When eating fats won’t make you fat

Traditional Indian diet questions the whole western approach to food.

Going nuts figuring out what’s good for us

We all would love to eat food that’s good for us, as long as it’s a bit tasty.

But every day, you hear the results of some new study that contradicts a previous study. Like one day, coffee is good, and the next, it’s not. Or the yesterday, eggs were unhealthy, and today, it’s wholesome.

How do you choose among the many diets, each often contradicting the other? Like the vegans claim they are the best, but Atkins begs to differ.

Do you go by cuisine… Italian, French, Mexican, Japanese, Kenyan, Indian, Korean? (you might want to skip the last if you are a dog lover.)

Or by the food elements. Like fats, proteins, and carbs, and then microanalyse each part in terms of fibre, vitamins and anti-oxidants.

Or by numbers, as in calorie count.

Or if you are an actor whose life depends on looks, you can go with fruits and nuts, chewing on boiled veggies.

Finally, assuming you make a choice, you still need to figure out the safest way to prepare it. Grilling is the current fad as it seems safer than deep frying. Except that new research has revealed the huge difference of heat on the inside and outside of what’s being grilled, causes the food to become carcinogenic. Ok, I’m just kidding, but you have to admit it did sound pretty credible, just like most of those trumped up studies do.

So what’s the traditional Indian way?

It’s goes beyond spicy curries, and eating with your fingers, to an era many centuries ago when learning was valued more than life. The Indian sages who lived in the forests selflessly tested the many herbs, fruits, nuts, vegetables, berries, grains, by eating it themselves. Their goal was to see how it affected the body, prevented health issues, and even cured illnesses. Those that survived gathered every now and then with other sages to share their knowledge. Eventually over the centuries, this vast wealth of knowledge evolved into the Indian traditional food system. We are forever indebted to those unknown sages who laid down their lives for us.

A holistic approach

The food system is based on four principles: the food must be wholesome, locally grown, naturally processed and edible, and be eaten with respect.

Wholesome The human body requires a wide range of foods to function optimally, including the much maligned fats, vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbs, and so on. Besides, our body cannot absorb what it wants from a food in isolation, as the different foods are interdependent on each other to be absorbed by the body. Like you need magnesium to absorb calcium. When viewed holistically like this, the whole western approach of seeing food as separate elements and designing diets based on fat or calorie content makes no sense. For instance, avoiding fats destroys your body’s balance, which in turn will make you feel lethargic and eventually lead to illnesses.

Locally grown The food in a region should be made with whatever is natural to that region. An Eskimo living in freezing climate and an Indian in a hot, humid climate need two completely different kinds of food. Plants and animals of those lands obviously have what is required to survive there. So it makes perfect sense to base your diet on what is locally available.

Imported plum with deeply ingrained pesticides

There’s another aspect to this. Food is a perishable and if it has to be transported, it needs to be preserved in some way, either through some physical process like refrigeration or with chemical preservatives. The first destroys the natural goodness of food while second adds all kinds of poisons into our food cycle. 
(A report by the US Department of Agriculture showed that strawberries contained more than 13 different pesticides. These pesticides are absorbed into the strawberries, so washing them doesn’t get rid of these harmful chemicals.) Spices are an exception that can survive without preservatives. That’s why they used to be worth more their weight in gold a few centuries ago when preservatives didn’t exist.

Naturally processed and edible The principle here is simple. If you don’t know all the effects of any kind of food additives, food processing or genetic modification, stay away from it. There have been countless examples of food promoted as harmless initially, and then found to be dangerous years, or maybe even decades, later when it’s too late to undo the damage. The list of possible side effects from tinkering with natural food is scary ranging from birth defects, cancer, autism, respiratory disorders, infertility, immune-deficiency, organ failure, brain damage to skin diseases. Science has yet to prove it but there’s a live test going on, and it’s being carried out on us!

Artificial sweeteners like aspartame that were once recommended as a sugar replacement for diabetics have been proven to worsen insulin sensitivity more than sugar, and even cause kidney damage. Those who used aspartame served as guinea pigs for the artificial sweetener industry to test its side effects.

Distinguishing between artificial and natural processing is just a matter of observing what’s natural and what’s not. Drying grains in the sun and storing them is a natural process. Using chemical or physical (UHT) methods to preserve milk for months is unnatural. Artificial additives of any kind like taste enhancers, food colouring, have unknown side effects. Any kind of such unnaturally processed food like refined white sugar, jams, sauces, breads, biscuits, cookies, pickles (excepting those that use salt alone) cannot be a part of the diet in this system. As time passes, new ways to process food are discovered like microwave cooking. It may be convenient but since we don’t know what exactly is happening to food molecules, it’s best avoidable.

Respect To get the best out of your food, you need to chew it well. This may be why Indian tradition insists you respect what is on your plate. You have to focus on savouring every morsel of your food, and strictly avoid doing anything else while eating. No reading newspapers, no TV, no phones, in short, no multitasking of any sort.

