07/05/2016 1:17 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Why Do We Choose Western Fitness Diets Over Desi Dal Subzi?

JTB Photo via Getty Images
Nepal, Meal served in Nepal. (Photo by: JTB/UIG via Getty Images) (Photo by: JTB Photo/UIG via Getty Images)

By Rujuta Diwekar

IN EVERYONE'S LIFE there's always one person who has tried his hand at all kinds of businesses and failed. But the math of failure upturns when you enter the world of weight loss. Almost every person who has tried to lose weight has failed to keep it off. And it's not because of lack of trying. It could actually be a case of trying too much. Statistics put the number of people who have lost weight and kept it off at less than 20 per cent, which means that at least 80 per cent of us are constantly struggling to lose weight. India, by the way, is the third-most obese country in the world.

We also rank amongst the highest in the global hunger index, just behind Afghanistan and Pakistan. This lethal combo of obesity and hunger is described as the double burden of malnourishment by the World Health Organization. "Not too long ago in our country, the main difference between the rich and the poor was not the food they ate but the clothes they wore," said a 70-year-old farmer from Sangli, part of a senior internship programme in my office. That is clearly changing.

This double burden is a global phenomenon. The number of underweight people has gone up from 330 million in 1975 to 462 million in 2014. But in the same period, we have gotten fatter, a number that stands at 641 million, up from 105 million. For the first time ever, the earth has more obese than under- weight people.

The biggest culprit for this change is the rural-to-urban shift in population, which comes with a decrease in physical work and a shift in diet patterns. The cost of living in cities is higher and women stepping out to work have not been accompanied with men leaning in the kitchens. Gender equality, a determinant for health and wellbeing, is consigned to fantasy life on the big screen, like in Ki & Ka.

In reality, the additional income gets diverted into buying more ready-made food, essentially food that is poorer in quality of nutrients, but often packaged as healthy. Urban life and open markets have not just meant a Zara next door, but even the import of processed food into daily life. But it doesn't stop here. Globalisation has also meant the importing and blind acceptance of nutritional culture--guidelines, diets, eating habits--from the developed world; all of which adds to the epidemic of obesity hitting our country.

By the 1970s, the West had declared 'fat' as the biggest villain in our diets, arguing it was the main cause of heart disease. India responded by promptly striking ghee off its healthy list. Fast forward to 2016 and United States Food and Drug Administration has changed its stand on fat, and more specifically cholesterol, saying that cholesterol 'is a nutrient that is no longer a concern for over-consumption.'

The media has always followed this yo-yo. Time carried a cover in 1984 with eggs and bacon with a headline, 'Cholesterol: And Now the Bad News'. In 1999, the picture was of eggs and a piece of fruit saying eggs are okay but margarine (hydrogenated vegetable fat made to replace bad butter) was a problem. The 2014 cover had a dollop of butter on it and declared: 'Scientists Labeled Fat the Enemy. Why They Were Wrong'.

Forty years is a long enough time for a fear to spread and for people to change their default 'eat healthy' setting to 'avoid ghee on roti' and other essential fats like makkhan on a parantha. The current villain that causes all lifestyle diseases is sugar. It has replaced the position that fat had in the 1970s. Will it return as the champion that helps people avoid lifestyle diseases 40 years later? Your guess is as good as mine.

You can win a contest for the best protein meal with a recipe for rajma parantha--it doesn't matter if no one has ever heard of it in your country

In the time that the fitness and slimming industry was worth about Rs 6,000 crore in 2012 and growing at 20 per cent, the nutrition food, beverages and supplement market crossed Rs 100 crore in 2015. Dry-fryers account for one of the biggest segments of India's electronic market today, while even biscuit advertisements position their products as health snacks, to capture audiences.

Essentially, as the weight-loss market continues to grow, so do the number of diabetics and obese people in our country. It's time we ask ourselves if we're looking for information in the wrong places. Are we interpreting data incorrectly? Is the industry making profits at the cost of keeping us fat?

IT ALL STARTED when we were asked to avoid calories, and in the process of avoiding them, we began to view food from the narrow window of carbs, protein and fats, instead of the larger picture of eating local, seasonal and fresh. Nutrition experts across the world are now waking up to the fact that science needs to come out with food and not nutrient-based guidelines. At a conference I attended in 2012 in Newcastle, UK, food scientists admitted that breaking up food by its main nutrients like carbs, protein and fat has been counterproductive.

These were meant to allow the average person make informed decisions about food. However, it has only served the interest of weight loss, food and pharma companies. Depending on the latest villain, the packet that labels itself as 'xxx free'--fat free in the 90s, sugar-free in the 2000s and gluten/dairy-free now--is priced 40 per cent higher than a regular product. So you can buy a packet of chips that's vegan, gluten-free or a soda that's sugar-free and feel happy to pay more for it.

Nutrient-based guidelines have also started the trend of 'expert' endorsement. So you have oils, cereals or yoghurts that are backed by medical or diabetic associations and mirror the latest trend. Vegetable oils like sunflower oil came packaged with an illustrated heart to show that doctors had certified its heart-healthiness. Yet, recent research has shown that traditional local oils--groundnut, sesame, coconut, mustard-- are far better for us. As consumers, we have bought them, suffered our way through them and have never been more confused about what to eat.

