Healthy Indian Meal Mods: Keep the Taste, Cut the Calories

Delicious AND Nutritious

Delicious AND Nutritious
Image: smarnad and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Many thanks to my friends and colleagues Kuber Bhalla and Kristine Schweitzer for heavily contributing to the creation of this article!

Indian meals are world-famous for flavor and richness. They leave you feeling comfortably stuffed, yet still craving one bite more. But behind all that delicious comfort are some less-than-healthy ingredients that can add up to weight gain and heart trouble in the long run. So let’s take a second look at a few traditional favorites. I asked my friend, dietitian Jason Machowsky of DeathoftheDiet.com, to show us ways to make them just a little gentler on the waistline, while holding onto the aromas and flavors we know and love.

Butter Chicken

Reference: http://www.ecurry.com/blog/indian/curries/gravies/murgh-makhani-butter-chicken/

Butter chicken is such a classic that it may seem wrong to alter it, but you can keep all the comfort food flavor and add a healthy twist, as well. The marinade and meat are perfect as they are. You only need a trifle of mustard oil to flavor up to 2 pounds of chicken. Of course, it may be useful to go lighter with the amount of sugar and oil/butter/ghee used when cooking. The biggest issue is the sauce: ¼ cup of butter and over ½ cup of heavy cream. Consider replacing some of these saturated fats with thick, plain yoghurt, or evaporated milk, to keep a rich consistency while cutting fat calories. You could also compromise with a tablespoon or two of butter and ⅔ cup of lowfat yoghurt. Another option is to leave in most of that delicious cream and simply cut back on serving sizes. That can include serving fewer carbs (i.e. naan and rice) with the meal. Load up your plate with extra veggies instead. You can even replace the rice with cauliflower.

Chole

Reference: http://indianfood.about.com/od/vegetarianrecipes/r/chole.htm

Chole doesn’t need much help in the health department. After all, you can’t go too wrong with a dish based on chickpeas. But do watch the oil. Chickpeas are a great source of fiber and protein. The real trouble comes from the fact that this dish is often paired with fried breads or rice. Instead of adding lots of fat and carbs in the form of sides, bulk up on veggies. When you’re full of those, there isn’t much room to go astray with fried foods.

Dosa

Reference:  http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/vegetables-recipes/amazing-indian-dosa

The link takes you to a great example of a modified classic, from chef Jamie Oliver. Oliver uses olive oil in place of the heavier oils that most people use to make dosa. It’s an easy swap that won’t affect the taste enough to attract any notice. Sweet potatoes and gram flour are hearty staple foods, and the health benefits of tumeric, ginger, and chilies continue to unfold in nutrition labs around the world. Once again the problem lies not so much with the dish itself, but with the buttery/oily things that dosas are sometimes stuffed and paired with. Try wrapping your chutney or potato mixture in lettuce, rather than fry bread, for a more healthy alternative. You can also swap steamed spinach for the crackers many people tend to use.

Samosas

Reference: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/baked_samosas_69255

The biggest issue with samosas is our old nemesis, the frying pan, along with its assortment of artery-clogging oils. To avoid this altogether, try the baked samosa recipe we reference above. But frying doesn’t have to be unhealthy if it’s done properly. To cut fat and fry up delicious samosas and other foods, always make sure to use fresh, clean oil. Next, the oil needs to be heated to the proper temperature before you begin frying. Starting out at a low temperature means that your food will absorb too much of the oil, and end up greasy and unhealthy. Hot oil fries quickly, with a minimum of absorption. Another easy modification for samosas is to supplement the potatoes with lighter veggies, like carrots, peas, and spinach.

Be Bold. Be Healthy.

Great foods are born from love and experimentation, so don’t be afraid to make little changes, even to the most sacred of recipes. You may not get away with altering your great-grandmother’s best dish for a big family gathering, but in the privacy of your own home on a chilly weeknight, nobody can stop you from making your household meals just a little bit better for everyone.

