Do you have a memory of something happening as a child, something you knew to be a big deal, but didn’t quite understand? My father being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes was like that for me. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it wasn’t good, that changes would need to be made. As I grew up my health conversations with my father would reference his sugar levels, the medicines he was taking, where his cholesterol levels were. My father lost his father to a sudden heart attack in his 60s and I think his vigilance has so much to do with not wanting history to repeat itself.
Can I be honest? I worry for myself too.
There are genetic and environmental risk factors for type 2 diabetes. The same goes for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Heart disease is the number one cause of death for Canadians living with type 2 diabetes 1,2. However, up to 80 percent of premature heart disease and stroke can be prevented through your life habits, such as maintaining a healthy and balanced diet 3.
As a result my doctor and I keep a close eye on my risk factors and I live by the changes my mother made many, many years ago. It is a necessity given that my father-in-law, who lives with us, has a history of cardiovascular disease as well.
Now I know your mind went straight to bland diet food, but I am here to assure you that our food with all its punchy South Asian spices are easy to adapt to a healthier lifestyle. The first step however is trying to figure out what healthier means. Like many of you I am always looking for information to improve my understanding of the positive power of food as well as cleaner recipes ideas and Cart2Table is an excellent resource for both. I personally really like their Healthy Choices Checklist and use that to guide my thinking around food choices. The second step is taking that knowledge and transforming it into everyday practice. Here are the changes I have made to take care of my family and our future.
Disclaimer: I am not a dietitian/nutritionist or a medical expert in any way, just a South Asian woman trying to feed her family in a way that is healthy and still tasty.
One: Become Cart Smart
When I first came across this phrase on the Cart2Table site it struck a chord with me. We all know good food begins with the right groceries and grocery shopping with intent is key. You can read all the tips here, but my favourite ones are
- Meal Plan - it’s the best way to ensure you eat healthy in the busiest weeks
- Stick to the Sides - predominantly shop the fresh foods section of the grocery store,
- Add Diabetes Superfoods to your cart - beans, berries, nuts and many more.
Two: The Right Oils
I often get asked what oil I use to cook. I use corn oil for most Pakistani food, olive oil otherwise. Oils like safflower and canola also hold up well at high heats (olive oil does not). Avocado oil is a pricier, but healthy alternative as well.
Three: When to Use Ghee
Ghee is not the enemy. Did you just breathe a sigh of relief? There are many health benefits of ghee including it being high in vitamins A, C, D, E, and K. However, it is one of the good things that should be used and consumed mindfully if you’re at risk of CVD. Love onions caramelized in ghee on your khichri? Add in a little ghee to your oil for more flavour or just be mindful of how much you add into your rice. Ghee has such beautiful flavour and so sometimes when I am making a dhaba style chanay ki daal I will add a small bit in with my regular oil because that gives me the flavour without the heaviness.
Four: Lead with Lentils
I joke often that if I write an autobiography it will be called The Daal Diaries. Lentils are such a fantastic flavorful way to get in your iron and plant-based protein and feel like you’ve eaten a hearty meal. In most cases there is a baghaar/tadka on top, but that can be done in very little oil. Also we know that a little bit of gorgeously garlicky oil hitting the daal is straight up magic right? You can also use superfood Kale in your daal for an extra hit of nutrition! It’s SO good!
Five: Rethink Rice & Roti
There seem to be two kinds of people. Those of us for whom that warm chapati is everything and those for whom there is nothing like white fluffy basmati rice. For roti, swapping regular for whole wheat flour is easy enough. If you struggle with the transition, start with a 50-50 mix of flour for a few weeks then move over to whole wheat entirely.
The move to brown basmati seems to be a more difficult one, but it is far better for you. Here are two things you can do however even if you are still occasionally having white rice. One is to treat that delicious daal of yours like soup, add it into a bowl with a tbsp or two of rice and dig in. The other is to always cook your rice in excess water and drain when done. This process reduces the carbs, but please remember while that is better it is still not good for you and exercising moderation is key. For more on what portion sizes should look like check out this helpful link.
