The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and its associated MyPlate graphic are commonly referenced resources for learning about healthy and nutritious eating. The recently-updated 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans put a stronger focus on meeting dietary recommendations while keeping cultural preferences in mind, and resources highlighting culturally inclusive approaches are valuable tools for translating the general messages of MyPlate and the Dietary Guidelines to more Americans.
This article is part of a series that shows how healthy eating can take on many different forms outside of the Western diet. While for many, meals might not exactly resemble MyPlate, the featured guest authors will demonstrate what healthy eating looks like in their culture, and how many of the food groups and principles can translate across cultures and cuisines. Each article in this series is written by a registered dietitian who is experienced in integrating culturally inclusive approaches into their work.
About the Author
Hi, I am Sarika Shah. As a registered dietitian, I have practiced for 20 years in multiple sectors. Having been raised in an Indian household, I understood the difference between my Western education and ethnic diets. I am able to use my knowledge of my patients’ food, culture and tradition to help them find healthy eating patterns that are in their comfort zone. I am a dietitian to most; but to my Indian patients, I am their dietitian.
For any generation of Indians in America, there is so much confusion about whether the Indian diet is healthy or not. Understandably, many believe they need to give up traditional foods to be “healthy.” Fundamentally, I am a firm believer that we should not deprive ourselves of any food, especially our cultural foods. My practicing philosophy is to incorporate the foods we love into our daily lives with awareness, education and moderation.
Indian food is widely considered to be dishes like butter chicken and naan. Indeed, this is a popular dish of North Indian cuisine, but it does not represent all of India. India is made up of 29 states, and food choices are often tied to religion, local culture and traditions. In general, North Indian foods are often made in tandoors (clay ovens) and dishes are made of thicker gravies. Common meals include naan, tandoori chicken and chana masala. By contrast, in the more tropical area of Southern India, there is a stronger influence of thinner, coconut-based curries. Here, white basmati rice is more prevalent compared to flatbreads like rotli or naan. Other examples of rice-based dishes in Southern Indian cuisine include biryani, dosa, idli and pongal. This article primarily focuses on Indian food from the western state of Gujarat. Gujarati meals are primarily vegetarian and generally include thin daals (lentils), sauteed veggies, thin rotli and chaas, a buttermilk drink.
A Typical Gujarati Diet
Growing up in a home with immigrant Indian parents, we ate Gujarati food almost every weeknight and at least one meal during the weekend. RDBS is an acronym that I often use to represent a typical Gujarati meal: Rotli (bread), daal (lentils), baath (rice) and shaak (vegetables). As an undergraduate student studying nutrition, I was confused about whether I should give up my RDBS to be “healthy.” I realized then that my education was limited to the American diet, and I needed to apply my knowledge to the Indian diet. My Indian roots motivate me to encourage and empower others to know that you do not need to stop eating the cultural foods you love in order to be healthy.
In India, Gujarat is often referred to as the vegetarian state, since approximately 60% of Gujarati’s are vegetarian. I grew up being vegetarian and still am, specifically lacto-ovo vegetarian, meaning that I consume dairy products and eggs. Dairy is served in many forms when eating RDBS meals, such as yogurt as a side, chaas as a beverage or khadi as a yogurt-based soup. Eggs are not part of a traditional Gujarati dish; however, growing up in America, I also included pancakes, waffles, ice cream, baked goods, desserts and other foods which contain milk and egg in my diet.
A Typical Gujarati Meal Structure
Gujarati families typically eat three meals a day with one afternoon chai and a snack time.
Traditional Gujarati breakfasts consist of the following: dhokla (savory steamed fermented batter made of daal, rice and chickpea flour), thepla (soft savory flatbread), fafda (fried gram flour snack), handvo (lentil cake), khakhra (crispy flatbread), sprouted mung beans, fresh fruits, nuts; and are always served with chai and/or coffee.
Traditional Gujarati lunches are often the largest meal, served family style. The meal consists of RDBS, usually with two different shaaks, rotli, rice, yogurt, daal and chaas as a beverage.