Beginners Guide to Fermenting Vegetables – Or, How to Do (Almost) Everything Wrong the First Time

With all of the ruckus going on with gut health, one of the classic food preparations that has come back to the forefront is fermentation.  The thought process behind eating fermented foods (alcoholic beverages withstanding) is that we are introducing healthy bacteria into our digestive tract that will ideally flourish and keep bad bacteria out.  Simply put, fermentation creates a cadre of real-food based probiotics – kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and more.  There’s a lot of research showing the benefits of probiotics, so if you can create a real-food version of them, why not?

A detailed primer on the benefits of probiotics and fermentation can be found here.

But it’s not just about eating the good bacteria (probiotics), but also keeping them well fed with things like fiber, fruits, veggies, garlic, etc.  The foods that keep the good bacteria healthy are called prebiotics (check out my article on prebiotics here).  So once you get the good bacteria in, keep them going strong.

Now, let’s get back to the heart of the matter – my first foray into becoming a healthy bacteria farmer. Looking at all of the potential projects, I decided to start with fermenting vegetables.  Veggies are healthy, so fermenting is a bonus!  I’ve broken down the post into 3 parts: The Research Process, The Attempt and Lessons Learned.

The (Limited) Research Process

I take solace in the notion that the most important part of any journey is the first step.  Even if it’s a staggering, minimally guided step.  I started where any modern day research experiment begins – Google.  After inserting “fermenting vegetables” and “making sauerkraut” and flipping around a few sites, I ended up using Cultures for Health as my primary resource for making two recipes:

Within each recipe there were a number of “you could to this, or this, or this, or this” steps.  While it makes my coaching side proud (yay, choice), it made my student side scream – “I don’t give a sh*t, just tell me what to do and make it easy!”  I never said I was an easy student, lol.

The Attempt
First Ferment Day 1 - Near Shot

First Ferment Day 1

Considering I wanted to get this thing started the same day I was researching it, some of the fancy options were immediately knocked off the table.  I decided to go with a basic salt ferment in a couple glass jars (thanks Smith and Chang!).  So I got my cabbage, green beans, spices and jars and started chopping, salting, massaging (the cabbage) and jarring.

This first picture shows how it looked at the onset.  Not too bad, huh?  Well I decided to do some further research on how to ferment correctly (and common mistakes) and by Day 2, I wasn’t so sure of myself.

A silly little detail that I forgot from my food science days was that fermentation is supposed to be an anaerobic process – in other words, no oxygen allowed! Otherwise, mold will grow, not our lovely, healthy bacteria.  This means your fermentables need to stay completely submerged under fluid (water is most common) and there needs to be room at the top of the jar for the carbon dioxide created by the fermentation process to escape.  Considerations I took for neither, whoops.  Serendipitously, I did it for the green beans – maybe because I just didn’t buy enough green beans to stuff it to the top.

I read that mold will often turn the vegetables pink or brown so I decided to hold my breath and let time, and color be my guide.  I also read that it traditionally takes 3 to 10 days for vegetables to ferment depending on temperature (60 to 80 degrees Farenheit is preferred).

First Ferment - Day 3

First Ferment – Day 3

First Fermenting Sauerkraut - Day 3

Fermenting Sauerkraut – Day 3 – See the Bubbles?

On Day 3, I was relieved to see that the sauerkraut hadn’t turned into a LiteBrite.  However, it did have bubbles floating in the liquid and fizzing out of the side, so I t

hought that was a sign I should check to make sure it wasn’t possessed.  As soon as I opened the jar I got an initial whiff of sulfur (that rotten egg smell) that evolved into a tangy, sauerkraut smell.

I pulled the top layer of sauerkraut off since I figured that had access to a ton of oxygen (above the water line) and then tried a couple of pinches that lied beneath.  Tasted pretty good – a crispier version of sauerkraut.  And more importantly, I didn’t die.  Though I did notice I belched a fair amount for about half an hour – maybe the new bacteria was making friends?  I added more water to fill the jar back up, closed it, and put it in the fridge to slow/stop the fermentation process.  There will be a few more taste tests, but I’ll probably end up chucking most of it in the name of not consuming colorless/odorless mold since I colored outside most of the lines on my first go-around.

