How Expats Can Maintain a Healthy Diet in India

Photo of Sabrina Bucknole
30 June 2017

India is famous for its vibrant food culture made up of spicy dishes and rich flavors, which have influenced a wide range of global cuisine. Even though Indian food is popular globally, there’s plenty more that expats need to know about the diet and cuisine India has to offer, which may help them adjust and enjoy while living away from home.

Popular types of food and drink

Every region in India has its own food traditions. So, depending on where you stay, your culinary experiences may vary. The plant-based nature of a large part of Indian cooking means that, in most regions, traditional dishes use fresh and healthy ingredients. For example, in Goa (west India), the staple vindaloo is a fiery curry made with garlic, wine, vinegar and chilies, offering a great source of protein and healthy spices.

Ayurvedic medicine, which originated in India more than 3,000 years ago, still uses these spices for a variety of health reasons. For example, turmeric can be used to help treat many ailments including arthritis, heartburn, stomach pain, diarrhea, stomach bloating and inflammation.

Expats may notice that some traditional Indian dishes use a lot of fried pastry or sugar syrups. For instance samosas, papadums, and dosas are delicious Indian treats. It’s important to try these staples, too, keeping in mind that moderation is key.

Eating customs and tradition

Cooking and eating are social activities in India. There is an emphasis sharing and enjoying food with friends and family. As such, it is considered impolite to refuse food when it is offered – and it is often offered multiple times. Meals are traditionally eaten with the hands (unless you are eating a stew-like dish, like daal), though it is usually acceptable for foreigners to ask for cutlery.

In some parts of the country, particularly in north India, it is common to use pieces of chapatti, roti, or naan bread to pick up food. It is considered rude to touch other people’s food with your hands, so forks are often used to dish out food from the communal bowls. Due to this custom, expats should ensure they wash their hands thoroughly before starting a meal to avoid the spread of bacteria and minimize the risk of illness.

© Ramon grosso dolarea/Shutterstock

Practical considerations

As well as getting used to eating with their hands, expats may have to consider changing their eating habits while in India. Food poisoning can be a risk due to contaminated meat and a hotter climate, so some expats choose to follow a vegetarian diet for health reasons.

Food poisoning and digestive problems are the main issues faced by expats in India. You might want to avoid eating street food, meat, and any uncooked foods (including salads, fruit platters and fresh fruit juices), as these carry the highest risk of contamination.

Food and drink for expats with health conditions

Expats with digestion problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, may want to seek advice about avoiding flare-ups while in India – for example, by avoiding foods that are too spicy or that contain a lot of fiber. Also, people with food allergies should carry the necessary treatment in the case of a reaction.

Different parts of India use a variety of ingredients that expats may be allergic to (e.g. north India uses a lot of dairy, such as paneer cheese and yogurt; west India uses fish, coconut milk and vinegar; and east India uses mustard seeds, poppy seeds and mustard oil).

Why India is a great place for expats

India can be one of the most rewarding countries in the world to live in, if only for the sheer variety of regional dishes. Most Indian food is naturally good for you with many of the ingredients offering health benefits.

Food can be sourced, like most countries, from a range street markets, local shops and supermarkets. In terms of cost of living, food in India is relatively more affordable than in most Western countries, too. However, expats might want to research the local cuisine prior to arriving in the country to make informed decisions about their diet and avoid consuming foods that may conflict with, or exacerbate, any underlying health conditions.

Overall, it’s a great place to experience culture…and also eat some delicious, healthy food along the way.

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