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Letter from... A diet chart

“You have lost weight,” an acquaintance told me recently.

“No, my weight has been the same for a number of years, barring 2-3 kilos either way,” I murmured.

It was a compliment, I was told later, because comments on weight—rarely do people who are not the thickest of friends tell someone they have added weight—are meant to be complimentary.

Losing weight has become synonymous with good health—does not matter if you initially weighed as much as a paper cup. During her lecture The Art and Science of Eating Right last Sunday, author and nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar asked the audience how many people wanted to lose weight. About half raised their hands (a lot of people in such events are just shy or bored of participating anyway). She asked how many wanted to get fit. A similar number of hands went up.

While losing weight is an incorrect measure of health or fitness—a thin person is not necessarily a fit person—it’s importance has resulted in “diets” or structured consumption that help a person eat what’s right for him/her.

A ‘diet’, if you follow one, has restrictions, which makes your food uniform, in some ways, across meals. So you may be allowed 50gm of protein, 250gm of carbohydrates and 70gm of fat, or 2,000 calories a day. Each chapati should not be more than six inches in diameter. You may be allowed to eat bread or not, only vegetables at night or no ‘carbs’—as food rich in carbohydrates are referred to in popular urban parlance—apples might be good for you but not grapes, etc.

Besides, the fact that it may make you a boring companion in a restaurant, you at least feel like a healthy, disciplined person.

Sorry, I am going to say no to that peanut now because I am allowed only three every six days.

Confusing as these ‘diets’ may sound, bombarded by information, surrounded by advisers, manipulated by the health industry and interested in an ailment-free life, we are making life choices based on half-baked information, conflicting studies and well marketed ideas that may or may not apply to us.

For example, currently, I’m in the process of finishing a box of cereal—eating it, yes, but importantly, finishing it. The reason is: we have the box of half-eaten cereal at home and since I don’t waste food, I have to finish it because I will stop eating cereal henceforth.

My sudden decision to do this—like most dietary decisions, I cannot bet on sticking to this one for ever—came after attending the lecture by Diwekar, also known for getting actor Kareena Kapoor to fit into a smaller dress. The synopsis of her talk—part of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival being held in Mumbai from 4-12 February—was to eat locally sourced produce, avoid processed stuff and feel free to consume everything that we have generationally been eating in the regions we live it. That includes rice, which got a bad rap some years ago for causing bloating and fattening, but has been replaced by wheat as the bad guy these days.

In many ways, Diwekar’s concepts mirrored mine. For example, though I like quinoa—one of the super foods these days—I am not sure about the hygiene of something that grows in Peru, is harvested and stored for an unknown period of time before it’s either shipped or packaged and shipped some 17,000 km to India where it probably lies in airless storage in 40 degrees Celcius or sits with the customs department before being stacked up in a retail store.

Though “the miracle grain of the Andes” is also being grown (experimentally?) in India, its nutritional properties are being argued to be in par with millets that grow naturally here. Besides, millets consume less water and leave a smaller carbon footprint, an article in The Wire says.

To extend the ethical argument vis-à-vis quinoa, it’s widespread popularity and export has meant that the local people of Peru and Bolivia, who have this as their staple diet, are finding it too expensive now, reports The Guardian. So, by eating more quinoa, it seems, we are depriving our farmers, depleting our resources, destroying our agricultural practices and divesting some poor communities in South America of their daily staple.

So, why not switch to millets instead? That’s another dietary decision.

Some years ago, I turned into a negotiable vegetarian—pescatarian seems to be the accurate word for it. What’s negotiable about my vegetarianism is too difficult and arbitrary to explain. But the partly ethical decision was triggered by a few incidents and compulsions, including a sudden distaste for frozen meat, suspicions about what goes into animals bred for consumption and seeing how chickens are stuffed into cages. As destiny would have it, excellent articles, like in Sanctuary Asia, and documentaries like Cowspiracy have only reinforced my belief.

But the question that comes up often is: how do you get your proteins? Are substitutes like pulses, milk products and soya, tofu (neither of which I like), etc. enough? Should we consume dairy products at all? Don’t you miss your favourite pulled pork burger? Doesn’t fish also contain harmful lead and arsenic? So why eat it?

My dietary rules are flippant, inconsistent, spontaneous and not completely informed. None of ours are—because we are bombarded with information and studies that change and differ ever so often. Nutritionists vary from one another and expert opinions are contradictory, every food item is good and bad, depending on various factors.

Like a study, reported in January, says coffee drinkers will live longer, while others have linked it to a reduced risk of heart attacks, protection against dementia, and even skin cancer. But coffee’s also been accused of causing anxiety, heartburn and cholesterol—one study, weirdly, says drinking coffee after a concert could be bad for your hearing.

Another example is cauliflower, my favourite vegetable, which has Vitamin C and helps lower certain forms of cancer but has purine, which may lead to gout and kidney stones, according to one website. Spinach is a great source of vitamins, minerals, protein and fibre but a lot of it could lead to, again, kidney stones.

Meat is good, meat is bad, rice is good, rice is bad, go gluten free, go dairy free, drink lots of water but not too much as it might lead to water intoxication…it never ends.

Scientific research, as the former dean of Harvard Medical School Jeffrey Flier told Mint on Sunday, often gets published based on what gets maximum attention from readers and advertisers.

Besides exercise, which is universally accepted as a tool for good health, diet comes with too many ifs and buts to allow for a convincing choice. We often buy into fads for some sort of social exclusivity. So what is the right path?

One sensible advice came from, not a health expert, but actor Anil Kapoor some years ago. An epitome of youthfulness, health and career longevity, Kapoor said the secret was “moderation”. Do whatever you want, but in small doses—so you reap benefits where applicable and hopefully do not suffer the consequences.

A relative and a doctor, who likes the ‘evil’ egg yolk, had a similar opinion: eat everything you like in small quantities. Either your body will give you indications of something going wrong or you get regular checks done. Don’t fix something that’s not broken yet.

Fortunately, being healthy has different connotations for family members who have seen you since childhood.

“Oh my God, what happened to you? You have lost so much weight…” exclaimed my aunt when she saw me recently at a family function.

“No, my weight has been the same for a number of years, barring 2-3 kilos either way,” I murmured.

She grimaced, made an unhappy face, pointed me to the buffet and said, “Go eat something.”

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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