If most international diet guidelines leave you scratching your head and wondering where your dal, roti, sabzi and mithai fit in, use this guide to ensure that you're filling your plate with the best possible foods.
Know your carbs
If there is something an average Indian meal is abundant in, it is carbs thanks to rice, roti, root vegetables and possibly a sweet on the plate. According to Dietary Guidelines for Indians, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad (NIN), in India, 70-80% of total dietary calories are derived from carbohydrates present in plant foods such as cereals, millets and pulses. In this case, the quality of carbs matters more than the quantity. Grains, sugar, fibre, all contribute to the carbohydrate pool.
Eating whole grains ensures that the entire grain kernel is being consumed - bran, germ and endosperm. This not only makes it more nutritious but also gives you more fibre than a refined grain product, making every calorie from the carbohydrate count towards your health. Most health benefits come from the antioxidants and fibre -- some of them being cardiovascular health, lowered blood pressure, cancer protection, diabetes, gastrointestinal health and protection from age-related vision problems.
Best to eat: Whole wheat, unpolished rice, barley, millets, buckwheat, cooked beans, vegetables.
How much: As per the WHO Scientific Update on carbohydrates in human nutrition, "...at least 55% of total energy should be provided from a variety of carbohydrate sources, regardless of the nature of the dietary pattern". As per the Healthy Eating Plate created by the Harvard School of Public Health, a quarter of the plate should be filled with carbs in form of whole grains.
Protein makes up about 75% of the body's dry weight - hair, skin, cartilage, muscle, bone, organs. Protein, therefore, is a vital part of your diet. Most vegetarian protein sources also contain carbohydrates but most of them are low GI foods, which means they will not raise your blood sugar rapidly. The protein and fibre present along with the carbs lead to a slow rise in the sugars.
"To sum up, as per the Healthy Eating Plate, half the plate should be reserved for vegetables and fruits - with a focus on non-starchy vegetables, greens and fruits of different colours."
Proteins are complex molecules made up of different combinations of amino acids. Our body manufactures some amino acids, while some need to be supplied from the diet. These are called essential amino acids. A special note on glutamine and glutamate here, as they have been in the news currently in relation to their presence in processed foods. Glutamic acid is a non-essential amino acid (salt: glutamate), which is manufactured in the body. It is naturally occurring in foods in our daily diet such as mushrooms, milk, tomatoes and chicken. Glutamate is said to be responsible for "umami", which is known as the fifth food flavour after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. What is popularly known as MSG, is a sodium salt of glutamate. A Japanese chemist first isolated it in the early 20th century.
Some like glutamine are called 'conditionally essential' becoming essential when there is severe injury or illness. Dietary sources of glutamine include whey protein, cheese, dried lentils, meat, fish and cabbage, among others.
Animal proteins deliver all essential amino acids while plant proteins are usually short of one of more amino acids, making them an "incomplete protein". The good news is that a variety of plant proteins can be combined in the daily diet to get all the essential amino acids. While carbohydrates and fats are stored in the body, amino acids need to be supplied on a daily basis via protein intake.
Best to eat: Fish, poultry, beans, nuts, lean meats, tofu, soya chunks, dairy products, lentils etc.
How much: As per The Healthy Eating Plate, 1/4th of your plate, or 10-15% of your daily calorie intake according to NIN. This makes it around 37.5-56 grams of protein in a day for a person on a 1500 calorie diet.
The Nutrition Source (Harvard University) recommends usage of plant-based oils, which are unsaturated fats, avoiding transfats (no partially hydrogenated oils) and including one source of omega 3, which is an essential fatty acid -- think fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseed. A new meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine has questioned the benefit of eating a low-fat diet, as it increases the consumption of carbs and processed low-fat alternatives. In June 2015, the US FDA has gone ahead with a ban on artificial transfats ie. partially hydrogenated oils, giving companies time until 2018 to do away with it altogether.
Best to eat: Plant based oils, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, butter and ghee in moderation
How much: 20-30% of daily calorie intake, as per NIN.
Vitamins and minerals form this component of your diet. While they don't have to be included separately, focusing on adding enough colours to the plate via fruits and vegetables more or less covers this requirement.
Vitamin C, E and beta carotene are antioxidants preventing cellular damage, along with selenium, manganese. Iron, calcium, zinc are some of the essential minerals.
Best to eat:: Fruits and veg of different colours, green leafy veg.
How much: Five-seven servings of fruit and veg in a day, one multivitamin pill for those whose diet is not optimum
To sum up, as per the Healthy Eating Plate, half the plate should be reserved for vegetables and fruits - with a focus on non-starchy vegetables, greens and fruits of different colours. One quarter of the plate should contain protein such as fish, poultry, beans and nuts; red meat and cheese should be consumed in moderation, and processed meats are best avoided. The remaining quarter is for carbohydrates -- all whole grains, limiting refined carbs to a minimum. There is no upper limit on healthy fats such as liquid oils, butter in moderation; avoid transfats completely.