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Muscle Building and Indian Food

There's a misconception that a muscle building diet has to be a bland and flavourless regimen of steamed chicken, tough steaks and endless bowls of oatmeal.

What could be further from this than Indian Food? Indian food is truly one of the world's most vibrant cuisines and many commonly used ingredients have remarkable health properties. We hear a lot about superfoods, but Indian food might just be a super-cuisine.

Muscle building and Indian Food - Spices

Indian food is probably best known for its heavy use of aromatic spices. Many of these spices have been studied for their health properties and have been found to have effects which may be of benefit to a bodybuilder. Indian flavours are complex and rely on a variety of different aromatic ingredients to produce the overall taste. This means one dish will include not just one or two, but many ingredients with properties that can support health and muscle growth.

Fenugreek is very common ingredient. Both seed and leaf may be used in curries and condiments such as chutneys and pickles, and the ground seeds can even be used to make bread. It is a well studied ingredient. It is best known as an anti diabetic – fenugreek can enhance blood sugar control and also reduce overall levels of cholesterol and triglycerides (1). Supplementation with fenugreek has also been shown to promote fat loss. Most importantly to bodybuilders, Fenugreek has demonstrated in experiments that it is able to increase testosterone levels, and some studies have shown gains in strength and power with supplementation over a placebo (2). For these reasons, fenugreek has been included in a number of different supplements – in mass gainers to stabilize blood sugar, in fat burners, in test boosters, and in proteins to name a few.

Turmeric is another spice with a big reputation. The turmeric root is used raw or made into a powder and is used to colour and flavour foods. The polyphenol curcumin is responsible for the distinctive yellow colour it imparts. Turmeric have shown marked benefits in the fight against cancer, but of interest for people trying to build muscle are the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which are great aids to fast muscle recovery (3). The poor bioavailability of Turmeric is often mentioned however absorption is assisted by a substance called Piperine, found in black pepper, also a very common ingredient in Indian cooking.

Chili is probably one of the first things that pops to mind when you think of Indian food. The substance responsible for the heat of the chili is called capsaicin, and it is a well studied weight loss aid. In the short term after consumption, it behaves as a thermogenic and it increases overall metabolic rate whilst encouraging the metabolism of carbs. Over the long term, it seems to play a directing the body to burn fat as fuel, and it can suppress the appetite (4).

Many Indian dishes rely heavily on garlic. Well known for its positive effects on cardiovascular health including regulation of blood lipids and vasodilation (5), there is some evidence from animal studies that garlic, in combination with a high protein diet, can increase testosterone levels (6). Garlic may also play a role in fat loss, making it an all round great food for bodybuilding.

Ginger may be synonymous with East Asian cuisine, but it is used in a suprisingly large number of Indian dishes. Ginger is one of the oldest and best studied herbal remedies, and the ginger root contains a host of bioactive ingredients. It is well known for soothing digestive ailments and alleviating symptoms of colds and flu. Of interest to bodybuilders is the ability of ginger to improve the blood lipid profile, anti-inflammatory effects, prevention of cramps and spasms, and potential as an analgesic (7,8).

These extremely well studied ingredients are only the tip of the iceberg. So many popular Indian ingredients are beneficial for health. Cumin and Coriander are the basis of a vast number of dishes. These spices are thought to improve blood fat and sugar levels and have strong antioxidant properties. Cumin may improve immune function, and reduce cortisol (stress) levels (9), While coriander may have anti-inflammatory effects and enhance mood (10). Cinnamon and cassia, present in garam masala and many other flavourings and Asafoetida, a pungent resin that often replaces onion or garlic, are thought to have strong blood sugar control and antioxidant properties (11, 12). Ajwain is another common spice, and is related to thyme. It is though to be able to reduce fat absorption, reduce anxiety, and lift mood (13).

