Spices not only carry with them a long list of health benefits, they’re one of the best ways to add flavor to a dish without piling on the calories. Yes, Indian food is delicious, but it's also rich in spices and in lean protein (namely chicken)—which makes it a viable option for a healthy night out.
Given how much cream, butter, and carbs are used in some dishes, though, it’s very easy to go off course. Since some dishes can be deceptively unhealthy—even the veggie ones!—we've created this cheat sheet for the next time you opt for Indian food. And for more international cuisine insights, scope out these 11 Italian Foods They Won't Eat in Italy!
Eat This: Tandoori
Tandoori typically comes as a chicken-, fish- or vegetable-based dish. No matter what base you opt for, it will be marinated in yogurt and spices like garlic and ginger and will be grilled or baked in a hot oven. “Tandoori dishes are a great option because the [cooking method] helps the dish stay flavorful and juicy without the extra calories found in cream-based entrees,” says Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN. Yogurt is also full of good-for-you probiotics to boost your gut health, while ginger and garlic add a ton of flavor without many calories. Bonus: They help fight off colds, like these 20 Food Combos That Prevent Common Colds!
Not That!: Chicken Tikka Masala
Chicken with tomato sauce may sound healthy, but this dish is anything but. Chicken tikka masala is a belly bomb of a dish, mostly because it's cooked in loads of cream. “Skip the heavy sauce and opt for grilled or baked chicken with a side of cooling raita—cucumber yogurt—instead,” suggests Kaufman.
Eat This: Chana Masala
When you think of chickpeas, you probably first think of Middle Eastern food like hummus, but it’s actually quite popular in Indian cuisine as well. Kaufman suggests opting for chana masala, which is a high-protein, plant-based entrée made from a spicy chickpea base. Usually, you’ll also find onions, ginger, garlic, and tomatoes in this dish. Aside from protein, chana masala is high in fiber, which is essential for keeping you feeling full for longer. Chickpeas are also a good source of manganese and folate, which help support bone development—and are so well-loved that we even curated these 20 Amazing, Surprising Ways to Eat Chickpeas!
Not That!: Rice
It's more about portion control in this case. You can enjoy rice with your meal, but Kaufman cautions that it’s important to be mindful of how much you order and what's already going to come with your dish. “Try to stick to a half cup serving," she says. "Calories from rice can add up quickly. That half cup serving is about 300 calories, and since most restaurants only serve white rice, you're getting a quick-digesting carbohydrate without any of the fiber or antioxidants you'd get from whole grains.”
Eat This: Raita
Many Indian dishes are quite spicy! If your mouth is burning, Kaufman suggests ordering a side of raita, a traditional yogurt-based Indian condiment used to cool the palate. (It’s similar to Greek tzatziki.) “Add a dollop of cool, refreshing cucumber yogurt to your meal to temper the heat or stir it into a dish like chana masala and conquer your creamy craving in a lighter way." Now we're talking!
Not That!: Paneer, Ghee and Malai
“Paneer means high-fat cheese, ghee stands for clarified butter, and malai translates as cream on the menu,” says Maria A. Bella, MS, RD, CDN and founder of Top Balance Nutrition. “All of these have two things in common: they’re high in calories and high in fat.” That said, ghee is the non-dairy option for those trying to avoid lactose, so we're not totally condemning it. Find out more 22 Expert Tips for Cutting Back on Dairy.
Eat This: Dal
Dal is one of the cornerstone dishes of Indian cooking and is a stew made with spices, tomatoes, onions, and perhaps lentils. “I recommend this dish because it offers lean protein without the added saturated fat found in red meat,” says Lara Metz MS, RDN, CDN. “It also offers an excellent vegetarian protein source, as well as fiber.”
Not That!: Samosas
“Deep-fried dumplings stuffed with mashed potatoes, vegetables, or meat are most definitely not a healthy choice!” exclaims Kaufman. “I recommend avoiding the heavy, starchy, fried appetizers—which are filled with empty calories—and skipping right to the main course.” For more ways to bypass a bunch of calories, scope out these 36 Ways to Cut 50 Calories or More!
Eat This: Baingan Bharta
This is an eggplant- and tomato-based stew that's both hearty and packed with some amazing spices. “Some of the spices used in this dish, and Indian cooking in general, are coriander, turmeric, ginger, and cardamom. Studies have shown these spices help with inflammation as well as digestion and gastrointestinal function,” says Metz. Plus, eggplant is great for heart health and cholesterol, and it's relatively high in fiber.
Not That!: Dishes With Coconut Milk
Coconut milk is very high in saturated fats and should be avoided or at the very least enjoyed in moderation. “A cup of coconut milk has about five grams of saturated fat and it’s also fairly high in calories," says Bella. "But Indian food is loaded with flavor, so there's really no need to add extra cream."
Eat This: Roti Bread
“Roti is a whole wheat version of naan bread,” says Lauren Minchen MPH, RDN, CDN. It can be made from a variety of unrefined grains including millet, jowar, bajra, and whole wheat. It’s always best not to overdo it on the bread basket, given how carb-heavy most Indian dishes can be. But if you can’t knock the craving, opt for roti since it’s easier to digest and more nutritious because of its healthier grain base.
Not That!: Naan Bread
Naan is not only a simple carb made with white flour, it’s often brushed with butter. The traditional Indian bread is also very calorie dense without having a beneficial nutritional profile to merit the high-calorie count. “Experts recommend that you keep refined carbohydrates to a minimum for cardiovascular health, blood sugar, and weight management,” says Minchen. Find out What Happens When You Stop Eating Processed Foods like white, refined carbs.
Eat This: Lamb Kebab and Vegetables
At an Indian restaurant, lamb kebobs on top of a large salad or with tons of vegetables can be a great choice. “Protein, like the kind found in lamb kebobs, suppresses the hunger hormone called ghrelin,” says Bella. Meanwhile, fiber (like the kind found in vegetables) slows down the transit time of food through the intestine and slows down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, preventing blood sugar spikes. “Combining protein and fiber with every meal aids with satiety, provides more energy, and makes us feel more in control of our food choices.” For more smart insights, don't miss these 22 Things Diet Experts Wish Everyone Knew!