In Hinduism, after death, the crow, which is said to contain the soul, is fed rice. This is because it is soul food.

Today people are constantly in search of brown rice, red rice, black rice. Anything but the rice they’ve been eating for generations. It’s a quest which is perverted. We don’t even understand the meaning of organic. The people who go in search of organic grains have not even tried growing easily available dhaniya (coriander) on their balcony.

They tell you Japanese sticky rice has a high glycaemic index, or that a certain low glycaemic index variety of rice is good for you. What they’re not telling you is that it is not possible to measure the glycaemic index of every variety of rice, and there are variations even in the same variety. For all you know, the local rice grown in Karjat could be the healthiest rice available, but no one has published a paper on it. Because there is no money to be made in telling you that what you eat every day is in fact the healthiest thing to eat.

We want to complicate being healthy. We have been conditioned to believe that it just can’t be as simple as to eat what you usually eat and sleep right to lose weight. It has to be a more complex issue because if it was not, somebody as intelligent as me would surely have figured it out by now. People have told me, “I have achieved everything in my life I wanted to except losing weight." That’s because even if you apply all the principles you have used to achieve success in the world, to your body, you will turn out to be a loser. The body needs to be nurtured. It requires compassion, it requires attention.

The rice paranoia

We’ve made a big deal out of rice. We’ve turned it into this one thing we should not eat to magically be slim. Truth is, we are all fat essentially because we have stopped eating our traditional dal and rice.

Diets are based on the concept that if you give up what you are accustomed to eating, you will lose weight. India is largely rice-eating. Hence “give up rice and eat chapattis" came to be. Follow this and you will end up frustrated.

Your grandparents were not obese despite eating rice all the time. Traditional rice-eating cultures such as China, Nepal or south India are not obese cultures. It’s not just what I eat that makes me fat; it’s also what I do, how I work, how I sleep, how much I eat, what state of mind I eat in, that makes the difference.

Rice is high neither in calories nor in fat content. Most Ayurvedic diets are rice-based. It’s not only the least allergenic of grains, it is rich in vitamin B, minerals and amino acids that are otherwise limited in our typically vegetarian diet.

Over time we have learnt to discount our oral traditions. There may not be a paper published on it, yet experience tells you that when you travel, all you want is to come home to some rice and dal.

The great substitution con

Misunderstood: Rice is high neither in calories nor in fat content.

People even substitute dairy now. Honey, milk, yogurt, sugar, ghee are all part of our cultural diet; together they are called panchamrit. But panchamrit also implies they must be eaten in the right quantity. When you substitute sugar with an artificial sweetener, the tongue is not even able to recognize the molecule as sugar. So the craving is postponed, not dealt with. The tongue’s six tastes—bitter, sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent—have to be nourished in proportion. They will only be nourished when sugar is used. So, a teaspoon of sugar in coffee will do less harm than munching biscuits to satisfy a postponed craving.

Every meal should contain each of the six tastes in part to optimize nutrient absorption, assimilation and excretion. When the tongue senses balance, the body has also received optimal nutrition. This kitchen wisdom is not sold to us.

Anything exotic will do

According to media reports, the cereal industry has grown. This is because it is now fashionable to say, “Oh, I really don’t have the time to make upma." We’re virtuously eating cereal because it is sold to us as though it is the healthiest thing to do. Yet packaged foods bring up so many other health issues.

The rhododendron is a Himalayan flower found to have high antioxidant and heart-protecting properties. It’s not marketed because nobody knows about it. And yet, ask anyone about the Acai berry and they will tell you how wonderful it is. Just because it’s marketed well and is exotic, we all aspire to have it, even though it’s easier to find the rhododendron on an average middle-class holiday to Shimla and Manali.

When you eat at a temple, they will always serve you the salads and chutneys on the left, vegetables on the right and the main carbohydrates in the centre. According to the yogic system, we must eat less of what is on the left, more of what is on the right, and stay centred on what is in the centre of the plate. The concept of eating salads separately is foreign to us. Salads are to be consumed in small quantities, and never without the other components of your meal. We don’t even know if the West culturally ate salads or if it is part of the weight-loss culture. In China, for instance, every vegetable is cooked, as in India.

Go back to basics

Ideally, if you eat organic, grow the grains yourself. If you cannot grow them, buy them from a source where you know the field and farmer. We have to be far more involved in food than we currently are. There is no way around it.

We need to eat seasonal food, but first, we need to know what is seasonal. A mango in winter does not have the same effect on the body that a mango in summer has. By not understanding this, urban India is getting fatter and fatter.

The world over, those who can afford to eat fresh, nutritiously balanced food every day are those who live in luxury. We want a dietitian to define the quantity of food we eat. In fact, the highest wisdom is knowing when to stop eating, and for that, your senses must be channelized towards the act of eating. Food is not a culprit; it is what nourishes us and helps us stay thin. Food does not get in the way of our weight loss, our bad eating habits get in the way of food helping us stay healthy.

Rujuta Diwekar is a Mumbai-based nutritionist who has written the best-sellers Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight and Women and the Weight-loss Tamasha.

As told to Gayatri Jayaraman.

As told to Gayatri Jayaraman.