What traditional Indian medicine teaches about eating well with diabetes

August 02, 2022

4 min read


Source: Healio Interviews

Disclosures: Kharod reports no relevant financial disclosures. Weiner reports serving as a consultant to Insulet.

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Susan Weiner

Parul Kharod

Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDCES, FADCES, talks with Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN, about the ancient medical knowledge system known as Ayurveda and what it can reveal about living with diabetes.

Weiner: What is Ayurveda and how does it apply to Indian cuisine?

Ayurveda can improve diet in people with diabetes
The ancient medical knowledge system Ayurveda teaches that all disease begins in the gut and that food is medicine, and traditional foods cooked with Ayurvedic principles tend to be healthy.

Kharod: Ayurveda is an ancient medical system dating back more than 5,000 years. Ayur means “life,” and veda means “knowledge.” Thus, Ayurveda is the knowledge of how to live a healthy, happy life. According to Ayurveda, health is not absence of disease. Ayurveda focuses on the preservation of a healthy body and prevention of disease. The principles of Ayurveda focus on each person’s unique constitution and aim to bring balance of mind, body and spirit in a personalized approach.

The principal tenet of Ayurveda is that all disease begins in the gut — and it’s likely Hippocrates learned that from Ayurveda. According to Ayurveda, all diseases occur due to dysfunction of agnithe digestive fire that helps with metabolism and digestion of food, maintains the natural gut flora by killing foreign bacteria and toxins, and supports the growth of healthy bacteria.

Ayurveda categorizes three doshas as substances that flow or circulate within the body, bringing disease through excess or deficiency. The doshas exhibit the characteristics of the elements from which they are made. All diseases are caused by an imbalance of the doshas, ​​and imbalance is caused by intake of improper diet and by leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

Food itself is the medicine. Our physical makeup is a combination of five essential elements present in the universe: ether, air, fire, water and earth. According to Ayurveda, six tastes originate from these five elements: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. We need each of these six tastes in our daily diet. Indian cuisine is richly flavored with these six tastes to aid in optimal digestion.

Ayurveda also categorizes foods as heating or cooling to the body. There are norms about combinations of foods and what foods should or should not be eaten at the same meal. Dietary goals change with the seasons and according to stages of the lifecycle. The aim is restoring the balance of natural energies; digesting food well; building strong cells and tissues, including our immune cells; having regular and complete elimination; keeping sharp senses; achieving peace of mind; and maintaining clear thinking.

Weiner: What are your top culinary tips for people who live with diabetes when eating traditional Indian food?

Kharod: Traditional foods cooked with ayurvedic principles tend to be healthy and easy to digest. However, not everyone eats that way. Indian food can also be unhealthy, especially when prepared with excess oils and heavy creams. If meals are not properly balanced, they can be high in simple starches.

I use the plate method to talk about portion control. My first tip is to increase the amount and variety of non-starchy vegetables. Second, swap simple stars and flour for intact whole grains. I encourage use of plant-based proteins, such as legumes, nuts and seeds. Another tip is to reduce salt, sugar and fat in the diet.

Weiner: What should someone consider when adopting a plant-based diet?

Kharod: There is a huge misconception that vegetarians only eat vegetables. People trying to adopt a plant-based diet may either consume inadequate calories and nutrients, if they are eating only salads, or they may get excess calories, if they are eating veggie burgers and mock chicken nuggets. A plant-based diet should always revolve around plants. Eating real foods that grow as plants — whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Limit packaged processed foods, especially imitation meats. It is important to eat balanced meals that are colorful and dense in nutrients.

Weiner: How can a person with diabetes reduce carbohydrate consumption while eating traditional Indian foods?

Kharod: Eating for diabetes is not only about reducing carbohydrates, but about reducing sugars and simple starches. Research shows that a high-fat diet may also have a negative effect on insulin resistance. Timing of meals, spacing of meals and balance of the plate are also important. It is important to focus on fiber rather than just carbohydrates. Foods that are rich in healthy carbohydrates and fibers include all intact whole grains, beans, peas and lentils. Traditional recipes using flours can be modified to use intact whole grains. I give out recipes and information on how traditional foods can be modified and made lower in carbohydrate and higher in fiber.

Weiner: What are some tips for incorporating spices into meals?

Kharod: Spices are incorrectly confused with the term “spicy,” meaning hot. This is not true. Only varieties of peppers are hot. Most other spices have unique tastes. Indian food cannot be cooked without spices. In fact, all foods should be cooked with spices and herbs, as these are not just for flavor. All spices have healing anti-inflammatory properties, and are composed of an impressive list of phytonutrients, essential oils, antioxidants, minerals and vitamins that are vital for good health.

Get familiar with a variety of spices and start using them. Add cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg to oatmeal and even coffee. Add turmeric and ginger to soups and stir fries. Use cumin-flavored black beans in your tacos. As you start using them, you will feel more comfortable to experiment. In the meantime, rely on recipes.

Weiner: Where can people with diabetes learn more about Indian cuisine?

Kharod: Physicians should refer their patients to a registered dietitian specializing in Indian cuisine and/or plant-based diets who can consider the person’s overall health and prescribe an individualized nutrition plan. Information on consumer websites may not be accurate or may make recommendations for people with diabetes without considering comorbid heart disease or kidney disease.

For more information:

Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist practicing in Raleigh/Cary, North Carolina. She can be reached at parulkharod@gmail.com.

Susan Weiner, MS, RDN, CDN, CDCES, FADCES, is co-author of The Complete Diabetes Organizer and Diabetes: 365 Tips for Living Well. She is the owner of Susan Weiner Nutrition PLLC and is the Endocrine Today Diabetes in Real Life column editor. She can be reached at susan@susanweinernutrition.com; Twitter: @susangweiner.

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