There are no secrets. No god-men or magic pills can rebuild your body and health. There’s no magical mathematical formula that balances out to thinner thighs or a disappearing beer belly. It’s no rocket science either. It’s quite simple, actually, when you understand how your body works. You don’t need a PhD to interpret it (Guys!! Me…PhD?!!), just an open mind, a bit of curiosity and a desire to understand how your body works so you can start making sense of scare tactic headlines like “ Red meat will kill you” or “ Ditch the rice” (I am very touchy about this headline).
You will be able to decide for yourself which breakfast is more appropriate for you; a bowl of fortified muesli with skimmed milk and whole wheat toast with margarine; or a spinach, cheese, mushroom omelet (with the yolks of course) cooked in butter, topped with some homemade salsa (don’t know what you have been led to believe, but I know which one is healthier). Or whether you need to start your day with a heavy breakfast at all!! Relaaax Ma, I am running on my stored fat.
My funda is pretty simple. My funda is not about starving ourselves and trying to muster the energy to hit the gym when all we’ve eaten all day is a carrot, a cup of green tea, and half a fat-free tomato sandwich. My funda is not about ordering the egg white omelet with whole wheat toast (while your best friend just ordered your favourite 2-eggs sunny-side up fried in butter). My funda is not about racking up the kilometres on the trail or treadmill. It’s not about points, joules, grams, or willpower (…maybe a teeny-weeny bit of it), and it’s not about paying penance at the gym when we exceed our self-imposed “limits” of any of these.
Trust me, that’s not my funda.
The wisdom of our ancestors…
My grandmother died at the age of 96. Except for the last few years of her life, she was in the pink of her health, both physically and mentally. She would go out for her walks in the morning to collect fresh flowers for her daily puja (prayers). She would squat for hours, chopping the vegetables every day in preparation of our meals. I now recollect her routine for each meal. It was like a celebration, like a special gift every single time she sat down to eat. Even though her meal was really simple (not the kind of choices we have today), every meal was like a special treat for her. A few seconds to thank her god for providing her the food, she would eat slowly, take time between each portion she put in her mouth, never talk during the whole meal. I remember this daily routine so clearly, as if it happened this morning.
Our food habits have come down from generations, and thank god for the wisdom of those folks. They knew that the process of digestion started in the brain by activating the parasympathetic nervous system….the few seconds grace before starting our meals may have been an ordinary ritual ( but those precious seconds were enough for your eyes and nose to send subtle signals to the brain so that the salivation gets activated); or the concept of eating our meals in a certain order, starting a meal with bitter gourd (to increase acidity in the stomach to aid digestion). These weren’t just fads started by some joint-smoking hermit 3000 years back in the Himalayas. It was a science which evolved and the guys back then had a fair idea of how our bodies worked and reacted to different foods .I’ll cover these elements in detail in my series on digestion later.
And today we’re consuming food — in the car, in front of the TV, while walking down the streets, and increasingly alone — not really eating. Sometimes we don’t even care about what we eat as long as we get the immediate satisfaction. Give a kid a bowl of veggies on the dinner table and the same bowl of veggies in front of the TV and you will know what I mean. We need to take his attention away from food for him to eat (rather consume)!!
For most of us our relationship with food has become a constant struggle. We eat either too much or too little. The pressures of not only having to be healthy but also to be thin. One day we ban butter, eggs, coffee, chocolates from our pantry and soon they are welcomed back. As urban India gets more prosperous and food industry invades our kitchens and dining tables with fast foods, instant foods, microwave foods, 2-minute foods, we get fatter and fatter (India today is racing to the top of the world in both heart disease and diabetes). When did it all change? When did we become such unhappy, guilt-ridden eaters viewing food as our Enemy No.1 (only Govinda can make a movie of this script….).
