This past weekend I chose to stay away from any and all things ‘work’. With no workshops or seminars planned, I decided to spend my weekend “Netflixing and chilling”. While browsing and looking for an exciting thriller or comedy movie I chanced upon a great show, “Raja, Rasoi aur anya Kahaniyan”. Each episode taught me a new fact. Did you know the origin of “Delhi ki chaat”? It was when the city of Shahjahanabad was built that Shahjahan’s physician warned everyone about the non-potable water of Yamuna and how it could lead to a slow demise. He being the witty one also gave a simple solution of using more spices (not chilli) and sourness in the food as a means to sustain health in the city. And lo, we have “chaat”. To learn more such interesting facts inter-twined with our historical timeline I suggest you watch the show (not a paid promotion).
The flavours and foods used in the kitchen of all Indian communities are spread in a vast diversity yet united in the use of – ghee, sugar, milk and rice. These have been an integral part of our cuisine for thousands of years with their mention even in the scriptures from the Indus Valley Civilization. So how come, today, we readily banish these without batting an eyelid ? All it takes is a new “food trend” and a “headline” in some magazine or newspaper which is, let me tell you, anything but based on science.
Half the problem begins when we see ghee as fat, sugar as empty calories, milk as protein and rice as carbohydrates. This phenomenon of looking at food from a narrow window of “nutrients” is called Nutritionism. The term was coined by Gyorgy Scrinis, an Australian Sociologist of Science in 2002. Because, unlike food, nutrients are invisible and incomprehensible we feel a constant need of being told by ‘experts’ what to eat.
The other half of the problem lies in Nutrition Transition. As defined by Barry Popkin, a nutrition science researcher and author, it is a shift from traditional diets to a Western eating pattern that includes more ultra-processed packaged foods. Essentially being an outcome of globalisation, nutrition transition is more evident in developing countries where breakfast cereal replaces our paranthas, poha, thepla and dosas, for example.
With the growing influence of the food industry, marketing, media and diet culture there is such an overflow of information that it only leads to further ‘food confusion’. Our diet choices are becoming more uniform than diverse. With reduced diversity, there is a consequential reduction in nutrient availability which is the major cause of the Triple Burden of Malnourishment that we face today; where we have an increase in the prevalence of obesity, malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.
The best diet to follow
Historically, cuisine has been an integral part of our culture. Reducing food only to its physical benefits or biological necessity is unjustified. Food is also about pleasure, community, family, spirituality, expressing our identity, maintaining an ecological balance and economic stability. Eating is the most instinctive and intimate act. Being a nutritionist and sustainability advocate, I take on me to help people reconnect with the lost knowledge of what to eat, how to eat and when to eat. As a simple solution, I share with you 4 simple principles to follow to make your own diet, the best diet. But before you begin with these, you must free yourself from the influence of any and all “fad diets and trends” where a single food group or nutrient is either demonized or glorified.
1. Eat local, eat fresh – Eating local means eating foods that are grown closer to where we stay. This ensures that the food is travelling a shorter distance to reach our plates or covering lesser “food miles”. Now, something that is procured and eaten fresh is definitely going to have a better nutrient profile compared to something that is packaged in layers of plastic and is in transportation for days or even weeks. For example, Alphonso Mango will taste best eaten in Mumbai, when in season. Similarly, avocado or prunes would taste much better and provide better nourishment to the body, if eaten closer to the region it is grown. Secondly, when we choose to buy foods that are travelling more miles, we are supporting the increased use of non-biodegradable materials and non-renewable resources. So eating local and what is in season is just a small step towards reducing the damage that we continue to cause to our dear planet.
2. Diversify – Follow an eating pattern that celebrates the diversity in your culture and cuisine. You must remain loyal to your genes and eat what you have been eating culturally. India is rich with thousands of varieties of pulses and grains. Every region has recipes and foods that are prepared and relished with the crops produced locally. This makes the diet ‘climate-resilient’ by providing the body with the nutrients needed to survive the regional climatic conditions. If we were to eat the same quinoa and oats, world over, it would – a) not be nutritionally adequate b) cause ecological imbalance. So, bajra in Rajasthan, ragi in Karnataka, rice in Tamil Nadu and wheat in Punjab.
3. No ultra-processed packaged foods – Avoid all foods coming out of a packet. Any product that is prepared in a laboratory and has ingredient names that we can not even pronounce is not fit to be called food. Stay away from all foods that are coming out of plastic and have more numbers mentioned as ingredients. This includes biscuits, breakfast cereal, energy drinks, sauces etc. And stay farther away from products that are “health tagged” like high fibre, low sugar, heart-healthy, immunity-boosting etc etc. These are only good for the profits of the seller and not our health. Also, the longer the shelf life of a product, the lower will be its nutritional value. Now, foods like cheese, bread, yoghurt, pickles etc. are not ultra-processed. The processing techniques used to make these foods enhance their nutritional value. Choose to prepare these at home as often as possible or procure from a local, small scale producer.
4. Eat mindfully – When eating, be mindful and not distracted. If the mind is stressed, preoccupied or distracted the body doesn’t secrete the needed digestive juices. If we are busy watching a gadget while eating, we are no longer able to listen to signals of the stomach and either overeat or undereat. Yes, that is the reason why it is easier to empty bags of chips and popcorn while watching that movie late at night. The hormone ‘leptin’ is released when the stomach is full but we can understand this signal only if we are paying attention and eating mindfully. So, take a break from work and keep all gadgets away. Reconnect with food and let it nourish your mind, body and soul. Let your gut dictate how much to eat.
Wishing you all a happier and healthier 2022.
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