Since the kraut experiment was over, I decided to check in on the green beans.  I didn’t notice any air in the liquid, which means it must have risen into the area between the lid and the water!  This movement of CO2 was not just uplifiting for me – it had the green beans levitating too!

First Fermenting Green Beans - Day 3

First Fermenting Green Beans – Day 3 – Levitating Beans!

When I opened the jar, I heard a fizz (like the sound when you open a soda) which made it seem like everything was going according to plan.  I threw out the couple of green beans that were above the water line but then tried one of the submerged ones – tangy, dilly, garlicky.  Really good!  Becca agreed as well.  These will be consumed.

Since completing my initial foray into fermenting, I’ve also learned that length of time may also have a significant impact on the pH of the ferment and the bacteria most represented.  While most of the articles I read gave veggie ferments a 3 to 10 day recommended fermentation period, the Food Renegade recommends a longer fermentation period, up to 28 days.  The theory behind it is that ferments held longer should result in a lower pH – which would lead to a greater representation of beneficial bacteria (lactobacilli, etc.).  A good summary of this and many other mistakes I made can be found here.

Lessons Learned

I’m an engineer and I like process.  From my initial experiment I’ve determined that choosing what to ferment is the easiest part.  Everything else is what makes it a pain in the rear.  So let’s get it settled.

Lesson 1: What do I actually need?

1. Fermentable stuff (cabbage is a great starting point, but you can do beets, carrots, green beans, and more).

2. Fermenting medium.  Can be as simple as water and salt (I like simple), which results in the slowest ferment.  Other things can be added to speed up how fast the ferment takes, such as whey powder (apparently bacteria and bodybuilders are cut from the same cloth) or a bacteria starter (living probiotics – which means you don’t need to wait for them to grow).  Celery juice is another interesting idea instead of water (thanks Dr. Mercola!)

3. Fermenting vessel. A glass jar or other air-tight container you can ferment in.  It really doesn’t have to be fancy, but there are a number of specialized fermentation crocks available that makes it easier to get rid of the carbon dioxide without letting oxygen in.  We actually just ordered a 3 gallon one from Ohio Stoneware with a gift card we had from Williams Sonoma.  Yep, we’re in this for the long haul!

Simplest setup = veggies, water, salt, glass jar, something to hold the veggies down underwater (apparently olive oil makes a good seal too – the miracle of density!)

Lesson 2: Setup is everything.

Whatever you want to ferment needs to stay anerobic, but a byproduct of fermentation – carbon dioxide – must be able to escape.  How do you get one gas out without letting another one in?  I narrowed the setup down to three considerations:

1. How am I going to keep my fermentable foods under water?  Weights, water-filled plastic bags, a cabbage leaf, and even olive oil is used to create a barrier between the food and the air in the container.

Jason's Fermenting Diagram

Jason’s Handy Fermenting Layout Diagram

2. How am I going to let carbon dioxide escape?  Easiest way to do this is to leave room at the top of the jar or container.  Special pressurized release mechanisms exist that can be attached to jars or many specialty crocks take care of this for you.

3. How will I keep oxygen out?  Make sure your container is air tight and you’ve left enough room for the carbon dioxide to rise out – typically at least an inch between the top of the jar and the fluid line.  From my readings some people mention “burping” the container to release CO2 but others say not to.  Again, it’s about allowing the CO2 to get out (we don’t want exploding veggies), while minimizing oxygen.  Technically if the stuff stays under water, then it shouldn’t matter if you briefly open the top, right?

Lesson 3: Not too hot, not too cold.  And wait?

Thankfully I got some of this right.  Most of the fermentation sites explain you want to keep the temperature of what you’re fermenting between 60 to 80 Farenheit.  Too cold means the bacteria won’t grow.  Too hot kills the bacteria.  We just left it in a dark corner of our pantry.
Either out of self-preservation or impatience I transferred our first attempt to the fridge after 3 days.  Apparently that may not be long enough to get the full “beneficial” effects of the ferment (i.e. the right bacteria didn’t grow yet).  I need to do more research to see whether there is a “proven” length of time (3 days, 10 days, 28 days?), or if it’s all just conjecture.  Either way, it tasted good.  So that works too!

