Yamuna Mataji

Yamuna Mataji

Is Your Vaisnava Diet Healthy?

As a food writer and teacher, I am often asked questions about the Vaisnava diet. What are its elements? Does it meet USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) vegetarian guidelines? Are legumes considered proteins or starches? Since, according to theBhagavad-gita, foods in the mode of goodness are sweet, juicy, and fattening, should they be the basis of a Vaisnava diet, and in what proportion?

In the first twenty years of my Vaisnava life, I answered such questions hesitantly, often with cursory knowledge. Information in the field of Vaisnava health and nutrition, education programs, and suggested dietary guidelines are difficult to come by. This lack of information, along with a keen personal interest in weight control, has led me to research the subject for the last three years.

Elements of a Vaisnava Diet

A Vaisnava diet is essentially lacto-vegetarian, one that includes grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and dairy products. According to the Bhagavad-gita (17.8-10), these foods are in the mode of goodness. They increase life-span, purify the mind, and strengthen the body.

For millennia, Indian temple chefs have used these naturally pure foodstuffs in cooked offerings meant for the pleasure of the Lord in His Deity form. Of course, endless culinary expressions are possible using these ingredients. Srila Prabhupada often said that even regional Indian vegetarian traditions offer hundreds of thousands of varieties.

Vaisnava temple and home chefs consider foods in one of two categories—pakka, or "cooked," and kaccha, or "raw." These are roughly categorized according to the way they're cooked. Cooked foods include all those cooked in fat: shallow-, pan-, or deep-fried. Raw foods include those cooked with little or no fat: steamed, baked, boiled or stewed, braised or stir-fried.

Anyone who has studied cooking in India immediately notices that baking and ovens are almost nonexistent. With the exception of large drum-shaped tandoori ovens, most cooking is done on the stovetop. While breads, savories, cakes, light meal snacks, and pastries are often baked in the West, in India the same dishes are fried. You don't need to be a nutritionist to know that fried foods, although scrumptious, should be eaten sparingly in a healthy diet.

Food Groups And Daily Requirements

Vegetarianism covers a broad range of diets, some good and some bad. Vaisnava vegetarians have long stressed variety from five major groups: starch from breads, cereals, and grain products; vegetables; fruits; protein from legumes, cheese, and alternates; and dairy from milk and its products. Foods in these groups provide the protein, vitamins, minerals, starch, and dietary fiber needed for good health. The sixth group, which includes fats, nuts, and seeds, is necessary for calories, but more important, for an essential fatty acid called linoleic acid. Nutrient and caloric needs vary from person to person depending on age, sex, body size, and activity level. But no matter what the different requirements of household members, you needn't have different plans for each person.

Patterns for Daily Food Choices

In America, nutrition educators are encouraged by the public interest in health and diet that developed in the eighties. Shoppers are reading labels, not only to count calories but, more important, to see the fat, sodium, and cholesterol content of foods. Throughout history, Vaisnava vegetarians have been uniquely aware of food and health. Because the Vedic culture is spiritual, founded on love for God and His creation, there is a natural focus on harmony from the earth to the table. Purity, freshness, and variety are essential elements in food preparation and menu planning.

Remarkably, the USDA's newest recommended dietary guidelines fall in with those long recognized in the Vaisnava tradition. If you are new to this style of cuisine, the suggested servings above, based on 1991 recommendations from the USDA, will be helpful. You will immediately notice the low number of protein servings. According to Eileen Newman, of the Human Nutrition Information Service, the official belief in the need for a high-protein diet is a thing of the past. Today the public is encouraged to include variety in the diet, understand topics such as the importance of fiber, and learn about portion control.

Newman stresses the long practiced Vaisnava standard, "It is important to choose different foods from within each group because they differ in the types and amounts of nutrients they provide."

She further suggests, "Be sure to choose at least the minimum number of servings recommended from each group every day. Many women, older children, and most teenagers and men need more. The top range shown above is about right for an active man or teenage boy."

No specific number is given for daily servings of fat. Fat should be kept at about thirty percent of the total caloric intake. Fat is present in varying degrees in many foods, so you need to consider that when calculating your total daily intake.

Suggested Daily Servings 6-15 portions 2-4 portions 2-3 portions 2-3 portions 2-3 portions
What is a portion ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal

½ cup cooked barley, kasha, bulgar, or millet

½ cup cooked brown rice

1 oz. cold cereal, unsweetened

1 six-inch whole wheatchapati or corn tortilla

½ of a six-inch Pita

1 slice whole wheat bread

½ cup English muffin or bagel

½ cup corn, peas, mashed potatoes, or sliced water chestnuts

1 two-inch potato

3 oz. sweet potatoes

(¾ cup (uncooked) broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cabbage, eggplant, okra, cauliflower, kale, beans, green summer squash, spaghetti squash, tomatoes, or cucumber

