Sustainable eating on a South Asian diet

Fareeha has a specialist interest in South Asian diets and provides advice to South Asians across the globe. She is extremely passionate about providing the best available nutrition advice to people with South Asian backgrounds, which is what led her to develop the South Asian Eatwell Guide.

Fareeha Jay, RD

Freelance Dietitian

In the UK, a balanced, nutrient-dense diet is guided by the Eatwell Guide. The Eatwell Guide is estimated to have the potential to reduce water usage (4% lower), greenhouse gas emissions (45% lower), and land use (49% lower) in the UK if everyone adopted it as their diet.(1) Based on personal experience, I find that very few South Asians are aware of sustainable eating. There is also a need for more research and advice. Thus, the South Asian Eatwell Guide could be a suitable medium for spreading the word.

The South Asian Eatwell Guide was specifically developed to provide culturally competent care and advice to South Asians and reduce health disparities. Each food group within the guide represents South Asian food. Many South Asians, specifically young British South Asians, exhibit attributes from Western culture and their culture of origin.(2) Therefore, none of the foods from the Eatwell Guide were removed and only food additions have been made.

Among the South Asian populations, different cultures and practices co-exist together. For example, South Asians of Pakistani origin are least likely to be vegetarians,(3) whilst many of  Indian origin are vegetarians and even vegan because of their religious beliefs. Amongst Bengali communities, having fish is a matter of pride. Although there are cultural variances, South Asian diets are historically high in a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and nuts.

Sustainable foods in the South Asian Diet

South Asian families commonly eat the following foods, which have environmental benefits.

The BDA environmentally sustainable diet (4) recommends plant-based proteins such as lentils and pulses. South Asian families consume different types of daals regularly: maash (split urid), masoor (red lentils), chana (gram split), mong (yellow split gram), lobya (kidney beans) to name a few. They are cooked with various spices and consumed with roti or rice.

Potatoes and vegetables:
As a main course, a variety of vegetable curries are consumed. Usually, these are consumed with chapati or roti. The BDA sustainable diet suggests consuming potatoes as part of starchy carbs in addition to wholegrains. It is important to remember that potatoes are a mainstay in the cuisine of South Asia. Typically, potatoes are served with other vegetables in dishes like aloo matar (potatoes and peas), aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower), aloo paluk (potatoes and spinach), aloo baingan (potatoes and aubergine), and so forth.

Fish can be a suitable choice if eaten from sustainable sources. Depending on the type of production and method of capture, it is considered more efficient than terrestrial animal production.(5) Some South Asians might have fish every day. It is eaten in many ways, but usually, it is in the form of curry or it's fried. 

Least sustainable South Asian foods

The South Asian population is heterogeneous and a wide variety of food types is eaten. Some South Asian groups might have more meat and dairy than others.  

Red meat:
The resources required to rear animals are a significant contributor to climate change. Red meat is responsible for 24.2% of dietary-related GHG emissions. (4) Some households will have meat daily in the form of kebab, koftay (meatballs) and mutton karahi, etc. Most of the time, it is coupled with vegetable curries, lentils, or rice in the form of matar gosht (peas and meat), karelay gosht (bitter gourd and meat), paluk gosht (spinach and meat), pulao gosht (rice and meat), or daal gosht (meat and lentils).

Lassi/raita (dairy):
The carbon footprint of dairy is a significant contributor to dietary emissions. It is the second most considerable contributor after red meat, at 14.3% (4) Traditionally lassi is consumed with meals but generally in summer. Raita, or plain yoghurt, is commonly consumed with food.

South Asian cuisine involves ghee in almost all its recipes; for some communities, it is considered sacred and the purest substance for use. (6) It is also a part of some religious rituals.


Food in landfill contributes to global warming. To eat healthy and sustainably, the Eat Lancet (7) suggests cooking more at home, packing leftovers into lunchboxes, and using creative recipes. Not only will this be good for health and budgets, it will also reduce food waste. Not wasting food is part of South Asian culture, and those with strong religious beliefs use their religiosity as a motivating factor to reduce food waste. (8) Cooking from scratch and using seasonal produce are the positive aspects of traditional South Asian food. There is a need, however, to reinforce this tradition because other habits have been assimilated over the years. (9,10)


A traditional South Asian diet is rich in plant-based foods, such as legumes, pulses, lentils, and wholegrains, with fewer animal sources. The concept of not wasting food and eating local and seasonal foods is ingrained in families because of cultural and religious reasons. The problem specific to this community is the intake of ghee and sugar, with some communities having more meat. Remarkably South Asians have been eating sustainably without even realising it.


  1. British Nutrition Foundation (2023). The science of a healthier and more sustainable diet. Available at :
  2. Dey B, Balmer J, Pandit A, Saren M, Binsardi B (2016). A quadripartite approach to analysing young British South Asian adults’ dual culture identity . Journal of Marketing Management. Volume 33, 2017-Issue 9-10
  3. Simmons D and Williams R (1997). Dietary practices among Europeans and different South Asian groups in Coventry, British Journal of Nutrition, 78(1), 5-14. doi:10.1079/BJN19970114
  4. British Dietetic Association. One Blue Dot. Available at:
  5. Bogard J, Farmery A, Little D, Fulton E, Cook M (2019). Will fish be part of future healthy and sustainable diets? The LANCET Planetary Health. Availaible at:
  6. Sharma H, Zhang X, Dwivedi C (2010). The effect of ghee (clarified butter) on serum lipid levels and microsomal lipid peroxidation. An International Quarterly Journal of Research Ayurveda. Available at:
  7. EAT LANCET. Food planet health. Available at:
  8. Elshaer I, Sobaih AEE, Alyahya M, Abu Elnasr A (2021). The Impact of Religiosity and Food Consumption Culture on Food Waste Intention in Saudi Arabia. Sustainability. Available at: https://
  9. Lucas, A., Murray, E., & Kinra, S.(2013). Heath Beliefs of UK South Asians Related to Lifestyle Diseases: A Review of Qualitative Literature. Journal of Obesity, 2013.
  10. Leung G, Stanner S (2011). Diets of minority ethnic groups in the UK: Influence on chronic disease risk and implications for prevention. Nutrition Bulletin, 36(2), 161-198.