Enjoy a heart-healthy Diwali with these tips and tasty recipes


Dawali festival food
Traditional dishes for Diwali, the Indian five-day festival of lights, can be indulgent. But there are some simple ways to make heart-healthy food choices a priority.

Diwali, the five-day Festival of Lights, is one of India’s most important holidays and is celebrated with family gatherings, grand light displays, gifts, and feasts on rich foods we don’t typically eat throughout the year.

Usually held during October or November based on the Hindu calendar, shopping for Diwali holiday dishes usually starts much earlier.

Many Indian and Indian American families are vegetarian, but the preparation of traditional Diwali dishes can significantly decrease the nutritional content of healthy foods such as potatoes, tomatoes, chickpeas, and chilis. Sweet and savory festival treats often are fried in coconut oil or ghee, a high-calorie clarified butter, and flavored with ingredients such as sugar and high-calorie condensed milk.

While occasional treats and rich meals are okay, the tradition of indulging for Diwali can perpetuate a pattern of less healthy cooking and eating that is deeply rooted in South Asian culture, and may also increase the risk of developing health problems in a population that is already vulnerable to heart disease.

Indian doctor sharing dishes for Diwali
Dr. Parul Sharma is a member of the South Asian Heart Program team at UTSW’s Las Colinas clinical center and a certified nutrition support clinician.

People of South Asian ancestry are at increased risk of cardiovascular problems compared with other cultures in the U.S. Chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, and Type 2 diabetes are risk factors for heart attack and stroke, and South Asian patients develop these conditions earlier in life and more frequently.

South Asians develop heart disease about 10 years earlier than other populations. In addition, 44% of healthy-weight South Asian patients have two or more heart disease risk factors – more than double the 21% of healthy-weight white patients. The increased risk is likely due to eating patterns, food choices (Western and traditional), culture, and genetics. But with personalized interventions, South Asians in the Metroplex can balance tradition with cardiovascular health during Diwali and year-round.

At our UT Southwestern South Asian Heart Program, we help patients with ethnicity from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka attain or improve heart health by customizing nutrition, medication, and exercise programs for a patient’s cultural and healthcare needs.

This Diwali, you can enjoy the traditional festival foods you love without sabotaging your regular eating plan. Try these ingredient swaps to put a healthier spin on your favorite recipes without sacrificing flavor.

Traditional Ingredient What’s the Risk? Healthier Swap
Sugar Consistently eating too much sugar (more than 36 grams/day for men or 25 grams/day for women) has been shown to increase heart disease risk factors such as inflammation, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, Type 2 diabetes, and weight gain. Natural flavorings like cinnamon, nutmeg, dried dates, fresh fruits. Jaggery or honey can be used in moderation – these options are higher in calories.
Rava A staple in laddu, rava (semolina) is a dried wheat flour that has been processed and stripped of its healthy fiber, protein, and vitamins. Besan, carrot, dudhi, moong dal, or peanut are less processed options, and they retain more nutritional benefits. Moong dal is particularly rich in vitamins A, B, C, and E and is rich in proteins and fiber that aid in weight management.
Coconut This fruit is high in saturated fat and calories. It has been shown to raise cholesterol levels when consumed regularly. Yogurt or tofu can be swapped in for a lower-calorie, more nutritional creamy texture.
Cashew Cashews are not necessarily unhealthy, but almonds are a better source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation and help reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack. Almonds are a tasty and more nutritious substitute for cashews.
Coconut oil or ghee for frying These oils are high-calorie and low-nutrition. Both include saturated fats that increase cholesterol. Canola or olive oils are lower in calories and include unsaturated fats, which are heart-healthy in moderation. Try using an air fryer instead of traditional pan frying to use less oil.

Dessert and snack tips for a heart-healthy Diwali

Choose milk-based desserts such as shrikhand, Sandesh, mishit doi, or kheer. Milk is a good source of protein, and these desserts can easily be made at home with endless healthy and tasty modifications.

One trick to boost nutrition and reduce calorie intake is to add functional foods to favorite sweet recipes. No need to hide healthy ingredients – showcase them as the flavor center of the dish. Some of my family’s favorite desserts feature fruits or vegetables, such as:

laddu or laddoo Indian sweet treat for Dawali
Laddu, a traditional dessert, can be made with dates and sesame to create a more healthy treat.
  • Laddu: Dates and sesame; oat and date; walnut
  • Kheer: Dudhi or fruit
  • Sheera: Apple
  • Halwa: Papaya or beetroot
  • Kalakand: Carrot
  • Chikki: Pumpkin; sunflower; flaxseed

You don’t have to skip all the sweets – just reduce the portion size to limit your calorie intake. If you have a high-fat favorite such as jalebi, malpua, or gulpapdi, enjoy a smaller piece, taking time to savor the flavor.

If you prefer salty snacks such as pakoda or namak paare, choose healthier options such as dry roasted or masala dried fruit. Or try one of these namkeen options:

  • Roasted moong dal
  • Air fried cereal and nuts
  • Air fried chivdha namkeen

Moderation is key. Salty snacks can be satisfying, but eating too much salt year-round can increase blood pressure and your risk of heart disease.

Related reading: 5 building blocks for a nourishing, affordable pantry

A few more festival feasting tips

It can be difficult to stick to workout regimes and healthy diets during the festival season. However, eating too much fried and/or sweet foods often leaves us with digestive issues such as bloating, constipation, and stubborn belly fat – which can increase the risk of heart disease.

