Food, Facts and Fads

Dr Ninada KC 

RMO, SCS Hospital, Mangalore 

“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.” ~La Rochefoucald

I am at an ambiently lit restaurant, awaiting my order. The sizzling of the Chinese sauces, the aroma of Indian spices and the sight of gooey cheese delighting all my senses, as my salivary glands ready themselves in anticipation. I am suddenly reminded of my seven-year-old self being warned by my mother- “That which is appealing to the tongue is often appalling to the tummy”. The human perception of food has inherently been of something sacred and holy; a blessing for which all religions customarily thank the almighty before devouring our meals. But food has proven to have effects on the brain apart from just the bodily nourishment, including the release of “happy hormones” of serotonin and dopamine- making us crave for more of those foods.

Every time we eat is an opportunity to nourish the body and spirit, inevitably letting our food nourish us or perish us. Contrary to the trending belief that a full meal adds on excess calories, research has shown that the right kind of full meals is the best kind of meals. With this article, I would like to take all my readers’ cuisine hopping to some of the most popular and loved cuisines across the world. Rein in your taste buds as we delve into a South Indian kitchen. A typical coconut leaf meal, with dishes served very systematically beginning with raw salads, rice with rasam or sambar for main course, to finishing off with a soothing dessert, the spread has it all. Bathed in generous amounts of coconut oil and garnished with grated coconut, the south Indian meals are optimized to combat the dry weather condition and keep the body cool. A flavorful addition of southern spices and turmeric adds to the taste of this delightfully homely cuisine.

An appetizing presentation of lined shrimps, prawns and other seafood providing for all the essential minerals, electrolytes and vitamins is a highlight of coastal India. Ongoing researches have alleged coconut oil to have antimicrobial, antioxidant properties while also preventing seizure risk and aiding fat metabolism. Coconut meat, rich in dietary fibres, is an excellent remedy for constipation and a gut health booster. Turmeric, a documented anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative, has also shown medicinal benefits in combating heart diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, metabolic syndromes etc. Seafoods prevent strokes, autoimmune diseases, and chronic liver conditions, help treat depression and are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals.

We now enter a kitchen built of milk and everything dairy. The North Indian cuisine has explored every possible way milk and its products can be incorporated and made into a delicious meal. Right from the cream in a North Indian starter to the range of milk- based desserts, dairy makes a major portion of the North Indian meals. Perhaps owing to the fertile cultivable lands by the rivers which enabled cattle rearing, dairy has, for long, been finding different uses in a North Indian kitchen. Right from paneer and its various dishes to gravies prepared and served with cream, butter on our parathas to the mouth-watering rasgullas, North Indian food has made it right into our hearts.

Milk, as is common knowledge, is the “complete diet” embedded with all the dietary requirements in moderation. Unaffected by the frequent floods and famines, potatoes- loaded with antioxidants, dietary fibres, vitamins and their intimate relationship with our taste buds- have found their permanent places on a North Indian thali. Balancing the carbohydrates are rotis, known to lower the blood cholesterol levels, by providing the fibres needed for a healthy digestion.

High flames, the mixed aroma of ginger garlic hitting the olfactory nerves, and a very hot kitchen teleports us into one of the most popular cuisines of the world. Tossed in hot sauces and prominent spices, Chinese foods are a treat to all the senses. With a sumptuous addition of vegetables, spices served with rice or noodles, the cuisine gained popularity all across the globe for its aforesaid taste, ease of cooking and possible improvisations. The origin of noodles dates back to the Han dynasty struggling with frequent wars, for the purpose of easy storage, transport and preparation. Chinese cuisine also introduced to the world the concept of steamed food, a setback to the fried foods, thus minimizing several complications. Soy sauce, one of the major ingredients of Chinese cuisine, has shown considerable benefits against hepatic accumulation of triglycerides, hair loss, skin turgor loss and also in preventing GI carcinomas. The introduction of steaming, be it vegetables, or dumplings, helps retain a majority of nutrients that are otherwise lost to boiling or frying, while also softening the food; thereby absorbing the spices and nutrients well. The traditional staple noodles was also known for being rich in nutrients, lowering cholesterol and improving gut health. An assortment of carrots, broccolis, cilantro etc further add to the nutritive value of Chinese cuisine.

At our last stop, we take a final peek into a very satisfying Italian kitchen. Known for a very soothing as well as appetizing spread, the Italian cuisine is among the widely preferred cuisines of all times. A wonderful potpourri of vegetables, mixed and garnished with the freshly dried herbs, dressed with the most flavorful cheese served on a hot pizza base, layered between lasagna sheets or tossed with pasta/ spaghetti soothes the eyes, tongue, tummy, heart and soul. Italian cuisine is popularized for its authentic homemade flavors, cooked only with virgin olive oil. The generous servings of vegetables and grains make the cuisine nutritious as well as enjoyable. Italian foods are known for lowering the blood sugar level, cholesterol level and regulating the digestive system. Cooked particularly in olive oil, it boosts the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant capacities of the body while being potent cardio and neuro protectors.

Authentic Italian food is made of semolina or whole grains which are gut friendly, rich in minerals and low in cholesterol- in contrast to the refined flour. This little tour goes a long way in highlighting that every indigenous food was designed to heighten the immunity, protect the body against most non communicable diseases and optimize the nutrition level of the body. Every cuisine made best use of the resources available in abundance at their geographic and climatic condition to strengthen the consumer. However, with globalization, we have found economical substitutes to replace the authentic regional ingredients thereby hammering down the nutritional value, carpeting down for a range of diseases. One man’s elixir is indeed another’s venom. The human body however, has rapidly evolved parallelly with the food we consume.

The appendix assuming the role of a storehouse for gut bacteria as we switched from raw vegetables to those easily digestible ones, the canines blunting down as we transitioned from raw meat to cooked meat, the increased papillae in the Asian subcontinents to keep pace with our flavored food, contrasted to the minimal number of papillae in the Europeans who fancy bland diets. The entire body is wired to digest the food we consume. But what is taxing the body is our rapid change of cuisines giving little or no time for the GI tract to modify itself to cater to its needs. Very often the digestive machinery is overworked in digesting our varying cuisines, leading to an absolute digestive malfunction, hazardous accumulation of food by-products in the body and a plethora of diseases.

To add to the horrors are the day-to-day fads of radical “healthy” diets, vastly and often wrongly influenced and philosophized by social media users. By subjecting the body to extreme starvation alternated with periods of gluttonous indulgence, consuming foods almost completely free of carbohydrates, surviving only on fluids for prolonged hours or days; we are throwing our body and its mechanism under utmost stress. The body overcompensates this acute shortage of nutrition by extreme cycles of metabolism leading to undocumented long term health risks. It is imperative to realize that we eat not just to satiate the hunger in our stomachs, it is rather a treat to all our senses. Long before the tongue can taste the food, the ears have heard them being optimally prepared, the eyes have devoured it, the nose has inhaled the aroma, and the hands have felt it.

The brain has long anticipated how and what the food should feel like. Eating is a pleasurable experience only when all the senses are adequately satisfied. It is as Hippocrates said “let food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food”. The age-old teaching of ample food with abundant nutrients at adequate intervals still stands strong as the mantra to a healthy living and a healthy body. There is an ancient Indian proverb which loosely translates to- If you eat well, you need no medicine. But if you don’t, no medicine can help you.

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