I love South Indian cuisine…It’s got some cool science stuff (hello – fermentation idlis anybody), mindblowing recipes (curry, kootu, rasam, applam and million others) and it is downright comforting. But every superman has their kryptonite. South Indian vegetarian food definitely needs help with its high glycemic index.
What is Glycemic Index? The glycemic index is a measure of the speed at which carbs in a food raise blood glucose. The higher the glycemic index of the food, the faster the carbs enter the bloodstream and raise blood glucose, causing the pancreas to release insulin. If we combine and eat foods with high GI, we have turned our meal into a glycemic bomb, which will make our blood glucose and insulin skyrocket.
On the other hand if we compensate the GI of high carbs with fiber, protein and fat, we lower the glycemic load of the whole meal. At the end of the meal, what really matters is not the glycemic index of the individual food items, but the overall glycemic index of a meal. There are some excellent links I have added below for the reader looking for more information on this topic.
Let us look at the common reasons why South Indian food is especially cruel to our pancreas –
Hello, yummy rice
Let us start with the super obvious one – the excessive use of rice. Rice with sambhar, rice with rasam, rice with yogurt, tamarind rice, rice in idli etc etc… I have already compared the Glycemic Index of rice with other grains in an earlier article, where I show that rice scores very poorly compared to other grains. Moreover, each additional daily serving of white rice, may increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 10%, according to a Harvard study, which analyzed the results of studies involving 352,384 participants from four countries: China, Japan, U.S. and Australia. There has already been such an awareness in India to bring whole grains back into our diets. I do not need to belabor this point. Any grain like wheat, quinoa, millet, barley, wild rice have lower glycemic index than rice. Here’s an example of using quinoa as a rice substitute for a typical South Indian dinner.
Our insane love for potatoes
Our most revered dishes like masala dosa, poori aloo, Pulav, potato roast curry – everything has potato. A boiled potato has a higher glycemic index than rice. Boiled white rice has a value ranging from the 70s to high 80s. A baked potato has a value ranging from 78 to 111, while a boiled potato has a value of 89. Consider replacing potatoes with any other low carb vegetable – zucchinni, bottle gourd, turnips etc all that provide a good mouth feel without having super high glycemic values.
Festival menu- respectfully stop the carb madness
A typical menu for a festival looks something like above with items including lemon rice, tamarind rice, curd rice, Vada, payasam etc. While I completely understand that if you are cooking for a huge family, it is far more easier to churn out bulk rice dishes than cut and prep lots of vegetables. However, the Indian ritual feast is, no other way to put it, a carb fest. Responding to festival meals, unfortunately, requires an insulin production overload. We could try and appease the gods with lemon quinoa, barley curd rice or fruits instead, maybe?
Our lack of Salads
The fiber in the raw vegetables will slow the rapid absorption of carbs into our system. North Indians eat raw veggies in the form of chaat, raita and pickled veggies. Do South Indians even have salads? Well if you are an expert enough to make kosambari, then yes. In the normal day to day South Indian meal, we rarely eat salads. We cook our veggies to death.
Personal example – My dad hated the ‘half cooked’ vegetables concept. He hated the crunch of even half-cooked veggies complaining it was too raw. My mom insists that eating raw veggies does not help her digestion. My aunt insists that eating a salad in a restaurant will get you sick, whilst also affirming that she never makes salads at home. While I respect and adore all these people, I typically see a rejection of raw vegetables in the South Indian diet. While I certainly am not advocating eating entirely raw, but we need to introduce small servings of raw vegetables in our meal to bring down the glycemic index of the entire meal. Full disclosure – I am not a salad girl either, but there are some cool tricks we can adopt from other cultures to make raw veggies very tasty. More posts on that to come in the near future.
Our source of protein is also a source of carbs
Whenever vegetarians think of protein, we think of dals (lentils). But these vegetarian sources of protein are also a source of carbs. For eg, chana dal is roughly composed of 25% protein, 70% carbs and 5% fat (nutritiondata.self.com). Mung beans is roughly composed of 23% protein, 74% carbs and 3% fat. On the other hand, a nonvegetarian eating a few oz of beef for his meal has an intake of 31% protein, 1% carb and 68% fat. The almost nonexistent amount of carbs in meat keeps their carb intake lower than their vegetarian counterpart. Thus, when we pair rice (~90% carbs) with kootu, expect a high glycemic load, versus when we pair rice with rasam (mainly broth), expect a lower glycemic load.
Also, your mom was right – add ghee to your meal – having smaller portion of dal rice with ghee will lead to a lower GI than having bigger portions of rice without ghee. Foods containing little or no carbohydrate (such as meat, fish, eggs, avocado, ghee) cannot have a GI value. No carbs = no GI. Again, remember this is looking at foods thorough the lens of GI, not weight management. Base your meals on your individual requirements.
Desserts after a south indian meal is just mean to the pancreas
If you are an American and you eat steak and salad with dessert, your only major carb is coming from dessert. But we South Indians have carbs for lunch and follow it up with sugary carb rich dessert. Take rice payasam, kesari or gulab jamun etc- basically carb + fat + sugar (a very refined carb).
Based on the principle of glycemic index, there may be a few healthier alternatives. While you cannot take the sugar out of the dessert, you can choose a lower carb (more protein) dessert like Rasagulla or badam halwa. Flax seed and coconut flour have very little glycemic index because of their high fiber content. Coconut burfi should also score relatively lower in glycemic index compared to other grain based desserts.
I hope these give you ideas to change your meal patterns a little. Do you have any ideas to share to lower the glycemic index of a south indian meal? Share it with us below
I am not a doctor or a nutritionist, this article is purely my view based on research and anecdotes on this topic. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist for additional info. Here are some links to solid research and advice regarding the basics of Glycemic Index and Glycemic load as a starting point for information.
- https://youtu.be/LylsVQ8HFIw – This is a youtube link to an Italian scientist gives you the down low on GI
- http://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and conditions/glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_for_100_foods This link is a Harvard health publication that gives you Glycemic index and glycemic load for 100+ foods
- http://www.gisymbol.com/about/frequently-asked-questions/ This link answers some great FAQs on Glycemic Index
- The Glycemic Load Diabetes Solution: Six Steps to Optimal Control of Your Adult-Onset (Type 2) Diabetes by Dr Rob Thompson
Read any book by Dr. Rob Thompson, he gives you the entire detail on Glycemic Index including a chart that lists the GI values for all ingredients. It is fantastic. Although, be forewarned, it is a little depressing for vegetarians to realize their options are not as easy as non vegetarians. But I think if we understand the science, then we can use the superior culinary methods of South Indian cuisine and tailor it to our needs.