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Don’t eat anything in excess

Show me a doctor who is not confused about nutrition and I will show you a doctor who has not kept up with research.

Though nutritionists like to claim that basic nutritional advice does not change from year to year, the truth is that each week brings new studies, new research and new health warnings.


Nor do all the studies agree with each other. Often they are contradictory and further confuse lay people.


   Part of the problem is that many studies are financed by the food industry which has a vested interest in the outcomes. And much of the so-called nutritional wisdom that has been propounded over the decades does not emerge out of pure science but out of the commercial interests of those passing on the advice.




The most famous example of this sort of thing may be the rule — rigidly advocated by some doctors over the years — that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Skip breakfast, you will be told, and there will be damaging consequences for your health.


   You can trace the roots of the advice to (surprise, surprise!) the American cereal industry and to such food faddists as the Kellogg family (owners of the eponymous cereal company).


   It has always been a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon idea. People do eat breakfast all over the world but they do not necessarily attach such great importance to it. Nor do countries without a breakfast tradition see a sharp decline in public health. For instance, in France, breakfast may well consist of black coffee and a cigarette. The cigarette is not a good idea but the absence of solid food in the morning doesn't really hurt the French very much. Till the fast food industry spread all over France in the last decade or so ago, the French had much lower rates of heart disease than most English-speaking countries.


   In the US, the bogus breakfast orthodoxy has led parents to feed children on sugary cereals and stuff like pancakes with sugar syrup (often misleadingly packaged as Maple syrup). There is finally a recognition that the breakfast-is-essential myth has actually contributed to a decline in American public health, the obesity epidemic and to tooth decay. Manufacturers of sugary cereals are quickly putting out new ‘low-sugar’ variations.


   Some doctors still insist that the first meal of the day may be the most important. But the scientific evidence supports the view that if you avoid breakfast nothing terrible will happen to you.




Everybody needs protein. But does it matter where you get it from? For years, doctors have said — accurately enough — that it does. But the consensus over protein sources has broken down in recent years.


   Many doctors argue that a vegetarian diet will not give your body the protein it needs. The reasoning normally goes as follows: the body needs 20 amino acids of which at least nine are essential. You cannot get all of them from a plant-based diet because plants don’t contain one or the other (depending on which doctor’s recommendations you are reading) amino acid.


  We now know that this is not entirely true. For a start, if eating only vegetarian food was so bad for you then all Jains would be dead. But here we are: hale and hearty.


"The problem with most studies involving red meat is that they come from such countries as the US where ‘red meat’ is a synonym for beef."

   Yes, it is true that while plants do contain all 20 amino acids, you still need to eat a varied plant-based diet to get your full dose of all 20 of them.  And it is also true that it is easier to get your amino-acid and protein fix from meat.


   But if you do suffer from a protein deficiency then a good doctor should be able to recommend beans, grains, nuts and the like which will build up your protein quotient.


   In particular, soya bean is rich in proteins so it makes sense for vegetarians to substitute the paneer they eat with tofu, for instance. But there is a mythology about soya too.


Soya bean


As soya proteins have become more popular in the Western world, some faddists have warned that soya can cause breast cancer. This is based on animal studies that show that oestrogens found in soya can stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells. But no studies have found any such link in humans.


   In fact, it is in the US and in countries in Europe where soya is relatively rare that the highest rates of breast cancer are to be found. China, where they live on soya products, had among the world’s lowest rates of breast cancer. But over the last decade as China has begun to embrace Western-style fast food, breast cancer rates have actually gone up.


Red Meat


Most doctors will tell you that red meat is not good for you. That’s fine but they should a) say that red meat in excess is not good for you. A little red meat does no significant harm. And b) they should ask you to think twice about chicken too. The problem with most studies involving red meat is that they come from such countries as the US where ‘red meat’ is a synonym for beef. When Americans eat other kinds of red meat it is most likely to be lamb. All of this has little or no relevance to India. The problem with red meat is the fat which, it is said, can clog your arteries.


   Both beef and lamb have far more fat than goat which is the red meat we are most likely to eat in India. Goat actually has less fat than many of the broiler chickens you see in the shops. So don’t be scared of getting your protein from mutton (which is how we refer to goat meat in India). Think twice about fatty industrial chickens which taste disgusting anyway.


Plant-based meat


Indians will have difficulty with plant-based meat anyway; even if it was good for you. This is ‘meat’ made by synthesising things like pea-protein. It works in a hamburger but fails miserably when you make, say, a steak out of it. Besides, its chief appeal is that people who like beef can eat the plant-based version without worrying about animal fat clogging their arteries and can simultaneously feel good about doing their bit to save the plant.


   This only makes sense if you already like meat. Over 95% (I reckon) of Indian vegetarians have never tasted meat and have no great longing for a steak, let alone a bogus vegetarian version of the real thing.


   Besides, it may not even be so healthy. The current orthodoxy is that many of today's health problems are caused by Ultra Processed Foods. Far better to eat fresh and natural foods, we are told. To paraphrase Michael Pollan, we should eat plants, not food made in plants.


   Plant-based meat is the ultimate industrial Ultra Processed Food. It requires many processes to turn it into something that looks like meat. And if you believe in saving the planet by giving up animal products then give up milk first. The real danger to the environment comes from gases emitted by dairy cattle not from goats.


And finally


The old saw: don’t eat anything in excess. Steer clear of stuff made in factories and laboratories. Cut down on sugar. Go easy on the carbohydrates. And then, you can eat pretty much what you like in moderation without worrying too much about food fads.



  • Gautam Natrajan 27 Apr 2024

    Have you ever tried tofu, tempeh and soy chunks/chaap? What is your opinion of their role in Indian diet and cuisine? Any Indian chefs who have popularized these?

Posted On: 26 Apr 2024 11:49 AM
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