In following Western dietary guidelines, we haven't just become victims of the same confusions and yo-yoing we see in the West, but we've also given up our own food wisdoms, handed down the generations by the women in our homes. We started by avoiding fat in our diet, but only the naturally existing sources of fat. No ghee, no makkhan, and surely no deep-fried bhajiya, not even when it's raining outside and the whole house is smelling of adrak chai. But it's okay to spread almond butter on the bread, go for workshops that teach you how to cook Indian food in olive oil and chew on biscuits jiske har bite mein fibre hai. As long as it's making money for the food industry, it is backed by the doctor, dietician, even the liftman. And from the educated to the illiterate, everyone looks down upon the local.

Your grandmother knows that if you are eating an egg, eat it the way the hen laid it, with the yellow and the white both. If you are drinking milk, drink it the way the cow gave it, with its essential fats, pro-biotic bacteria and fat-soluble vitamins. If you are eating a fruit, eat one that's in season. But diet advice, at least the way we know it, won't have a word of it. Only egg whites, fat- free or low-fat milk, kiwis and the like rule the roost.

NUTRITION COLLEGES IN INDIA echo these confusions. Currently, the top two nutrition colleges in India are only for women. Not that marks are a sign of intelligence, but you also don't need to be a high scorer to get admission to a nutrition course. Essentially, your talent pool is limited. And once you do make it to the course, you study things that have no cultural resonance and which are based on dividing food into calories and nutrients.

You can win a contest for the best protein meal by coming up with a recipe of rajma parantha--it doesn't matter if no one has ever heard of it in your country. If you can, on paper, make it protein rich, then you win. You are not expected to think of taste, much less assimilation of nutrients or excretion of waste. No thought spared for the time-tested rajma chaawal. No representation of what women at home know. No space for grandma's wisdom. No competition on traditional recipes. And incidentally, most competitions are sponsored by the food industry.

Eating right--according to Hatha Yoga Pradipika--is an art and the one who eats in a state of balance, called mitahar, is truly wise. This yoga or the oral wisdom that has stood the test of time finds no representation in nutrition or medical colleges. The syllabus is about what the West knows about food. You are systematically taught to look down upon what you learnt at home and are raised on a diet of science which changes itself all too often.

Doctors who study nutrition for a few weeks don't tire of giving us nutrient-based guidelines. So we come back home with advice that says 'eat protein, avoid sugar, limit fat intake'--basically confused about what food we should actually eat and avoid. So we switch to oats for breakfast at the cost of poha, soup instead of dal chaawal and eat Marie biscuits with chai that has no sugar.

Take the average meal a dietician prescribes in a weight-loss regime--soups, salads, steamed vegetables, whole grains over refined. Yet we do know that:

1. Soups are not a traditional part of our diet; they never needed to be. Vegetables lose nutrients with heat, while pulses retain it. Thus, native cultures have a liquid preparation of dals, and not of vegetables.

2. Vegetables naturally have what is known as anti-nutrients, molecules that can come in the way of nutrient assimilation, especially that of minerals. Cooking them, especially with herbs, spices and essential fat, read tadka, is a way of reducing the amount of anti-nutrients.

3. Excess consumption of fibre only washes away gut bacteria, putting us in a constant loop of constipation and loose motions. The rice we traditionally ate was hand-pounded white rice, not fibre-rich brown rice.

I could go on and on. But let me summarise simply. The big picture view of our culture was not first propagated by some noble scientist. It came from an unbroken chain of commitment that passed food wisdom from generation to generation, like the guru-shishya parampara. These wisdoms came from our climate, the produce that grew here and our way of life. Just eating idli-chutney, dosa-sambar or dal rice gives us a vegan, gluten- free, complete protein diet, but it doesn't sound as sexy as quinoa salad with cranberries, for example. Traditional foods also promoted diet diversity. Depending on where you came from, you might eat parantha, poha or idli for breakfast. Now we all eat oats whether we are Malayalee or Punjabi.

Nutrition experts across the world are now waking up to the fact that food science needs to be an interdisciplinary study that allows adequate learning from agriculture, economics and history, or else be willing to be written off as cuckoo science. The recently concluded FENS conference in Berlin had a panel discussion that said food must be looked at as a system--farmer, trader, consumer and not carb, protein, fat. That the only way to tackle the double burden of malnourishment is to put the focus on diversity of diets, encouraging populations to eat local, fresh, seasonal, and cook in a way that had cultural resonance. And that we have to put the traditional eating wisdoms, usually safeguarded by women in the past, at the centre of our understanding of food.

The unfashionable roti-sabzi, bhakri-sabzi, dal-rice, etcetera, is now considered a foolproof way of getting good nourishment, while being sensitive to local economies and carries the tag of sustainability for the global ecology. The grandmother and her common sense is the repository of this interdisciplinary study, way ahead of its time and more than worthy of your time. It's the first open data source that we are exposed to, one that needs no wifi to download. Will we pay attention? That's the only question.

(Rujuta Diwekar's latest book, Indian Superfoods, is available exclusively on the Juggernaut app)

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