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What we must learn about eating from our ancestors

By S Saraswathi
Last updated on: September 30, 2014 08:23 IST
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Why we need to revive the good old past.

Reviving the healthy eating habits of the past

Photograph Courtesy: Ethan Crowley/Creative Commons

They say that cancer, if diagnosed early, is curable. Blocked arteries can be blasted away, hips and knees easily replaced and dialysis can be performed on the go.

Today, 30-year-olds suffer from arthritis and heart diseases, three-year-olds are diagnosed with cancer.

One of the biggest reasons for this utter degradation in quality of life is our deteriorating food industry and unhealthy eating practices, says V R Ananthoo, 46, a social activist and one of the coordinators of Safe Food Alliance, a network of volunteers that include physicians, lawyers, traders, human rights activists, farmers, consumers and academicians across Tamil Nadu.

“Today, an eight-month-old baby, a six-year-old kid or even a mother, who has never ventured out of the house, gets cancer. What could have caused it? Nothing but our food. We are the only civilisation that looks at food as medicine,” says Ananthoo.

Modern science, has taken decades and decades to prove what has been clearly documented almost 3500 years ago in our ancient texts like the Ashtanga Hridaya, he says.

“Every food item was seasonal, had a medicinal property and an endemic quality. Desert food would be a coolant, while something on the hills generated heat. It was always locally grown, locally suited, taking into consideration every possible nutritional need.”

The strong advocate of age-old healthy eating practices explains why we need to revive the good old past.

Millets is not just poor man's food

We have forgotten our culture, tradition and heritage. Our grandparents/ parents went and stood in queue for white sugar, palm oil and polished rice, without understanding what it is and where it is coming from.

Rice and wheat replaced millets. A society that consumed millets never heard of blood pressure or diabetes; 30 years ago, they were considered a rich man's disease.

Did you know that besides being rich in fibre and protein, millet is also a good source of niacin, manganese, copper, and magnesium?

Millets are gluten free, high in nutritional value and an extremely healthy alternative to wheat and rice.

Its health benefits range from lowering high blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart diseases to protection against type 2 diabetes and hormone-related cancers such as breast cancer.

The rice that is consumed today is so highly polished, to make it sparkling white, that all nutrition is lost.

Our ancestors consumed hand pounded brown rice with an intact bran and germ making it high in fibre content and rich in nutrients like B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, phosphorous, essential fatty acids and more.

Similarly, instead of whole wheat flour, today we have only white maida, which is also devoid of any health benefits.

Every day ingredients loaded with protective, preventive and medicinal food

Photograph Courtesy: USDA/Creative Commons

Every day ingredients loaded with protective, preventive and medicinal food

The moment you coughed, your grandmother would tell you to drink hot milk with a dash of turmeric and pepper.

Studies done by universities abroad have directly linked turmeric to an anti-carcinogen, as well as an antiseptic and antibiotic.

Thousands of years ago, our sages practised yoga, but, ironically, we were convinced of its benefits only when the West recognised its immense powers and popularised it. So, like yoga, we have been brought to see that turmeric is good.

Every curry we prepared contained a pinch of turmeric; it was used by women to enhance their complexion, and also the best medicine for a scraped knee.

Most of our food also contained ginger and garlic, both natural medicinal ingredient used for centuries.

In addition, we used a wider array of spices with multiple health benefits -- pepper (relief from respiratory disorders), cumin (helps digestion), fenugreek (controls diabetes, cures acid reflux), mustard (high anti-inflammatory properties), etc.

The reliable local kiranawala

Something as simple as refined oil goes through an intensive mechanical and chemical process that creates a product that oxidises easily and is more likely to break down into cancer-causing free radicals within the body.

To increase its shelf life and to make oil odourless and colourless, bleaching agents are added and the oil is also treated with a hexane bath that is a proven carcinogen.

If you take the time to read the label, you will realise that the final product also contains BHT and BHA, chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer and brain damage.

The cold-pressed oil that was earlier available in every street corner at our local kiranawala or grocer was relatively much safer.

The worst case scenario would be that the oil could contain some dirt, but that would at the most cause simple diarrhoea and not a life-threatening disease.

Our greatest enemy -- Sugar

Most of our sweets used to be made of jaggery, which is nothing but sugarcane juice evaporated to dryness without adding any chemical or additive.

It is a very good source of iron, calcium, phosphorous, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.

Jaggery was used for its excellent medicinal properties: preventing anaemia, strengthening the nervous system, purifying the blood, aiding digestion... the list is endless.

Refined sugar is stripped of all these essential nutrients, and what remains is just a 100 per cent calorie bomb.

This is the reason for the high incidence of sugar related diseases; it is highly acidic and the last to get digested.

Fancy cooking utensils versus traditional clay pots

Photograph Courtesy: C/N/N/G - Creative Commons

Fancy cooking utensils versus traditional clay pots

Science has proved that nutrition preservation in food cooked in clay pots is the highest when compared to metal utensils.

Clay pots are cheap, available locally, can be easily replaced and are totally biodegradable, causing no harm to our environment. But we prefer to proudly flaunt our overpriced metal pans instead.

Local and seasonal produce always tastes better

If something can stay fresh longer, we should question it. Can it stay longer naturally? What is added to make it so? What are its long-term effects?

Anything that is not local or seasonal is not going to be fresh. Every apple that comes from abroad has to be harvested at least four to six months earlier.

Imagine all the climate variations and temperature differences it has to undergo along the way. So, if it still comes with a smooth shiny skin, something must be wrong; it is just not possible naturally.

Understanding food

We have to relate to our food. We have to understand our food for our own health's sake. The moment we move away from food and its production cycle, we get into the dangerous and interminable cycle of diseases.

Today, we do not even take the time to read the label of the products we are buying with our hard-earned money.

Read the ingredients. If you do not understand them, you should not be buying it. If the list of ingredients is too long, again something is wrong, better to avoid it.

Remember, the longer the shelf life, more the preservative content and less the nutritive value.

Glossy, uniformly shaped, blemish-free fruits and vegetables are more likely to contain the highest amounts of pesticide.

In the last four or five decades, we have replaced everything good and familiar with the unknown. We have ignored healthy practices that have been handed down for generations, with no regard for the consequences.

It is truly a shame that a civilisation that once understood the finer nuances of food, its medicinal and nutritional benefits, today survives on pizzas, burgers, fizzy drinks, fried chicken, packaged chips and snacks.

While there is no denying that change is inevitable, it should be remembered that change should always be progressive. Anything that drives us into the dark, depressive world of diseases is certainly not progress.

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S Saraswathi Chennai