Healthy Eating: Best & Worst Indian Dishes for Your Health

Order: Dishes With Dal

Tomato-based dal has less fat than creamy versions.

In Hindi, "dal" means lentils or a meal made from them. Either way, those tiny beans are packed with protein, fiber, vitamin B6, and folate. Choose dal in tomato-based sauces over creamy ones to keep down the fat.

Skip: Naan

Skip naan that is full of white flour, sugar, and oil.

Naan is to Indian food what fries are to burgers -- they just go together. And like those fluffy spuds, this soft flatbread has little nutritional value. Most naan recipes call for Greek yogurt to give it that airy texture. But that's more than offset by less healthy ingredients like white flour, sugar, and oil.

Order: Tandoori Proteins

Order tandoori protein that is flavorful and low in fat.

It's red. It's charred. It's one of the most familiar Indian dishes. Chicken tandoori gets its name from tandoor, a thick clay or stone vessel it's cooked in. You also can order tandoori fish and lamb, which are seared at high temperatures from fire, charcoal, or a gas flame. Much like grilling, all the flavor comes from the meat and marinade, not oils or other unneeded fats.

Skip: Pakoras

Baked pakora is healthier than the fried version.

The name is exotic. But "pakoras" is just code for "fried vegetables." Pieces of eggplant, potato, spinach, or cauliflower are dipped in batter, then take a quick bath in lots of hot oil. Skip 'em for dine-in or delivery. You can make a healthier version at home with chickpea flour and baking instead of frying.

Order: Chana Masala

Chana masala is full of iron, folate, B vitamins, and fiber.

Indians eat chana masala at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or as a quick snack from food stalls in the local bazaar. Its main ingredient is chickpeas, aka garbanzo beans. The legume is loaded with folate, iron, fiber, and vitamin B. The tomato-and-onion sauce is blended with lots of garlic, ginger, chiles, and good-for-you spices.

Skip: Saag Paneer

Saag paneer is loaded with butter, cream, and yogurt.

We know what you're thinking: Saag paneer is full of spinach. What's unhealthy about that? The problem is the cubes of paneer, or Indian cheese. Some chefs up the fat factor by frying the dish in ghee, or clarified butter. Still others add cream and yogurt at the end for velvety texture. Lighten the dish at home and swap the paneer for tofu.

Skip: Samosas

Samosas are carb heavy and deep fried.

These portable pockets are the ultimate Indian street food snack. Samosas are filled with veggies -- potatoes, onions, carrots, and peas. So what's the worry? All the healthy stuff is folded into a carb-heavy pastry shell or wonton skin, then deep fried in bubbling fat.

Order: Aloo Gobi

Aloo gobi packs lots of anti-inflammatory turmeric, garlic, ginger, and cumin.

This may not be the sexiest dish on the Indian buffet. You might skip right past it on your way to chicken tikka masala and basmati rice. But this potato-and-cauliflower combo gets high marks for taste and heart healthiness, especially with all that turmeric, ginger, garlic, and cumin in the mix.

Skip: Chicken Tikka Masala

Chicken tikka masala is loaded with ghee and heavy cream.

It's one of the most-ordered entrees at Indian joints. But like many Indian dishes that were originally low fat, the modern recipe for chicken tikka masala is anything but. An average portion has whopping 1,249 calories and 90.8 grams of fat. A lot of that comes from the ghee and heavy cream.

Skip: Pappadam

Watch your servings of pappadam because it's usually deep fried.

In northern India, this lentil flour bread is flame roasted. But in the U.S. and pretty much everywhere else, it's deep fried. Resist the urge to devour them before your meal arrives. Or crunch your way through just a couple, maybe with a little mint chutney on top.

Order: Kebabs

Kebabs are a smart choice to order off the Indian menu.

Meat + spices + grill = pure protein. Top it with a tomato chutney and opt for brown or whole grain rice instead of pilaf.

Skip: Lamb Rogan Josh

Lamb rogan josh usually has a lot of fat.

It's not a creamy sauce that amps up the fat-o-meter in this dish. It's the meat. Depending on the cut, lamb can have anywhere from 15 to 25 grams of fat in a 3-ounce portion. That's about the size of a deck of cards. At home, where you can choose the cut of meat, go for a leg or loin, and load up on all those antioxidants, like ginger, garlic, tomato, and turmeric.

Skip (or Make): Navratan Korma

Make navratan korma healthier at home by using soy yogurt instead of half and half.

Navratan means "nine gems" in Hindi. It's fitting name for a dish filled with vegetables, nuts, and seeds. If you order it in a restaurant, it's often finished with half and half to give it a rich, creamy flavor (and extra calories and fat). Sub plain soy yogurt or blended tofu at home to give it a healthy tweak.

Skip: Gulab Jamun

Skip gulab jamun that is made of milk, sugar, and ghee and deep fried.

These golf ball-sized desserts coated in sticky liquid aren't good for your diet game. Gulab jamun are a mixture of milk, sugar, and ghee that's deep fried and plopped in rose water syrup. If you crave something sweet after an Indian meal, go for kheer, or rice pudding topped with fruit.

Hot Tip: Think Small

Eat half a portion and save the other half for later to reduce your caloric intake.

One order of chicken biryani, lamb vindaloo, or dal makhani usually is enough for two meals. Share or save some for another night. That instantly cuts your fat and calories by half.

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REFERENCES:

  • Berkeley Wellness, University of California: “7 Incredible Lentil Recipes,” “Best and Worst Indian Foods,” “Is Lamb Red Meat?”
  • NHS Choices (UK): “Healthier Takeaways.”
  • Michigan State University Extension: “Naan.”
  • Institute of Culinary Education: “Learn How to Use a Tandoor Like a Pro.”
  • Boston University, Sargent Choice Nutrition Center: “Test Kitchen: Chana Masala and Roti.”
  • Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans).”
  • National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Paneer—An Indian soft cheese variant: a review.”
  • New York Times: “Tofu Saag Paneer (Tofu with Spinach, Ginger, Coriander and Turmeric).”
  • SafeFood: “Health Menu Options: Indian,” “Typical Indian takeaway meal for one contains enough food for two people.”
  • Breastcancer.org: “Portion Size.”
  • Virginia Cooperative Extension: “Half and Half vs. Non-dairy Creamer – What’s best for coffee?”
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