars are also found in processed foods such as cakes, cookies, soft drinks, desserts and candy; and unfortunately we consume most simple sugars not in the healthy form of milk and fruits, but more in the form of processed foods. Carbohydrates are broken down by the body in a form called glucose and are the body’s best source for energy. Glucose is the only energy source used by the brain and the nervous system.

 As carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, these sugars are absorbed by the bloodstream. As the sugar level rises, insulin is produced to transport these sugars from the blood to the cells where it is used as energy. When blood sugars are raised too quickly as when simple sugars are consumed, insulin surges are greater and as a result, one feels hungry quicker. On the other hand, when whole grain foods or complex carbohydrates are consumed, insulin levels are kept steady and one stays satiated much longer as these foods are not digested rapidly. Recent research shows that eating foods over a period of years that cause blood sugars to elevate rapidly and then drop may cause health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. If eaten in excess, carbohydrates are converted to fat, a storage form of energy which can be stored in subcutaneous tissues or around organs such as the liver, stomach and heart. This high carbohydrate diet coupled with a sedentary lifestyle could become a health hazard for most Asian Indians if not properly managed.

 The typical vegetarian Asian Indian diet is very high in carbohydrates. Items such as roti, daal, rice, raita, vegetables are all considered carbohydrates. Even lentils and daals which are believed to be good protein choices have a higher content of carbohydrates than protein! The result of eating a high carbohydrate diet for years and following an inactive lifestyle may the reason that so many in our community are predisposed to obesity related diseases such as diabetes.

 So how does one manage carbohydrates? The smart choice is to eat more complex carbohydrates and to consume more of your calories during the day and less at night. But, most of us do just the opposite. We eat very little or nothing at all for breakfast, a light lunch and a big dinner. The better option would be to eat more for breakfast and lunch and eat a very light dinner. Unless you are planning to go dancing for a few hours after dinner or run a marathon, a high carbohydrate meal is not necessary at night. If consumed during the day, however, the carbohydrates can be used for energy and would be less likely to be stored as body fat. According to Registered Dietician, Purvi Shah, R.D.L.D., another consideration is to consume more green vegetables as a vegetable choice instead of potatoes being the choice of vegetables. She further suggests that more green vegetables should be eaten at night, to avoid overcooking these vegetables, and to add items such as yogurt, milk, lassi, tofu, and beans to one’s diet to increase protein intake. Late night dinners should also be avoided.  

  Items such as rotis, parathas, etc. can be prepared with whole wheat flour. King Arthur brand flour available at local American grocers is an excellent choice. Brown rice can be substituted for white rice. Ms. Shah also suggests that daal is an excellent choice of protein for vegetarians but to limit eating rice every night. Rice can be eaten every other night. Carbohydrate choices at night should be limited to just roti and vegetables, or rice and daal, instead of consuming all four. Or, if all four must be consumed, use portion control.  Simple carbohydrates which come in the form of processed foods such as traditional “mithais” and sweet dishes should be limited.  

When it comes to managing a vegetarian diet high in carbohydrates, remember to be choosy- eat more complex carbohydrates, limit the simple carbohydrates, use portion control, break away from the traditional way of eating, be more creative and above all, give up that sedentary lifestyle and exercise!

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