I have been a conscious eater for much of my adult life and I always try to find ways to ensure that my meals are healthy and rich in nutrients. In trying to do so, I have acquired some ideas about eating right. These work for me, but each one of us has a different body type and culinary preferences. I, for instance, naturally gravitate towards vegetables and food that have colour. Still, the tips below apply almost universally, though you might want to tweak them as per your own requirements.
I must begin with a disclaimer though — I am an extremely lazy cook with very little experience in the kitchen. So, those among you who are passionate about cooking will find my knowledge rudimentary. I don't do 'diets' so I don't have much to say about them either. Also, I have almost zero advice for non-vegetarians, because I try really hard to stay away from chicken and meat. So, here goes —
1. Refined sugar is your worst enemy, and it's everywhere!
Yes, that's right. Refined sugar is the worst ever food ingredient. It's even worse than fat. It is not only bad for those who are trying to watch their weight but even for those who are not. It is extremely addictive — in fact, it gives you a small high just as narcotic drugs do and so, the more sugar you consume, the more you want it. It causes your blood sugar levels to spike, has a high glycemic index and, eventually, saps you of energy. Keep as far away as possible from processed foods which usually contain plenty of refined sugar.
2. Do not replace sugar with artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners have a number of alarming health risks associated with them. Instead, use unrefined sources of sugar. Try having tea without sugar, fresh juices or juices without any added sweeteners; cut down on bakery products; and replace as many things as possible with unrefined sugar. Brown or demerara sugar is just cane sugar coloured with molasses, so that's no good. Use jaggery powder, unrefined sugar, date paste, honey, or use fruits to sweeten your dishes. Once you get used to the subtle sweetness, you won't even like 'sweet' sweets.
3. Replace refined carbs with complex carbs wherever possible
This has been one of my most successful swaps. I've replaced maida with whole-wheat wherever possible. All the baking I do is with whole wheat flour, I don't buy white bread and I prepare only whole wheat pasta. Even idli-dosa batter can be made using brown or red rice instead of white rice. It turns out great. Yummy, guilt free eating!
4. You don't need to spend a bomb trying to eat right
Everything that you need to eat healthy is available in your local market. Fortunately, India offers a rich variety of agricultural produce. All whole grain cereals, millets, colourful seasonal fruits and vegetables that are available locally will amp up the nutritional value of your meals. You don't need to go around looking for quinoa or silken tofu in an exotic shop.
5. Organic doesn't necessarily mean better
There are some foods like baby food and animal products that you must try and eat organic. But you don't have to go crazy buying everything organic. The Environmental Working Group provides a list of what's worth buying organic and what's not.
6. Load up on fruits, veggies, and lean protein
Flavour your oatmeal with some real apples, dry fruits, or bananas. Top your garlic bread with bell peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and olives. Try to bake your pizza at home. And, tacos too — they turn out great! Add some spinach to that omelette. Grab a handful of roasted nuts when hungry. Have a fruit smoothie. I have grown especially fond of South Indian dishes — they are so easy to make, full of flavour, and you can add all kinds of dals, veggies and dry fruits to them. Heaven.
You should also have lots of lean protein such as lentils, mushrooms, and paneer. For non-vegetarians, I'd suggest egg whites and chicken. All of these — complex carbs, fibrous vegetables and lean protein — keep you full for longer and also keep your blood sugar levels stable.
7. If you can't find it, you won't eat it
Get rid of ALL the junk food in your house — biscuits, namkeens, butter chaklis, fried nuts, everything. No mukhwas or churan goliyan or achaars. If you don't have it, you will automatically reach for the healthier option.
8. Read the fine print
When you buy a packaged product, make sure you read the nutritional information. For instance, durum wheat pasta is actually made from refined durum wheat, similar to maida. What you want is whole wheat pasta — the deep brown one. Many commercially produced 'wheat' or 'brown' breads have significant amounts of refined flour, as do many 'digestive' and 'oat' cookies. Check for the presence of artificial sweeteners. So, become a smart consumer, and before you buy, read the fine print.
9. Try to have an early dinner
This is one advice I can never follow myself but I did lose weight at one point just by having early dinners.
10. Your utensils matter too!
Try to cook as much using cast iron pots and avoid cooking in utensils with a non-stick coating as at high temperatures, non-stick coating release toxins that are bad for us. For storage, use glass or steel containers. Plastics marked 'BPA free' aren't necessarily safe either.
These are my few words of wisdom for those trying to eat healthy. I am still learning and am very open to suggestions. Please do write back with your own tips. I'd love to incorporate them.
Until then, Happy Eating!