Six: Simple Seafood Swaps
One of the most amazing things about Pakistani and Indian food is the use of spices to create a whole range of flavour profiles. Those flavour profiles translate so well to all neutral white fish (think Cod, Haddock, Halibut, Snapper) and they can also stand up to the heart healthy satiating salmon. Another bonus? Seafood cooks so quickly so next time you think about making a beef Karahi try a fish one instead!
Seven: Vegetable Play
Remember all that stuff I said about our world of amazing spices and how it does great things for seafood? The same holds for vegetables. However, unfortunately, the standard Pakistani vegetable diet seems to be heavier on potatoes and oil. Let’s move beyond that and experiment a little shall we? There is a world of healthier ideas out there like this Spicy Whole Roasted Cauliflower, Oven Roasted Tandoori Brussel Sprouts, and this simple Green Bean Sabzi. You can also absolutely make a mixed vegetable sabzi, just remember to add more to it than potatoes and a handful of peas!
Eight: Lighten Up Your Salan (Curry)
I once had the sobering realization that any salan or curry is simply onions, spices, and oil. To get your onions an even golden brown you need a fair bit of oil. Here is a fact though: You don’t need to keep it. When I am done cooking my curry and the oil rises to the top then I gently tip the pot and drain the extra oil out. You can also gently press a paper towel right above that layer of oil and it will soak it right up.
That said I don’t always use a lot of oil for my curries - my white chicken curry for example, doesn’t require very much since I just need to saute onions till they are translucent. If I am making a dish that needs just the edges of the onions to turn golden then patience and frequent stirring does the trick. Also all curries don’t need to be just meat and the gravy, ones like this Eggplant Sweet Potato Coconut Curry from Cart2Table are full of flavour and good for you!
Nine: Step Away From the Deep Fryer
With Ramadan here glistening golden samosas, must have pakoras, spring rolls, box patties, etc can seem tempting. Have a strategy in place. Really. Are you going to indulge in those treats on certain days? Skipping them altogether? Busting out the air fryer? Whatever you choose, let it be a mindful choice.
My plan this year has been to brush samosas and spring rolls with oil and air fry them, pan fry cutlets in a little oil then put them on a paper towel to drain extra grease, make pakoras sparingly. I usually make and jar a homemade pakora mix so it is easy to make just a few pakoras instead of a platter full.
Ten: Portion Control and the 80-20 Rule
The 80-20 rule is simple. It means 80% of the time you eat ‘clean’ and then 20% of the time you indulge a little. This works for me. You may do that by eating healthier during the week and then indulging a little on the weekends. A little is the key though - demolishing a tub of ice cream while you watch Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham isn’t a great idea.
Want to know my weird trick for managing portions? Small bowls. I eat ice cream, kheer, kulfi, and other desserts in what are called pinch bowls. That allows me to get the satisfaction of filling the bowl up, scraping it clean, and knowing I didn’t overdo it. I also eat my biryani in a side plate – true story. If you need that full slice of cake with your tea then try a lighter one like this Almond Orange Loaf from Cart2Table.
Now it should go without saying that there is more to a healthy lifestyle than just diet – exercise is also key. If you’re like me and bake an excessive amount, then scaling down recipes or making lots of friends you can share your baked goods with is key too!
Hope the tips above help you move towards a healthier lifestyle. I love to cook and revel in the everyday kitchen magic and empowering myself with knowledge from a resource like Cart2Table is so important to me. You can learn more about the power of food with the delicious diabetes-friendly, heart-healthy recipes, grocery tips and more at www.cart2table.ca
Is there something that you do that isn’t here? I’d love to hear about it so do share in your comments below!
This article was sponsored by two of Canada’s leading pharmaceutical research-based companies, but opinions are my own.
1 Nwaneri C, Cooper H, Bowen-Jones D. Mortality in type 2 diabetes mellitus: magnitude of the evidence from a
systematic review and meta-analysis. The British Journal of Diabetes & Vascular Disease. 2013;13(4):192–207.
2 Morrish NJ, et al. Mortality and causes of death in the WHO Multinational Study of Vascular Disease in Diabetes.
Diabetologia. 2001;44 Suppl 2:S14–21.
3 Heart and Stroke Foundation. “Risk and Prevention”. Retrieved from: https://www.heartandstroke.ca/heart-
disease/risk-and-prevention (Accessed March 28 2021)