If type 2 diabetes were a person and not a lifelong disease, you could accuse it of cultural unfairness.
That’s because the risk of type 2 diabetes is not evenly spread among populations across the globe, as people from countries in South Asia – like India – have an innate biological susceptibility to developing the disease.
“Indians are genetically susceptible to developing type 2 diabetes,” says Raji Jayadev, an Accredited Practising Dietitian who migrated to Australia from India in 1973 before accumulating over 25 years of experience in hospitals.
“The prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the Indian community living in Australia is also much higher than the Caucasian community. They develop diabetes five to 10 years earlier than Caucasians.”
“Indians are genetically susceptible to developing type 2 diabetes."
Food, migration and the risk of type 2 diabetes
Jayadev, who has retired from clinical practice but remains a diabetes advocate in Sydney’s Indian communities, suggests one additional influencer of risk: migration.
“Experts say that when migrants from [countries with a genetic prevalence for type 2 diabetes] move to Australia, their risk may increase as their lifestyle changes to incorporate less physical activity and their diet includes more Western-style [discretionary] foods.”
She says it’s common for Indian migrants living in Australia, who are working hard to make ends meet, to be time-poor and consume more calorie-rich, highly processed food from takeaway shops and pre-packaged foods from Indian shops. This sort of diet can increase abdominal fat and the risk of type 2 diabetes.
“If you work long hours, there may not be a lot of time to go shopping for fruits and vegetables, and cook at home. So you tend to grab whatever food is available on the go and make do.”
Jayadev calls for Indians living in Australia to return to eating a more traditional diet to lower their risk of type 2 diabetes.
“The traditional Indian diet that existed before the 1970s is a lot different to the diet we see in both India and Australia today,” she tells SBS. “It was healthy, featured lots of high-fibre legumes, wholegrains and vegetables, and contained little fish or meat.”
Diet hacks to reduce your type 2 diabetes risk
There are lots of ways to eat better and be healthy. But, narrowing it down to five, here are Jayadev's top tips to improve your blood sugar levels with delicious Indian food.
1. Steer clear of added fats
Jayadev warns against adding extra fat – like cream – to traditional recipes.
“Do not use ghee in cooking,” she also tells SBS. “Use monounsaturated fats like olive oil or peanut oil instead. Always opt for fat-free milk and yoghurt, and limit your use of paneer (Indian cheese).”
2. Address the staples: rice and chapati
“I encourage Indians to use brown rice, which is nutritionally superior to white rice, or basmati rice (has a low glycemic index). Add nuts and vegetables to spicy dishes to increase the nutrition quality and control blood glucose levels after a meal.”
Chapati, she adds, is typically made from ‘atta’ (wheat flour). The issue here is that the fibre content of ‘atta’ can vary greatly, product-to-product. So look for wholemeal ‘atta’ containing a high-fibre content.
“Fibre makes you feel fuller for a longer amount of time and prevents overeating.”
3. Bulk up your curries and dahl with vegetables
Add tomato and green leafy vegetables like spinach to legume dishes to boost the number of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals in your meal.
4. Spice it up
“Condiments like coriander, cumin and pepper and spices like cloves, cardamom, cinnamon are commonly used in Indian cooking. They are incredibly rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, but the amount used is insignificant,” she explains.
5. Spruce up a dish with soybeans
“Indians use most types of legumes in dishes but not soybeans. Soybeans contain high-quality protein and unsaturated fat, which is healthier compared to saturated fat.”
Jayadev’s recommends adding soybeans (edamame or canned soybeans) to lentil curries like sambar (a south Indian lentil and vegetable curry).