‘Nutritionism’, Dal, Chawal and Methi Saag!

My last post may seem like a ‘good old days’ versus the ‘bad new world’ rant from a geriatric, but it’s not that. All I am saying is that eat real food and food which agrees with your evolutionary heritage, with your genetic make-up and not ‘edible-substances’ that are being sold as food because none of us know what those substances are doing inside our bodies.

Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Imagine how baffled your ancestors would be in a modern supermarket: the epoxy-like tubes of Frubes, the preternaturally fresh Twinkies, the vaguely pharmaceutical Vitamin Water. Those aren’t foods, quite; they’re food products.

‘When did it all change?’….

It was in the 19th century, when the English doctor and chemist William Prout identified what came to be called the ”macronutrients”: protein, fat and carbohydrates. It was thought that that was pretty much all there was going on in food, until in 1912 (yes! As late as that!), Casimir Funk, a Polish biochemist, discovered the ”essential nutrient” in rice husks that protected against beriberi and called it a ”vitamine,” the first “micronutrient”. Vitamins brought a kind of glamour to the science of nutrition, and by the late 20th century nutrients managed to push food aside in the popular imagination of what it means to eat.

The birth of nutrition-ism; In the words of Michael Pollan, “The first thing to understand about nutritionism is that it is not quite the same as nutrition. As the ”ism” suggests, it is not a scientific subject but an ideology. Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us.”

Prior to 1977, no government agency told us what to eat.  Our mothers told us what to eat and what not to eat.  If we were obese, they told us to lay off the sweets and the starchy foods (bread, pasta, potatoes).  And hey, guess what – usually that was enough to control the weight problem. It was in 1977 that the first US dietary guideline came into being; remember the ‘infamous’ food pyramid we had to study in school? It has probably led to the biggest health disaster in humanity!

In the 1980s food began disappearing from the American supermarket, gradually to be replaced by ”nutrients,” the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were old-fashioned and unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really? But nutrients — those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases.

A potentially serious weakness of nutritionist ideology is that any qualitative distinctions between processed foods and whole foods disappear when your focus is on quantifying the nutrients they contain.

This was a great boon for the industry of processed food, and it helps explain why they have been so happy to get on the nutritionism program. The food industry set about re-engineering thousands of popular food products to contain more of the nutrients that science and government had deemed the good ones and less of the bad, and by the late ’80s a golden era of food science was upon America. Any food could be redesigned to add that something special – whether Fiber, or Omega-3, or Vitamin D, or Calcium. Remove the ‘harmful’ dairy fat – no problem- low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese, low-fat milk. You name it – it could be made. That’s why when the Atkins mania (high protein) hit the food industry, bread and pasta were given a quick redesign (dialing back the carbs; boosting the protein), while the poor unreconstructed potatoes and carrots were left out in the cold. The poor potatoes can’t be starch free all of a sudden even though we are trying hard through our genetics programme.

So, depending on the reigning nutritional trend, real foods like the avocado might be either a high-fat food to be avoided (1980s Think) or a food high in monounsaturated fat to be embraced (2014 Think). The fate of each whole food rises and falls with every change in the nutritional weather, while the processed foods are simply reformulated.

Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, as Marion Nestle the New York University nutritionist points out – ”The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science, is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”

Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another.

Also, people don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have long believed that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, what nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce — compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. — are the X factor. It makes good sense: these molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis) vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers. At least that’s how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they’re found in, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops!!

That was not supposed to happen?? Could it be the vagaries of human digestion. Maybe the fiber in a carrot protects the antioxidant molecules from destruction by stomach acids early in the digestive process. Or it could be that we isolated the wrong antioxidant. Beta is just one of a whole slew of carotenes found in common vegetables; maybe we focused on the wrong one. Or maybe beta carotene works as an antioxidant only in concert with some other plant chemical or process; under other circumstances, it may behave as a pro-oxidant.

To look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. Here’s a list of just the antioxidants that have been identified in garden-variety thyme:
4-Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol, eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isochlorogenic acid, isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid.

This is part of what you’re ingesting when you eat food flavoured with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others are going on to do undetermined things to your body: turning some gene’s expression on or off, perhaps, or heading off a free radical before it disturbs a strand of DNA deep in some cell. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably doesn’t do any harm (since people have been eating it forever) and that it may actually do some good (since people have been eating it forever) and that even if it does nothing, we like the way it tastes.

Guys, don’t get taken in by the reductionism of food science. Every day you will see new headlines “Eating fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, blueberries, strawberries, radishes and red peppers — high in a compound called flavonoids — can help prevent weight gain,” (Times of India, 31.01.2016) or something about catechins, or resveratrol. They are all probably doing something good to our bodies, but through highly complex processes and in combination with a hundred other chemicals all working like a perfected symphony. And science doesn’t know how, yet.

It is impossible to explain in numbers today why some of our ancestors tempered the yogurt with ghee, mustard seeds, ginger and curry leaves or why in the blistering heat of summer we would be given raw/green mango juice or why we would brush our teeth with the stem of the neem tree.

You can’t oversimplify a dish such as dal chawal (lentils & rice), a staple in India for centuries as a carbohydrate rich, nutrient poor recipe for diabetes. If you add a methi saag to the meal, whoooaaa… now it begins to get complicated. I need my worksheet !! Methi saag has xxx nutrients, xxx vitamins, maybe anti-oxidants, rice has xxx carbs, dal xxx proteins……..

When we now are told by ‘nutrition science’ that rice, a staple in the east for centuries, has a high glycemic index (this indicates food’s effect on blood glucose….will talk about it in later posts) and therefore it is bad; it is almost laughable. Why? Just a simple example: It is a known fact that vinegar reduces glycemic index of rice by 40%! (For those interested check out the study. It is really informative.) Ever wondered why China, Japan never got obese eating their traditional meal? Pickles, lentils, yogurt and various condiments we eat on a regular basis also have similar effects on rice. Is it so difficult to understand that societies all over the world never got sick eating their traditional diets.

Guys, firstly we don’t eat rice alone……then after it is digested, the dal……then after those have been digested, the methi saag, then a pinch of salt, maybe a few drops of ghee after an hour! It’s a mixed meal you morons!! And with it Ms. X might add a pickled mango, Ms Y might squeeze some fresh lemon, Mr. Me (yours truly) will probably bite raw green chillies with every spoonful. By the way, I forgot to add that the dal was cooked with a pinch of turmeric, some garlic cloves and tempered in ghee with ‘panch-phoron’ (5 spices comprising seeds of fenugreek, nigella, cumin, black mustard and fennel) and some dry red chillies! (oopps, I had said no recipes!!)


Now how does that work in my body Mr. NCFSFD (Number Crunching Food Scientist with a Fancy Degree) when you still have to figure out what is in a thyme leaf?

And by the way, that is a simple mixed meal.



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