The food industry isn’t interested in your health Keep this in mind when you see the ads selling processed food, and thousands of articles promoting them. But the truth lies in between the lines. For instance, the red in McDonald’s strawberry sundaes in England comes from real strawberries, while the American version gets its colour from Red No. 40. Why? Because in Europe, the precautionary principle — limiting exposure to possible harm when scientific evidence is inconclusive — is often the law. Whereas in the US, the FDA operates from an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ standpoint. As Bernard Weiss, PhD, University of Rochester, N.Y., professor of environmental medicine, put it, “The precautionary principle should govern every environmental chemical. The FDA grants approval for a new drug only after exhaustive screening for adverse effects. That is how the precautionary principle works. With food dyes, to which vastly more individuals are exposed, no such rule applies, which I think is scandalous.”

Freshly home-cooked, natural and healthy

One of the staples of Indian food is roti and dal tadka. Roti is flat bread made from wheat that’s usually roasted on an open fire. Dal is a thick stew prepared from Indian pulse or lentils. The tadka is a mix of spices that typically include some or all of the following: cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, fennel seeds, fresh green chilis, dried red chilis, fenugreek seeds, asafoetida, cassia, cloves, urad dal, curry leaves, chopped onion, garlic, or tejpat leaves. The tadka is cooked in a special technique, wherein the whole spices are briefly fried in ghee (clarified butter) to release their oils and enhance their flavours, and then added to the cooked dal. This concoction of spices, ghee and dal make for a perfect meal that the body can easily digest and assimilate. The ghee, though it’s almost pure fat, will not cause you to put on weight when eaten like this. All the ingredients in this dish are natural, with no chemicals or preservatives whatsoever. Since it’s easy to cook and tastes terrific with warm rotis and dal, Indians tend to cook and eat it straight off the stove, which ensures it’s not stale or spoiled.

A dish you can eat again and again and again

After eating a dish made in Indian traditional style like dal-roti, one feels energetic. That’s why many households in India serve dal-roti every night, and witness it being eaten with relish, every time.

The feeling is exactly opposite the lethargic feeling you get after eating a pizza. Yes, that pizza tastes delicious and melts in your with all that cheese and sauces. But almost nothing in it down to the bread is fresh, and it’s stuffed with chemicals and food additives. The cheese in a pizza is loaded with fat. But unlike ghee which has a role to play in the digestion, the fat in the cheese will go straight to your belly. Digesting all this puts a terrific strain on your body making you lethargic. That feeling explains why the thought of having pizza every night as your dinner is quite a put-off.

Not easy to cook

Unfortunately, not all Indian dishes are easy to cook. The south Indian lunch shown above was served at a wedding. The 13 vegetable side dishes, pickles, jeera water (water boiled with cumin seeds) along with the rice, dal curry mixed with ghee comprise just the main course, and were supplemented with three sweet dishes which were served on the leaf after this was eaten. Surprisingly, eating such a huge meal doesn’t leave you feeling heavy. But making such a spread would involve a lot of time and labour, which is why Indians rarely cook this at home, except on festival days.

The good news is there are many Indian traditional dishes that are simple in content and easy to cook. My favourite is Puttu. This south Indian dish is made by mixing rice flour with grated coconut and then steaming it. Of course, you need rice flour, coconut, a grater, and the special steam cooker. But the actual preparing and cooking takes just a few minutes. It tastes best when eaten mashed with a few small yellow Indian bananas.

There are hundreds of sites on the internet with traditional Indian recipes. Here’s a site to get you started but I haven’t tried it, so good luck.

What grows around you is what’s best for you

If you are living outside India, you may not easily find all the spices and ingredients needed to cook the traditional Indian way. So is this post only relevant to those living in India? The answer is no.

India itself, is a country with diverse range of climatic zones. Each zone has food that is typical to the region, and so the traditional Indian cooking across India itself can widely vary. So if you are an Arab living in a desert, you must eat what survives in that hardy land, as that’s what’s best for you.

Ironically, this also means that if an Indian moves to a cold country like Canada, he may need to change his eating habits to adhere to the principles of the traditional Indian diet.

Update: Here’s how I rate on eating the Indian traditional way on a scale of 5. Not a very good score but I’m working on it.

  1. Wholesomeness (**)
    My issue with traditional Indian food is it takes a lot of time to cook, and I dislike cooking. But I still give myself two stars because I avoid fast foods, eating out and packaged foods as far as possible, sticking to fresh fruits, nuts, milk, and other fresh food. The second star is because I do personally cook my breakfast which is the same everyday. Puttu (steamed rice flour mixed with grated coconut), mashed with bananas, followed by a glass of milk with some coffee in it.
  2. Locally grown(***)
    I avoid packed food like cereals and go with locally grown fruits and vegetables. It’s mango season right now in India, and bananas are always in season. But my kid is a picky eater, and I do pick up some imported fruits like plums, strawberries, and apples. Will add a star once I cut that out.
  3. Naturally processed and edible (***)
    The Indian government let in GM grains and seeds to increase the productivity of our farms. So quite a few of the non-GM foods have disappeared from India. I try to avoid them but it’s hard to tell. One way is to avoid unnaturally large natural products at your supermarket. Say if I see a outsized luscious tomatoes beside a basket of puny little tomatoes, I go for the small guys as that’s how tomatoes originally looked like. I occasionally buy packaged biscuits, crisps, and use the microwave oven so one more star gone for that.
  4. Respect ( )
    I can’t get rid of my habit of reading my newspaper at breakfast. My wife strongly disapproves as she’s a firm believer in respecting food - I don’t read when she’s around, and get back to it when she’s not.
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