Wolf Of Food Street: India's Growing Nutritional Crisis

17/07/2015 8:20 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Human hands holding broccoli in cupped hands

We Indians love our food. The chaat-pakoris, the ghee-smeared aloo paranthas, the lip-smacking and exclusive Maharaja Macs, the decadent shahi tukda from Chandni Chowk or that irresistible Nani ke haath ka gaajar ka halwa. Oh yum. Believe me, I've been guilty of consuming every single gastronomical sin that I've just mentioned while slobber swings from my mouth. But being a marathon runner, I was forced to replace these heavenly delights with 'healthy' substitutes like salads of brooding broccoli, zucchini, pumpkin and every other nauseating veggie in this world. At least that's what I thought a few months ago. After a recent checkup with my family doctor, my blood report emerged with a million red flags pointing to vitamin deficiencies and other micronutrient abnormalities in my perfectly weighing 24-year-old body. Given my regular workout regime and relatively conscious eating, my doctor and I were both in shock. After a prolonged pause filled hushed calculations and observations, he then asked me, "Do you cook at home?" I shook my head sheepishly. "Aha!" He smacked his hand on the table, startling his snoozing subordinate who was dozing off behind me. He handed me my homework for the following weekend: research on all the statistics available on the food habits of the of the Indian population. "Read up and try to find out where the problem lies. Then we'll exchange notes." I threw him a dirty look, cursing him silently for spoiling my plans of an impending pizza party.

"Given my regular workout regime and relatively conscious eating, my doctor and I were both in shock."

But later that night, I opened up a chamber of secrets. The number of Indians affected by food-related diseases just seemed to be incomprehensible! According to a medical report, India is not only the third most obese country in the world after USA and China, it has the highest population of diabetics on the planet and is losing 6% of its GDP to preventable diseases, prolonged micronutrient deficiencies and premature deaths. A broad understanding of the issue would then make us think that the poor in India are the ones dying of hunger and malnutrition and the richer ones are plagued by obesity, but there is another concept of undernourishment with less prominent symptoms that affects both halves. This 'hidden hunger' is one of India's major nutritional crisis.

Part of this is not our fault actually. According to a medical study carried out by the University of Sydney in Australia and other institutes, even a 'normal' diet can cause deficiencies and other food related diseases in the present population if their ancestors were undernourished for several generations. "People in developing countries have faced multi-generational undernutrition and are currently undergoing major lifestyle changes, contributing to an epidemic of metabolic diseases, though the underlying mechanisms remain unclear," the study said. What this means is that since our genetic makeup is still designed to cope with undernourishment due to years of famine and extreme poverty in the past, a higher calorie intake with no dietary alterations makes our bodies store all the nutrients as fat instead of consuming them. This is the cause of metabolic-related abnormalities which further cripples our immune system and stunts our physical as well as intellectual growth.

According to a health report, nearly 50% of India's population is undernourished and suffering from one of the top seven deficiencies: Vitamin D, Calcium, Vitamin B12, Zinc, Iron, Iodine and Vitamin A. Nearly 80% of Indians, including yours truly, is deficient is Vitamin D. This diet-based abnormality can have a serious long term impact on a person's health, making him vulnerable to progressive diseases such as heart attacks, diabetes and cancer. Same story goes for Vitamin B12. Eight out of ten Indians submitted to a clinical checkup were found to have alarmingly low levels of the essential micronutrient which is responsible for the efficient functioning of the brain and the central nervous system, including regulating shifting mood patterns.

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With my exhaustive research complete, I headed for yet another preachy appointment with my family doctor. Impressed by my effort, he decided to reward me with a recipe book. "You need to know what you are eating, so start cooking yourself," he grinned. He listed out all the fruits and vegetables that I needed to ingest to get my vitamin levels up to safety from the danger ranges. At first, I resisted his idea vehemently. I'm a master's student, I hardly have time to sleep, how do I find the time to meddle in the kitchen? Isn't cooking a pretty expensive hobby? All through my undergraduate years and my first job, I was hooked to tasty 'low-fat' salad dressings, microwavable grilled preparations, cartoned milk and whole-wheat pasta preparations. They seemed to lessen my guilt while satiating my taste buds in a hurry. But after watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution TED Talk, it turns out that these so-called packaged "low-calorie" restaurant food and takeouts do more harm to you than good. The excessive additives, preservatives, metals, food colourings and everything else written in the tiniest font that man ever created on the package labelling, makes them food fit for the devil. There are things that you would never wish to eat, like fungi patulin in your healthy apple juice or pesticide boric acid that is used to kill cockroaches in your carton of of lean, skimmed milk. India is the world's worst food violator, according to global food source monitoring company, FoodSentry. One out of five packaged food test samples fail the quality test in India and mislabeling of the food products is notoriously pervasive in the industry.

"Severe ailments that are diet-related can be easily avoided with proper food awareness, weight management, clean habits and adequate precaution."

So instead of resorting to gobbling down hazardous elements in ignorance and a handful of pills in prevention, I decided to finally step into unknown territory and cook my own meal with the help of the doctor's recipe book. Nothing spectacular, traditional or extravagant, just simple stuff like salads and their dressings, dal, pasta or veggie stir-fry. Two months later, I can happily say that most of the red flags in my blood report have disappeared or are slowly wilting away, my body feels stronger, my stamina lasts longer and I can now enjoy the brooding broccoli in a much more wholesome way. I've taken up cooking as a life skill rather than a luxury or a hobby and it has changed the way I think about food. I can whip up a nice, desi bhindi masala or a slightly more exquisite grilled fish with veggies in flat 15 minutes and the food isn't exactly unappetising or tasteless. Though my struggle with my metabolism is real, my conscious intake of both macro and micronutrients on a daily basis not only saves me from more meetings with the dogmatic doctor, but also allows me to blissfully indulge in the occasional plate of piping hot chhole bhature from Bengali Market.

In an age when complex diseases unknown to man are surfacing every other day and the cost of medical treatment is sky high, it is imperative that India's youth remains fit and agile. Severe ailments that are diet-related can be easily avoided with proper food awareness, weight management, clean habits and adequate precaution. Regular cooking seminars should be organised in schools, colleges and corporates so that we Indians can learn how to whip up our own meals instead of relying on detrimental takeaway boxes. We must know the nutritional value of our produce, our recipes and our magical spices. Cooking should not only be limited to the chefs, the indulgent and the homemaker anymore, it is a necessary skill that every Indian should learn for healthy survival in disastrously unhealthy times. It's a revolution. It's time to fire up our woks and make it to the other side.

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