If you’re of South Asian origin, you may have heard the term “The Desi Belly” thrown around referring to a stereotypical South Asian person’s body with a relatively high amount of belly fat.
You might have family members with conditions like Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, or PCOS, which all have disproportionately high rates in the South Asian community…
You might have heard people say things like, “Desi people just aren’t designed for fitness.”
So, what’s the deal? Is the “South Asian Body” real, or is it just a stereotype? Are you doomed for poor health just because of South Asian genes?
Today we’re going to explore what the “South Asian Body” actually is, where it came from, and what you can do to have a healthy physique and reduce your risk of metabolic diseases as a South Asian.
What is The South Asian Body Type? Is it real?
- Lower levels of lean tissue (muscle) relative to height
- Thinner arms and legs
- A higher amount of overall central fat storage — aka, belly fat.
- A higher amount of visceral fat–Fat stored deep around the organs, instead of right under the skin. Visceral fat is associated with negative conditions like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
- Higher levels of insulin resistance (explained more below), high triglycerides, and inflammation
So while other ethnicities tend to gain weight “all over,” we tend to gain in the midsection, and we tend to have less muscle on top of that.
Many South Asians can still appear “thin” but actually have a high percentage of visceral fat—and therefore present with conditions like Type 2 Diabetes at a lower BMI than other ethnicities. Some call this “Skinny Fat.” (I don’t love this term but it’s one way to describe what’s going on).
Some researchers have given this body type a name — the “Asian-Indian Phenotype3”
Note: Every body is different and there are huge variations in South Asian bodies. These are just high-level TRENDs found in research.
Why Are Our Bodies Like This?
Studies show that our bodies have been like this for years… Even before the Holocene period4.
This body type may have protected our ancestors from famine or may represent adaptations to climate (less muscle means less heat produced, which could be good for hotter climates).
There could be a genetic component, but that actually hasn’t been proven yet.
Diet and exercise play a role too.
When you take this base and add on top a sedentary life + high carb diet (often vegetarian and low in protein)… That just makes things worse.
Why Is This A Problem?
All these factors–low muscle mass + high visceral belly fat put South Asians at higher risk of various metabolic diseases like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. It could also be why we see such high rates of PCOS (which is not technically a metabolic disease, but closely linked).
At the root of these issues is a condition called insulin resistance:
The hormone insulin helps control the amount of sugar (glucose) in the blood. If you’re insulin resistant, your body’s cells don’t respond normally to insulin. Glucose can’t enter the cells as easily, so it builds up in the blood—leading to high blood sugar. This can eventually lead to Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic conditions.
South Asians have much higher rates of insulin resistance and associated diseases than other ethnic groups.5
How Do You Prevent These Diseases?
Good news: Your diet and exercise play a BIG role in determining your overall health. Being Desi does NOT have to mean a life sentence of diabetes, heart disease, and excess belly fat if you take care of your health correctly.
Unfortunately, the typical health advice that most South Asians receive–”eat a low-fat diet and do tons of cardio” can backfire and make things worse…
Lifestyle Changes That Actually Work:
1. Eat balanced meals, and lower excessive carbs
The typical Desi plate is extremely high in carbs (rice, roti, dal, aloo) which can make insulin resistance worse. Balance your plate by lowering the carbs and adding more protein, non-starchy veggies, and healthy fats.
(Side note: Lentils like daal, rajma, channah are NOT as high in protein as most people think. See my Instagram post I did on this topic. If you’ve vegetarian, I would recommend adding another protein source to your lentil-based meals like Greek yogurt, tofu, or soya chunks).
You don’t have to eat an ultra-low-carb diet or keto (which is often unsustainable), but rather just stay balanced overall. Reduce the sugary, fried snacks (mithai, mixtures, etc) which are just empty calories.
Grab The Fit Desi Food Guide for tons of healthy Desi food tips including vegetarian protein sources.
2. Build Muscle Via Strength Training
Since we naturally have less muscle mass than other ethnicities, we need to prioritize strength training. Building muscle will make your body more insulin-sensitive (so it processes carbs better) and stays healthy 6.
Many South Asian women I see struggle with weight loss because they focus too much on cardio and not enough on strength training!
Need a place to start? Grab my FREE Dumbbell workout guide!
3. Stay Active Overall
Get more steps in a day and prioritize overall movement, including regular cardio activity.
Many South Asians don’t grow up with a regular routine of exercise: Academics are often prioritized over physical activity.
It might feel tough to build a new habit of exercise if you’ve never had one, but it’s really important to do so. Start small, find something you enjoy doing, and give yourself time to build up consistency.
4. Manage Stress & Sleep
Don’t underestimate the role of stress and sleep in managing your blood sugar levels and overall health. Many South Asians live high-stress professional lives which can lead to worse health.
Chronic stress has been linked to insulin resistance7. Cortisol, the hormone which is released when we’re under stress, is associated with increased belly fat storage.
Get Screened Early
South Asians present with Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease much earlier in age and at a lower BMI than other ethnicities—So get screened early for these conditions, even if you’re not “overweight”.
Finally…Watch Your Mindset
If you tell yourself that you can’t lose weight or get fitter because you’re Desi, it’ll be much more likely that you don’t reach your goals.
Remember that your biology and pre-disposition make up just ONE piece of your health, but there’s still a lot that’s in your control.
Ready To Get Fit And Healthy?
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