As I mentioned before, this was the post that opened my eyes to many of my mistakes.  In Mistake #1, she links to another woman’s site that shows the differences between bacteria growth in ferments of different ages.

Have you fermented?  Anything I can add to this article to make it better or more informative?

Is Saturated Fat Healthy? A Conversation Between Me and My Mom

Are Saturated Fats Like Coconut Oil Friend or Foe?

Are Saturated Fats Like Coconut Oil Friend or Foe?
Courtesy of Microsoft Images

Quick Note Before the Blog Post:

In my desire to keep you and those you care about feeling fit and strong throughout the holiday season, I want to share Death of the Diet at a deeply discounted price (feel free to forward the link). The Kindle version of Death of the Diet will be half price ($4.99) for a limited time on the days leading up to Thanksgiving – now through Wednesday Nov. 27th.  On Turkey Day, it goes back to full price.

Happy and healthy holidays to all!  – Jason

And now to the topic at hand…

About a month ago my mom emailed me asking about whether fat in the diet, particularly saturated fat, is healthy.  Her interest was piqued due to her recent visits to an Ayurvedic physician and an article by Adam Bornstein for Shape.com.  Below is my conversation with her about the question “Is saturated fat healthy?” – I’m interested to hear everyone’s thoughts:

From My Mom – Quoting Bornstein’s article:

7. Eat saturated fat.

Books like The China Study and movies like Forks Over Knives have pointed the finger at saturated fats-and all animal fats-as the reason for countless health problems. Yet all the research used to support this hypothesis took a very slanted bias and completely ignored populations that were incredibly healthy despite diets based on saturated fats. For example, people who live in Tokelau (a territory off of New Zealand) eat a diet that is 50 percent saturated fats, and they have cardiovascular health that is superior to any other group of people. Even Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard, has publicly stated (after a 20-year review of research) that fats-and more specifically saturated fats-are not the cause of the obesity crisis and are not the cause of heart disease.

The fad-free truth: Cholesterol actually acts as an antioxidant against dangerous free radicals within the blood. When there are high levels of undesirable substances in the blood (caused by inflammation in your arteries from eating highly processed foods and large quantities of sugars), cholesterol levels rise in order to combat these substances. Cholesterol is also necessary for the production of a number of hormones, some of which help fight against heart disease. Plus, research shows diets higher in saturated fats are often lower in total calories consumed.

*Note from Jason: The link to the full Willett article is here.  Also, Dr. Mozaffarian adds a good summary in the May 2011 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – Volume 111, Number 5.  And a recent article came out in the LA Times about the topic.

My Initial Response:

I think it’s clever and slightly deceptive. It’s easy to prove a point when you only cite the research that supports it.  Many of those cultures that eat a lot of saturated fat probably consume them as a part of whole foods, not as pastries. They are also probably physically active, and not obese. Correlation does not imply causation on either side of the coin.

Most research shows that saturated fat (coconut oil, ghee, eggs, whole dairy, etc) increases both types of cholesterol, HDL & LDL.  However, recent research has started to question whether all LDL cholesterol is “bad” – certain types of LDL particles may be less harmful than others (fluffy is better), but the diagnostic tools are still not widely used.  A 2008 article by Johns Hopkins describes the situation and lists a few of the LDL particle blood tests available on the market such as NMR LipoProfile, VAP (Vertical Auto Profile), Berkeley LipoPrint.

Research over the past 15 years has started to absolve cholesterol intake as a cause of high cholesterol (they are still cautious with it when you already have high cholesterol) and it appears similar is occurring for saturated fat.  In my own research to answer this question, I came across an interesting 1962 Swiss Alpine population study that showed high calorie and high saturated fat intake did not cause high cholesterol – likely due to their high physical activity rates.