Onions, a strong presence in most styles of Indian cooking, may increase testosterone levels and are a strong antioxidant (14). Mustard seeds, a staple in South Indian vegetarian dishes, are thought to have anabolic effects, are high in omega-3, and have antioxidant effects. Cardamom, a seed pod used to flavour both sweet and savoury dishes and drinks like chai tea, has been reported to act as a stimulant and anti-inflammatory (15), and cloves contain a number of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant substances (16).

The high bioactivity of the spices used in Indian food means that every bite is nutrient dense and has the potential to exert a number of beneficial effects on the body.

Muscle Building and Indian Food - Carbs

Indian cuisine is generally very dense in carbohydrates. Carbs are almost a dirty word to some people, with the prevalence of diets like Atkins and Paleo, but they are an essential nutrient for muscle gains.

Carbs provide the energy you need to train and lay down muscle, and believe it or not, you need carbs to efficiently burn stored fat. The type of carbs you eat are important – while simple sugars are useful for quick energy, slow release, low GI carbs provide sustained energy and keep the blood sugar levels stable, which is important in controlling appetite and keeping an efficient metabolism.

Indian food is a great source of long-lasting, low GI carbs.

Basmati Rice is a staple of Indian Cuisine, and is everywhere. It accompanies curries, forms the basis of dishes like biriyanis, and is used to make other rice-based food like idlis. What not many people know is that of all varieties of rice, Basmati has one of the lowest GIs – even lower than brown rice, which we're all told to eat for its long lasting energy. This means that basmati is a fantastic option for slow-release, long lasting energy (17).

Indian cuisine makes use of a number of different flours in breads and other snackfoods such as atta flour, milled from whole wheat, and besan flour, from chickpea. These compare very favourably to western style white and wholemeal flours in terms of GI (17).

Pulses, such as lentils and chick peas are a staple of Indian vegetarian cuisine. These might have the lowest GI of all the staple carb sources in Indian cooking, and have the added benefit of containing significant levels of protein and fibre (17).

So while Indian food can be carb heavy, it's packed full of the right sort of long lasting carbs that maintain energy all day and provide fuel for muscle growth.

Muscle Building and Indian Food - Protein

Indian food can be surprisingly high in protein.

Pulses, such and lentils and chickpeas, are a staple in Indian cuisine, and are surprisingly high in protein, on average about 20-25% dry weight. As mentioned above, they are also an excellent source of complex carbs and fibre, and they're a great low-calorie food that will really fill you up.

Meat might not be the first thing you think about when Indian cuisine comes to mind, but India sports many protein-rich meat dishes. Those with a bit of game in the kitchen might know that stewing in liquid, as you would when making curry, can turn a protein-rich, super lean cut of meat like round steak or kangaroo from leather into a succulent, melt in the mouth delight.

Natural unsweetened yoghurt pops up everywhere in Indian cuisine. Condiments, drinks, curries, or eaten by itself on the side, natural yoghurt is a great source of protein, and is also a natural probiotic, great for overall health.

Indian food is something you might not have considered eating on your quest to build muscle, but many Indian foods are very healthy and possess surprising benefits that can really help in hitting muscle building goals. Go explore the subcontinent!

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(2) Wilborn C, Taylor L, Poole C, Foster C, Willoughby D, Kreider R. Effects of a purported aromatase and 5α-reductase inhibitor on hormone profiles in college-age men. Int J Nurt Exerc Metab. 010 Dec;20(6):457-65.
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(11) Bandara T, Uluwaduge I, Jansz ER. Bioactivity of cinnamon with special emphasis on diabetes mellitus: a review. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2012 May;63(3):380-6.
(12) Iranshahy M, Iranshahi M. Traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology of asafoetida (Ferula assa-foetida oleo-gum-resin)-areview.. J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Mar 8;134(1):1-10.
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(16) Chaieb K, Hajlaoui H, Zmantar T, Kahla-Nakbi AB, Rouabhia M, Mahdouani K, Bakhrouf A. The chemical composition and biological activity of clove essential oil, Eugenia caryophyllata (Syzigiumaromaticum L. Myrtaceae): a short review. Phytother Res. 2007 Jun;21(6):501-6.
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