Food was a celebration. I remember folks at home getting really excited that the first potols (pointed gourd), or gobi (cauliflower) or ilish or koi (both varieties of local fish) or mangoes had arrived in the local market. Except for rice, dal and wheat, every vegetable and fish was seasonal. Every meal was cooked fresh from scratch and there was no concept of eating leftovers. Food was a sadhana, both the cooking and the eating of it. We were connected to it innumerable ways.
Today, instead of food, we’re consuming “edible foodlike substances” — no longer the products of nature but of food science. The obnoxious health claims on the packages should be the first clue that they could be anything but healthy. In the so-called Western diet (I should actually re-classify it to Standard American Diet-SAD- since many Western societies, like the French, continue their traditional diets and are healthier by far), food has been replaced by nutrients, and common sense by confusion.
We’ve learned to choose our foods by the numbers (calories, carbs, fats, fibers, …… whatever), relying more heavily on our reading and computational skills than upon our senses. We have lost all confidence in our senses of taste and smell. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related funda: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat. Do you see health claims on carrots, bananas, fish, meat…….?
And you know what…..vegetables and fruits don’t have nutrition labels!! Nor does the leg of lamb or the freshly caught rainbow trout (Phew… no more math for me). But those are food, right?
For us, 2016 started with shopping from the local farmers market. Even though the market was always there we were sucked into the allure and easy availability of the supermarket since coming to Germany 19 years ago. The first thing that struck me at the farmers market last week was the limited choices – of course, it’s winter, and these are winter vegetables and fruits. Remember? We used to eat seasonal vegetables once upon a time! Wow!! I had forgotten about that in a short span of 19 years. Ma would go to the local farmers market (Lake market) every other day, if not every day, to shop for the fresh produce. It was a ritual for her.
I don’t think we will ever be going back to the supermarket again.
I love food. It’s not the enemy, the object of scorn and hatred. It’s not something to limit, micromanage, measure, count, and weigh. Meals are to be savoured, appreciated and enjoyed, not relegated to adventures in advanced calculus. I feel empowered when I go to any restaurant and order something I love without worrying how many points it has, how many grams or ounces of this or that, and I don’t have to contemplate how many miles I need to run the next day to balance the equation. I have learned how to dine and nourish myself, and those are different things than shoving food down a hole.
When we learn about how our body works on a fundamental level, when we understand what happens inside the body when we eat certain food, or when we don’t get enough sleep, or when we are under stress then the big confusing mystery isn’t so big or confusing or mysterious at all. We can analyse a new trending diet for what it is and not be taken for a heart-breaking roller-coaster ride again. You may not need to ‘Ditch the rice’ after all.
I exercise regularly, but it is not a punishment nor penance; it’s a privilege. I do it to feel well now and also to build a reserve of muscle that will keep me feeling well for years to come (hopefully), so I don’t turn into the little old man who can’t carry our own groceries into the house when I’m 75, or who can’t get out of a chair on my own. That’s the reason we all should exercise, not for the numbers (calories) game!!
Exercise funda for the day: This is the most natural posture we humans are born with. How many of you could do this when you were 3 (every one of you, obviously) and how many of you can do this now?
This is how my Grandma would sit and cut the vegetables. I couldn’t do this a year back, but now it’s no big deal. You don’t need a gym to do this. This torches fat and strengthens your legs and core. Start slowly, ease into it over time and soon you will be reading your morning newspapers squatting. The worst invention of the century must go to the ‘western toilets’!
In the upcoming posts I will be talking about how we suddenly ended up so confused and wary of food, how our evolutionary heritage tells us which foods we are best adapted for, how to identify the good, the bad and the ugly stuff which may be occupying your kitchen shelves and much much more. I will also touch on some basic human physiology, biochemistry and metabolism, what happens inside our bodies when we eat certain foods so that when I mention stuff like amino acids, insulin, glycogen and hypothalamus, you will know exactly what I am talking about.
In 1979 The Bee Gees sang ‘Don’t throw it all away – Our Love’. The irony is that we have started throwing it all away – the wisdom of our ancestors – with the advent of food science.