In short, consuming saturated fat in natural, whole food based form as a part of a balanced, healthful diet rich in fruits, veggies, grains/proteins coupled with a normal body weight and active lifestyle is likely fine.  Too bad some people who read Bornstein’s article only see “butter and bacon is good for me along with my pancakes and danish.”

My Mom’s Follow Up

I was speaking of whole milk/dairy products, olive oil & ghee. Her belief, from an ayurvedic perspective, is that fats in whole foods are needed to get nutrients through the cell wall. The desire to have a donut is totally my idea!

My Second Follow Up

May be true, but if whole milk, olive oil and ghee leads to excessive calorie intake and makes someone obese, then that doesn’t help either.  Also, if it doesn’t sit well in someone’s stomach (food sensitivity) that may be a sign too.

Not sure if there are studies that prove that you need fat to “get nutrients through the cell wall”, but there are a number of fat-soluble nutrients that must be consumed with fat, such as vitamins A, D, E, K, etc.  That’s why extremely low-fat diets can be risky, just like extremely low-anything diets.

To You, the Reader:

What Are Your Thoughts on Saturated Fat, LDL/Cholesterol Levels and Heart Health?

‘Tis the Season: 3 Tips to Prevent Holiday Weight Gain

Holiday Calories

Photo Courtesy of WishUponACupcake

A big worry on peoples’ minds during the holiday season is about whether they will gain weight. Unfortunately, most people do…about one pound. While one pound does not sound like much, most people also keep that pound until the following holiday season…when they add another pound. So pound after pound, year after year…those pounds can add up fast. Here are three great ways to keep your cool and avoid being part of the “one pound majority” during this holiday season.

Eat Small, Frequent Meals…Even on Holidays!

While there is debate about whether small, frequent meals increase your metabolism, one thing is for certain: If you are eating healthy food every 3 hours or so, you won’t have the time or hunger to want to eat junk food! We tend to “cave” when we go long periods of time without eating (i.e. 8 AM to 1 PM to 7 PM…sound like a typical day?), and then we are confronted with tasty, free holiday treats when we are most vulnerable (mid-morning, mid-to-late afternoon and late night).

The key to eating small frequent meals is having planned “snacks” between meals during the day. Think of them as mini-meals, like fruit and a piece of string cheese, veggies and hummus/peanut butter, half a sandwich or a yogurt with high fiber cereal.

Focus on “How Much”: Consider Portions

A little bit of pumpkin pie or candied yams is not the end of the world. Making them most your plate is another story…especially if you have a big plate! Often we get huge plates to serve ourselves on for holiday meals…so we feel the need to fill it up because it’s a special occasion. And then we feel guilty leaving over our family’s food, so we eat all of it…even if we don’t want to.

Instead, ask for a smaller plate and focus on filling half (or more) of your plate with healthier options. Then make the rest of the plate up with the things you “can’t live without”. Studies show that people tend to eat less if they use smaller dishes and utensils. If you finish the smaller plate and you are still hungry, drink a glass of water and wait 15-20 minutes. This will give your body enough time to get the signal as to whether you are full or not (usually takes 15-20 minutes). If you are still hungry, then go up for seconds and follow the same process as before.

Stay Active

A 30 minute jog can burn about 300 calories. Doing 30 minutes of interval training can burn a ton more. While many consider nutrition to be about 60 to 70% of the equation when it comes to weight loss (or weight gain prevention), the 30 to 40% contributed by physical activity is not to be disregarded!

If you are currently active, stay that way! We are often knocked out of our routines during the holidays due to travel, additional evening commitments and the shorter days of winter (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere). Take a look at what your current physical activity level is (number of days per week, how long, how intense), write it down, review it daily and commit to continuing that level of activity through the rest of the year. Or kick it up a notch if you feel confident that you could be doing more; it does not have to be a lot, just an additional ten minutes added on to your usual workouts. Consider it a pre-New Year’s Resolution.

TELL ME: Do you change any habits in particular to prevent gaining weight during the holiday season?  Or how do you safeguard yourself against the temptations that don’t usually occur the other months of the year?

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