Can Indian Food Actually Benefit Health?

PART 2 By Richard Burton, Director of Irish Institute of Nutrition & Health (

Spices used in Indian cooking have been used for thousands of years to alleviate coughs, colds, inflammation and a host of other conditions. As the search for natural remedies for all manner of ailments intensifies, there’s growing scientific interest in the potentials of Indian spices.

Studies have shown that certain spices may benefit the heart, combat diabetes, protect against some cancers, alleviate arthritis – and even halt Alzheimer’s.

Turmeric and Dementia

Curcumin, a component of the bright yellow spice turmeric, has been the focus of intense research. An academic review from 2008 states:

‘Curcumin with its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory action, improves cognitive functions in patients with Alzheimer’s. A growing body of evidence indicates that oxidative stress, free radicals, beta amyloid, and cerebral deregulation caused by bio-metal toxicity and abnormal inflammatory reactions contribute to Alzheimer’s disease pathology. Due to various effects of curcumin, such as decreased beta-amyloid plaques, delayed degradation of neurons, metal-chelation, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and decreased microglia formation, the overall memory in patients with Alzheimer’s has improved’ 1.

The Medical News (December 2004) reported that the occurrence of Alzheimer’s in adults in India aged between 70-79 years was 4.4 times lower than the same age group in the US. With diet being the main difference between the two study groups these results look promising. The same research team also found that curcumin is more effective than many other drugs being tested as Alzheimer’s treatments.2

It is surely a welcome surprise that something as freely available and inexpensive as turmeric could be harbouring such important health benefits.


Chillies and Diabetes

Chillies are widely used in Indian cuisine. There are many different varieties with varying heat scales. In 2006, University of Tasmania researchers discovered a positive effect on insulin levels after subjects ate a meal containing chillies. The scientists suggested that a compound in chillies may positively affect the liver, reducing insulin resistance or its production.

Other common ingredients in Indian foods that can help people with diabetes regulate their blood sugar levels include garlic, green leafy vegetables, pulses (beans, lentils, dahls, gram) and yoghurt. And if you enjoy rice with your Indian meal, why not make use of the full aromatic and health potentials of unrefined (brown) Basmati rice?

What better excuse do we need for a delicious, health-giving curry!




The earliest known mention of a curry – a spicy sauce with meat and bread – is etched onto tablets found in Babylon dating back to around 1700BC. Curries have been cooked for thousands of years, and the British have now rapidly adopted it as their National Dish. But the curry may contain more health benefits than at first glance.

Evidence suggests that it can benefit the heart, have a positive effect on sufferers of diabetes and may even diminish the effect of cancer cells.

How Indian Food May Benefit the Heart

In a study reported by the Daily Mail in 2008, the vivid yellow spice turmeric was credited with preventing heart failure in mice and also assisting in repair of the heart. They attributed this extraordinary power to the compound within turmeric, called “curcumin”. Turmeric, a relative of the ginger root, is one of the key spices used in Indian cuisine, and gives curry and rice its familiar yellow colour and a fragrant flavour. Turmeric has also been used as a cleanser for thousands of years and is also believed to help liver function and arthritis, as an anti-inflammatory.

It is also worth remembering that the Indian diet contains ghee, a clarified butter used freely in the place of the cooking oil we use in the west. Certain curries can contain a lot of cream, nuts, and butter so could be high in saturated fat, which of course has an adverse effect on the heart. In saying this, if prepared carefully and with lean meat, dishes containing turmeric may well be a worthwhile addition to the diet.

Turmeric Linked to a Reduced Incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease

It is the same curcumin which is also believed to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. Studies by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) have shown that when curcumin is given to ageing mice, the plaques that coat the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s are blocked. Although research has only been carried out on mice, the indications for humans are mind-blowing.

The Effect of the Indian Diet on Cancer Cells

It is widely accepted that in order to combat and reduce the risk of cancer, we should incorporate a wide variety of fruit and vegetables into our diet. In Indian cuisine, vegetables are used widely, sometimes even as a meal in their own right, for example in Bombay Potatoes or Saag Aloo (spinach cooked with potatoes in spices). Desserts are also often lighter and fruit based, rather than in the form of the stodgy pies or custards popular in the West.

The Indian diet is also high in pulses. Chickpeas and lentils are added to curries for their protein content and for bulk. Onions are used widely in Indian cooking, and are thought to contain a compound called quercetin. This is a powerful antioxidant that can help combat prostrate, colon and breast cancer as well as the more common colds and coughs.

Roti aka Chappati: Usually a roti is made from wheat flour. However, ideally it should contain a combination of soyabean, black gram, and a small portion of bran as well. These can be grounded together in equal ratios to make flour. A source of energy in the body, roti is basically a source of carbohydrate and an ideal 25 grams based medium chapatti would be 60 Calories.

White Rice: White Rice is a cereal grain and polished form of brown rice which has the cover intact. Ideally, brown rice is better for health as it contains fiber apart from carbohydrates. A good source of energy and fiber, 200 grams of white rice would approx contain 420 calories.

Curd: Curd is basically a milk product made by fermentation of milk with certain bacteria. Ideally, one should go for curd made from toned or less fat quality of milk. Yogurt is good for the digestive system as the bacteria present in yogurt improve digestion. 250 grams of curd made from toned milk would approx serve 150 Calories. It is a good source of calcium apart from the fact that it provides carbohydrates and proteins to the body.

Lentils: The lentil is an edible pulse. It is a bushy annual plant of the legume family grown for the lens shaped seeds. Lentils provide about 30% of their calories(240 Calories in 230 grams) from protein. Proteins include the essential amino acids isoleucine and lysine. They also contain dietary fiber, folate, vitamin B1, and minerals such as iron. Thus, lentils help in many major functions of the body including regulating our blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

Red chillies: Red chillies are the fruit pod of a plant from the capscain family. They have amazing health benefits for the human body. 100 grams of chilli red peppers have hardly 40 Kcal. But, chilli peppers contain the chemical compound capsaicin, which has anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic and anti-diabetic properties. They are also rich in a number of Vitamins A, B, C and many phytonutrients too.

Paneer: Cottage cheese is a milk product and it is prepared by the curdling of milk. The percentage of fat in the paneer depends on whether it is made from toned milk or full cream milk. It is rich in proteins and usually helps our body as it is easy to digest. Paneer is high on calcium. This helps in building strong teeth and bones. Paneer has the health benefit of preventing osteoporosis and has been found to promote weight loss.

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