South Asian diets and cholesterol

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the UK's single biggest killer. It can affect anyone, but South Asian people are approximately 50% more likely to die prematurely from CHD than the general population. It is not completely understood why, but certain risk factors are common among South Asians. These vary between communities but include high levels of smoking (including shisha and tobacco chewing), low rates of physical activity and a diet high in fat and low in fruit and vegetables.

Other risk factors include diabetes, which is up to six times more common in South Asians than in the general population, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

A healthy diet and lifestyle are important in preventing or managing the above risk factors. You don’t have to give up your traditional foods…just small changes can make a big difference.

Many of the traditional South Asian foods such as dahls, pulses and all types of vegetables are healthy choices but the way that the dishes are prepared is very important. 

Lowering cholesterol: the best approach

A combination of a low saturated fat diet alongside cholesterol-lowering foods, regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy body weight is recommended.

Current guidelines recommend no more than 30g of saturated fat for men and no more than 20g for women per day.

Learn more about fats and oils

Eat less fat

Remember all kinds of fats are high in calories, so keep to small amounts if you are trying to lose weight.


Eat less saturated fat

  • Avoid using ghee, butter, coconut or palm oil in cooking. Did you know that there is 10g of saturated fat in just one tablespoon of ghee? Vegetable ghee is often high in harmful trans fats so replace saturated fats with small amounts of healthier unsaturated fats such as rapeseed (usually sold as pure vegetable oil), olive, sunflower, corn oil. All types of fat contain the same amount of calories so switching from one type to another will not help you lose weight. Only reducing the total amount of fat you eat can do that.
  • Don't re-use oil for deep frying because the chemical reactions that happen when oil is reheated produce potentially harmful substances.

  • Check food labels. For saturated fat, look for foods with 1.5g or less of saturates per 100g - if a product has 5g or more per 100g it is high in saturates. Some foods have a front of pack nutrition label which use red, amber and green colour coding. Aim to include more foods which are green for saturates, as this means they are a healthier choice. As a guide, for a food to qualify as a healthy choice on your menu look for a mixture of greens and ambers and very few reds.


Cut down on fat generally

  • Whenever possible, microwave, steam, poach, bake, boil or grill instead of frying. If you use oil for making curries, measure it out with a spoon instead of pouring from the container. Limit it to one teaspoon per person. Add water or tinned tomatoes to stop food sticking to the pan. Double the amount of onions you use for sauces to increase the moisture content.
  • Invest in a good quality non-stick frying pan and use it to start your “turka” or “vagar”.

  • Brown your meat in a non-stick pan, drain excess fat and then add the turka if necessary.

  • Avoid adding ghee or butter to your chapatti dough and cooked dhal, and avoid spreading fat on cooked chapatis.

  • Skim off any oil that settles on top of the cooked curry.

  • Use smaller portions of meat and add extra vegetables and pulses such as peas, beans and lentils.

Kick-start your healthier lifestyle with the HEART UK and Elephant Atta 7-day meal plan


What foods should I be eating?

Fruit and vegetables 

Fruit and vegetables can help keep your cholesterol down, whether they're fresh, frozen, canned or dried. Aim for at least five servings every day. Be aware when making vegetable curries to use small amounts of unsaturated fats. Partially replace some oil with small amounts of water to stop them from sticking to the pan. Include a side salad whenever possible with your main meals.

Beans and pulses

Aim for at least one portion of dhal/beans or soya daily. You can also add dhals to your meat dishes. However only add small amounts of oil during cooking and avoid adding butter to the cooked dish.

Unsalted nuts

Have a handful (30g) of unsalted nuts such as walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pistachios and pecans each day.

Read more about the six super foods to help lower cholesterol

What are they?

What about carbohydrates?

When choosing starchy (carbohydrate) foods, go for wholegrain varieties:

  • Opt for medium brown or wholemeal chapati flour or try a combination of wholemeal and white mixed together. Bhajra (millet) roti is a good source of fibre, as is besan (gram flour). Mix soya flour with your regular chapati atta to boost fibre and protein.
  • Try brown rice instead of white.
  • Choose wholemeal, granary, rye or seeded breads instead of white
  • Aim for three portions of oat or barley-based foods each day, such as porridge, oat bran, oatibix, oatcakes, barley flakes and pearl barley. 

Healthy swaps

Make some heathy swaps to help you eat less fat and keep your cholesterol levels down

  Traditional Healthier swaps
Starchy foods

Paratha, puri, kachori, pulao, biriyani,

fried potatoes

Chapati, pitta bread, idli, boiled basmati rice, potatoes prepared with minimum oil


Creamed or fried vegetables

Oily pickles

All vegetables cooked in minimal oil

Dry pickles

Meat and alternatives

Dahl made with ghee


Butter chicken

Fried kebabs

Lamb curry

Goat/mutton curry

Lamb/beef keema

Fried fish

Dahl made with small amounts of unsaturated oil

Soya chunks/keema

Tofu/low-fat cheese

Grilled chicken tikka or tandoori chicken

Chicken keema

Lean saag lamb (lean cut bulked with spinach)

Baked/grilled masala fish


Whole milk and its products, Raita with boondhi, condensed milk

Kheer, kulfi

Semi-skimmed/skimmed milk, low-fat raita with cucumber, Kheer made with semi or skimmed milk

Shrikhand made with low-fat Greek-style yoghurt


Bhel puri

Chevda, sev, gathia, dal moth, crisps

Potato vada, pakoras, samosas

Fried moong

Dal vada

Fried papad

Fried salted nuts

Biscuits, cakes, mithai

Plain puffed rice with spices

Chevda made with 1-part chevda mix and 3 parts puffed rice and spices.

Dry roasted chick peas

Roasted corn on the cob

Boiled potato chaat

Samosa baked in the oven

Baked crisps


Microwave or grilled papad

Handful of mixed unsalted nuts

Fresh sprouted moon beans

Dhokla, Handvo

Fruit chaat

Oatcakes, rye-based crackers with tomato salsa or cottage cheese

Need some inspiration? Take a look at our healthy recipes

click here

Eat some omega 3-rich foods

Aim for two servings of fish per week, one of which should be oily, such as salmon, sardines and pilchards. Canned fish is convenient and cheap, and frozen fish can be as nutritious as fresh. You can add traditional spices to suit your taste buds!

Vegetarian sources of omega 3s include nuts, linseeds (ailsi/flaxseeds), dark green vegetables and soya beans.