How Indian-Americans Can Regain Their Health

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I love gulab jamun. How could anyone not? The sight of those succulent, glistening, fried balls of dough, doused in rose water transfixes me, reminding me of the heavenly transcendence that is inescapable after being eating. Warm and soft, sweet and fragrant, gulab jamun sticks out at any meal like a siren’s call, and, like any other temptation, comes with its curse. Being a concentrated-dairy product, deep fried, and soaked in sugary syrup, gulab jamun is the definition of unhealthy, but we view it with fondness as it deliciously symbolizes our culture.

And I am not alone. Researchers have shown that Indian-Americans gravitate to these types of foods–foods that were previously reserved for festivals and special occasions–because they “form intragroup cohesiveness while externalizing a unique Indian identity within the larger American society,” meaning that these foods help us preserve our Indian identity while being surrounded by American culture. By doing so, we’re eating gulab jamun, samosas, pakoras, laddus, and jalebis much more often than our grandparents ever did. At the same time, we are also becoming accultured to American food patterns, eating more fast-food, dairy, and meat. As a result, we are eating the unhealthiest foods from both cultures, leading to whopping doses of fat, cholesterol, and calories. It’s no surprise that Indian-Americans have the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease of any ethnic group in the United States. So what are we to do?

Eat holiday foods rarely. Samosas and jalebis should not be eaten every day or even every week. By reducing dietary “splurges,” you can drastically reduce your intake of fat and calories that are so detrimental to your health. Learning to resist these temptations is an important part of any healthy habit. These foods were meant to be eaten only during holidays and festivals, which is only a few times a year–keep it that way. If you make these foods, consider making healthier versions. For example, Indian Plant-Based Kitchen has recipes on making traditional Indian dishes without dairy or meat and using little to no sugar or oil. Another great resource is the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine India Kitchen.

Eat healthier every day. Instead of eating unhealthy on a daily basis, eat healthier each and every day. We make 220 food decisions every day, with each meal being an opportunity to be healthier. This means making decisions to replace fast food, animal-products, and processed foods with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Dietary changes take time, so be patient with yourself. Instead of focusing on your failures, be proud of the changes you’ve made and build off that momentum. One effective strategy I’ve adopted is to only purchase healthy foods when shopping. By not bringing in junk food into my house, I’ve stopped myself from caving into cravings. I’ve replaced sugary-cereals with fruit in the mornings and potato chips with hummus and whole-grain pita chips in the afternoons.

Exercise, exercise, exercise. Indian-Americans are less physically active than their American counterparts, with even higher levels of inactivity and obesity among women. Exercise helps you burn calories as careers and lifestyles have become more sedentary and less physically demanding. It doesn’t have to be running; exercise can take the shape of any physical activity you enjoy, like using the elliptical at the gym, going for a swim at the YMCA, or riding a bike through the neighborhood. Try to get 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days a week. At the very least, try to aim for 10,000 steps per day, which you can track using a pedometer or the health app on your iPhone.

Instead of eyeing the gulab jamun at a dinner party, I now look for the fruit selection. A medley of berries, kiwi, mango, and pineapple provide me with the sweetness that I am looking for without mortgaging my long-term health. As Indian-Americans, we didn’t come to America to perish in sickness, but to thrive with health. And, indeed, we will.

Shivam Joshi, MD, is a plant-based physician and nephrology fellow in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @sjoshiMD.