½ cup celery root, snow peas, pimento, winter squash, or pumpkin

¼ cup baby lima beans

½ cup berries, orange juice, or pineapple

2 apricots

10 cherries

1 two-inch apple

½ banana

12 large grapes

20 small grapes

2 dates

1 fig

1 kiwi

1 two-inch nectarine or peach

1 small pear

2 plums

½ small mango

2 tablespoons raisins

1 small pomegranate

¾ cup cubed melon

½ cup cooked chickpeas, pinto beans, mung beans, or cooked legumes

3 oz. firm tofu

2 oz. Extra-firm tofu

1 oz. firm panir cheese

2 oz. soft chenna cheese

¼ cup lowfat cottage cheese, dry-curd cottage cheese, farmers' cheese, pot cheese, hoop cheese, or part-skim ricotta cheese

1 oz. cheddar, Muenster, edam, Jack, or Swiss

¾ oz. sprouted legumes

1 cup nonfat or whole milk, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, ice milk, or sherbet

½ cup evaporated skim or whole milk

¼ cup powdered skim milk

1 teaspoon oil, butter, ghee, or margarine

A small avocado

1 tablespoon cream or cream cheese

½ tablespoon sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds

1 oz. Olives

1 teaspoon peanut butter

Planning Menus

Even if you think you don't plan menus, you do when you shop. Food choices are influenced by habit, occasion, nutrition, and likes and dislikes. If you get into the practice of planning meals before shopping, you can increase variety, save time, effort, and money, and help control your intake of fat, sugar, and sodium.

The cooking method you use will greatly affect the health value of your foods. Contrary to popular belief, starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and peas are not high in calories—unless coated in fatty sauces or fried. If you prepare your vegetables based on kaccha techniques of steaming or stir-frying, they will retain a bright color, crisp texture, and light taste. Instead of deep-frying vegetables and panir cheese, try grilling or broiling them. The rich, smoky flavor of grilled panir or tofu, bell peppers, eggplant, or summer squash will lend excellent flavor to dishes that traditionally call for these ingredients to be deep-fried. You can "lighten" any favorite braised or stewed dish by simply cutting the fat content in half.

Although the Sunday Feast dinners served at many ISKCON temples throughout the world are rich and sweet, that does not reflect the sensible standards of weekday meals. Health-aware cooks exploring Indian cuisine have long appreciated light entrees such as dosa pancakes, steamed iddli dumplings, and succulent vegetable-grain kicchari stew.

All of these dishes combine a starch with a protein and, in the process, increase food value substantially. Dishes such as Caribbean-style black beans and rice or Southern "Hoppin' John" with black-eyed peas are other healthy examples of this formula.

Savvy Western temple chefs are now trying to include some type of whole-grain-and-vegetable entree salad in daily menus. Using the vast array of seasonal produce and grains available today, these salads can often be the best fare of the day, as mouthwatering as they are nutritious.

Checklist for Healthy Menus

Write out your menus and answer the following questions:


1. Does a day's menu provide at least the lowest number of servings from each of the major food groups shown on the chart and below:

6 servings of grain products?
2 servings of fruit?
6 servings of vegetables?
2-3 servings of protein? 
2 servings of milk or its products?

2. Do the menus have several servings of whole-grain bread, cereal, or pilaf each day?

3. Do menus for a week include several servings of dark-green leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, lettuce, or green beans?

4. Are the menus practical for you in time, cost, and acceptance?

* * *

Oven French Fries

Even though I had seen recipes for no-oil fries in cookbooks and magazines, until I tried them I wasn't convinced they could be delicious. Instead of surprising the potatoes with hot oil, you expose them to a blast of hot air. This results in a creamy interior and crisp brown crust bathed in the scent of the seasonings used.

In this variation, the potatoes are treated with seasonings similar to Bengal's aloo bhaji. You can use almost any seasoning. Depending on your taste preferences, try a dusting of herb salt, mild paprika, lemon pepper, cayenne powder, or crushed spice seeds. You can also cut the potatoes into country-style wedges, ½-inch julienne, or crinkle cuts. Take this recipe as an inspiration to come up with scores of variations. Serve with a splash of lemon juice, ketchup, or fresh chutney.


russet or Idaho-type baking potatoes (Quantities required: ¼ pound per person as an appetizer; 1/3 pound per person as a snack or side dish; ½ pound per person as the basis of a meal.)
olive-oil spray
mild paprika
salt or herb salt
cumin seeds, coarsely crushed or ground

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Spray or brush two nonstick baking trays with oil. Slice the peeled or unpeeled potatoes lengthwise or crosswise into rounds ¼-inch thick. Alternatively, cut them into 1/3-inch julienne sticks. Place rounds or sticks in a bowl and sprinkle with turmeric, paprika, salt, and cumin. Toss to mix and place the rounds in a single layer on the prepared trays.

Place the trays in the upper and lower middle of the oven. Bake until the potatoes are a deep golden-brown, 20-25 minutes. Some potatoes will souffle, or puff up, and others will blister. If necessary, rotate the trays to get even browning. Serve piping hot.


Yamuna Devi is the author of Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking. The above recipe is from a forthcoming book, Yamuna's Kitchen, to be published by E. P. Dutton.