In between lunch and dinner is chai time. Afternoon chai is often served with fruit, biscuits and nasto, which are savory fried snacks.
Traditional Gujarati dinners often consist of a lentil and rice dish, known as kichadi, and is served with khadi, a yogurt-based soup and dal dhokli, which are dumplings in a savory daal. RDBS is also often served for dinner.
Special dishes include: khandvi (gram flour and yogurt dish), seero (semolina, jaggery, milk and almonds) as well as shrikhand (sweet, strained yogurt).
A critical part of eating meals in a Gujarati home is to eat together as a family. All meals in a Gujarati home are served family style, which allows families to gather around the table to stay connected. The family bonds stay strong and many memories are created at the dining table.
How do the MyPlate Food Groups Align with the Dietary Preferences of Gujarati Cuisine?
As mentioned earlier, RDBS (rotli, daal, baath and shaak) make up the traditional Gujarati meal. When broadly considering the MyPlate food groups, rotli and baath would fit into the grain category, and daal would be the protein, along with a side of yogurt. Shaak would fit into the vegetable category, with a side of Kachumber, a cold salad. The side of yogurt, chaas or lassi would complete the dairy category recommendation of MyPlate. The final category, fruit, is commonly served after the dinner meal in many Indian households.
I believe the most common challenge is how to plate the meal; most people often misbalance the servings. I suggest plating half the plate with shaak, or alternatively kachumber and shaak. Second, plate the dahi (yogurt) on one-quarter of the plate for dairy and protein. Next choose either rotli or rice as your grain, then serve a large bowl of daal for protein. Finally, follow up the meal with fruit. This allows for traditional foods to be a part of your diet, and more importantly, balanced correctly for a healthy plate.
Below are some more examples of general Indian foods that align with the five food groups outlined by MyPlate:
Popular fruits include mango, apples, bananas, guava, grapes, oranges, custard apple, pomegranate, chikoo, figs and dates.
Common vegetables include tindora (scarlet gourd), okra (bhindi), bitter melon (karela), calabash (lauki), fenugreek (methi), eggplant (baingan), cluster beans (guar) and hyacinth beans (surti papdi).
Popular grains are rice, amaranth (rajgira), pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), buckwheat (kuttu), barley (jau) and sorghum (jowar).
Proteins include paneer, chickpeas (chana), green peas (vatana), soybeans, lentils (mung, masoor, urad, toor, lal chordi, rajma), lima beans (vaal), cashews, almonds and walnuts.
Popular dairy options include lassi (a yogurt beverage), khadi (yogurt-based soup), chaas, milk, dahi and paneer.
Other Key Considerations
Certainly, many dishes can satisfy more than one of the five food groups. Dahi and/or paneer can count within the dairy and protein groups. Specific foods like cheelas/pudlas, a savory pancake made from chickpea flour, can be considered both protein and grain. A typical kichadi, made of split mung beans and rice, would be considered both grain and protein. Amaranth can also be counted as a grain and protein.
MyPlate does not include desserts, sweets or fats but they absolutely can be part of a balanced diet. Indian sweets, called mithai, are usually sweetened with jaggery (gur). Jaggery is an unrefined sugar made from sugar cane. It is common to have jaggery with ghee, which is an added fat, on the side of a traditional meal. People also top off rotli, rice or kichadi with ghee. It is good to limit the consumption of ghee and jaggery, but both can be part of a balanced meal.
The Bottom Line
Cultural foods can be part of a healthy diet and fit within the MyPlate recommendations. Remember, cultural foods are more than just nutrients; they are memories, celebrations and often bring joy. Embrace your cultural foods.
Indian cuisine, and particularly the Gujarati diet, is one of many diverse cuisines that can serve as examples of healthy and nutritious eating. This cuisine can broadly encompass the recommendations promoted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and their associated MyPlate graphic.
This article was written by Sarika Shah, RD.