Eat fiber every day

You can combat bloating and constipation – and take care of your heart – by consuming more soluble fiber, which is found in foods such as oats, flaxseed, vegetables, and beans. These foods can help lower total cholesterol by reducing your “bad” cholesterol. Fiber also helps reduce blood pressure and inflammation, and it helps keep the bowels regular.

To give your guests a boost of fiber, add a bowl of salad with colorful fruits and vegetables to the table at every meal. The dish will be beautiful, tasty, and healthy!

Choose less sugary beverages

Sweet drinks are often full of sugar and calories. Here are a few of my favorite flavorful, low-calorie alternatives:

  • Ginger lemonade
  • Virgin pina colada
  • Kiwi margarita
  • Masala milk
  • Thandai
  • Fennel seed milkshake
  • Falooda
  • Cucumber mint cooler
  • Tomato mocktail

Stay active

Heart health and weight management go hand-in-hand, and one of the pillars of both is balancing calories in (from eating) and calories out (through exercise).

But between cooking, cleaning up, and attending parties, it’s easy to slip out of your exercise routine during the festival. Make it a goal to get exercise every day of Diwali. Include your family and guests by taking a walk together or playing with the family’s children at the park. Spending active time together makes exercise part of the fun rather than another thing on your to-do list.

Air Fryer Pakora

Pakora is a savory fritter of vegetables coated in seasoned flour and fried. In this healthier variation, we use an air fryer that takes less oil than traditional deep frying.

Total time: 40 mins
Servings: 8
2 cups chopped cauliflower
1 cup diced yellow or sweet potatoes
1 ¼ cup chickpea flour (besan)
¾ cup water
½ cup red onion chopped
Salt to taste
1 clove of garlic, minced
Garam masala to taste
1 serving cooking spray

Combine cauliflower, potatoes, chickpea flour, water, red onion, salt, garlic, curry powder, coriander, cayenne, and cumin in a large bowl. Set aside to rest for 10 minutes.

Preheat the air fryer to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Spray the basket of the air fryer with cooking spray. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the cauliflower mixture into the basket and flatten. Mist the top of each pakora with nonstick spray.

Repeat this as many times as your basket space allows without the pakoras touching.

Cook for 8 minutes. Flip and cook for 8 additional minutes.

Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

Repeat with the remaining batter.

Serve with your favorite chutney or sauce.

Quick chutney recipe: Grind these ingredients in a mixer: 1 cucumber, fresh yogurt, 1 green chili, and 1 cup chopped cilantro. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Nutrition Facts
Calories: 81
Total Fat: 1g
Saturated Fat: 0 g
Sodium 500
Total Carbohydrates: 14g
Dietary Fiber: 3g
Total Sugars: 1g
Protein: 4g
Vitamin C: 12mg
Calcium: 20mg
Iron: 1mg
Potassium: 218mg

Air Fried Moong Dal Namkeen

Moong dal namkeen is a crunchy snack made from moong dal beans and seasoned with dry spices. Rather than deep frying the beans, this recipe uses an air fryer for a healthier variation.

Total time: 4 hours 35 mins
(35 minutes cook time, 3-4 hours soaking time)
Serving Size: 1 tbsp (13 gm)
Servings: 4
1 cup moong dal unpolished
2-3 tsp oil
Salt to taste
1 tsp red chili powder or more to taste
1 tsp dry mango powder or more to taste

Soak moong dal for 2-3 hours. Add the moong dal to boiling water. Bring the moong dal to a boil.

Remove pan from heat, set aside for 20 minutes.

Preheat air fryer to 200 deg C/390F for 10 mins.

Pass moong dal through a sieve to remove excess water.

Spread half the moong dal on crisping tray or piece of parchment paper.

Cook moong dal for 2-3 mins.

Remove moong dal from tray, mix it in 2 teaspoons of oil or ghee.

Cook 7-8 mins at 200 deg C/390F.

Repeat process 2-3 times for this half of the moong dal.

Do the same process for other half of moong dal.

Add spices to both batches and mix well.

Store in airtight container once it cools.

Nutrition Facts
Total Fat: 0.5g
Saturated fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Sodium: 10mg
Potassium: 162mg
Total carbohydrate: 8g
Dietary fiber: 2.1g
Sugar: 0.9g
Protein: 3.1g

Year-round strategies for heart health

  1. Make the first meal of the day the most nutritious: Consider a high-protein, low-carb breakfast that includes ingredients associated with satiety, such as avocado, seeds, nuts, and whole grains. This helps decrease both sweet and savory cravings later on.
  2. Eat meals at scheduled times: The secret to a controlled craving for food is by managing your meals and only eating at set times. Casual snacking and grazing can add up to hundreds of extra calories a day, resulting in unexpected weight gain that taxes the cardiovascular system.
  3. Keep a food journal: Tracking what we eat can reveal extra calories you didn’t realize you were eating. Whether you prefer a paper journal or logging in an app on your phone, identifying when food cravings are strongest can help you restructure your eating to keep cravings at bay.
  4. Eat a varied diet: Sticking to the tried-and-true may help you count calories, but it could also leave you feeling unsatisfied. Try healthy varieties or combinations of foods to decrease random food cravings.

This Diwali, and throughout the year, focus on the long-term benefits of taking care of your cardiovascular health. Balance a love of culture and tradition with resources from heart health experts like the providers in our South Asian Heart Program. We’re here to help you live a long, happy, and heart-healthy life.

To request an appointment with the South Asian Heart Program, call 214-645-8000.