Is Indian food unhealthy?

23:02, Nov 27 2012

Earlier this year, outside the hallways of a central Auckland intermediate school, I saw students handing out flyers promoting 'healthy eating' habits. Wanting to know what exactly they were driving at, I picked one up.

If schools are meant to educate and inform, then this particular school was certainly promoting misinformation. According to the flyer (I really don't remember who the authors were) people of Indian origin are at huge risk from the food they eat at home because it is mostly a) Greasy, b) Fried, c) Spicy. Further, everything Indians eat at home will lead to diabetes, coronary heart disease and irreversible brain damage. (Okay, I made the last one up.)

My first thought was, where does Indian food rank in the totem pole of greasy cuisines? Going by the flyer, it is right up there with southern fried chicken and the Triple Bypass Burger of the Heart Attack Grill ( in Las Vegas.

Like all good rumours, this one too has a kernel of truth in it. Diabetes and heart disease are growing problems among Indians, but not because of the reasons many self-styled experts think.

Firstly, Indians don't eat the kind of orange-brown sludge they serve you at those so-called Indian restaurants. You have surely dined at -- or perhaps walked past -- these dining establishments that populate most Auckland malls. Virtually all their dishes have an oil slick floating on top, thick enough to make a British Petroleum executive feel warm all over.

Well, this is not the kind of food Indians eat home. (I first tasted butter chicken five years ago, a year after arriving in New Zealand; and I am glad I never wasted money on it back in New Delhi.)

Indian food is largely vegetarian. There are only a handful of Indian ethnic groups whose diets are centred around meat or fish. In fact, the wealthier socio-economic groups are totally vegetarian. This is having an unexpected rub-off effect -- because a disproportionate number of scientists, doctors and over-achievers belong to vegetarian communities, it is changing the food habits of other communities, who want their children to follow the lifestyle of the vegetarian groups. In fact, in my home state, where beef was once common at dinner tables, it is now uncool.

Also, Indians take their dietary habits overseas. Families living in New Zealand for more than two generations continue to remain vegetarian. And despite the lack of meat in their diet, they appear to be normal people without suffering vitamin deficiency twitches.

I'll tell you why Indians  -- especially in New Zealand -- have diabetes and heart disease. They are lazy bums. No, I don't mean welfare lazy but challenged when it comes to physical activity. Few Indians have any desire to go to the park, gym or pool regularly.

Let me illustrate. A few weeks ago, while panting through laps at the pool, I saw an Indian woman sitting on the bench nearby. While encouraging her slightly pudgy 15-year-old to keep going, she was munching on potato chips tucked deep in her laptop bag. As I paused between laps, I asked her why she wasn't jumping in. ''Oh no I'm afraid of the water,'' she said.

When I told her swimming was easy to learn and that the pool was heated, she replied: ''After a long day at work, the last thing I want to do is engage in physical activity.''

This is a lame excuse. The point is everyone has a hard day at work, but some of us drag our butts to the gym or pool and expose those unfit bodies to the world. But for a lot of Indians if it's not the couch at the end of a long day on the corporate treadmill, then its mindless soaps on satellite TV, preparing dinner, upskilling, moonlighting (a favourite immigrant hobby) or in the case of some brain dead folks, Facebook. Physical activity comes last -- or is not present -- on their list. Is it any wonder that diabetes and heart disease visit?

Unlike Auckland schools, Auckland libraries do offer useful advice. I always pick up a couple of issues of Scientific American at the library; I don't care whether they are old or new because each issue is uniformly brilliant. Says the February issue of the magazine, ''Overweight makes a logical perpetrator (of diabetes). People are packing on the pounds.''

It adds: ''A dietary free-for-all, in the US and elsewhere, is producing not the healthiest generation in history but one in steady decline, with epidemics of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.''

And why is that happening? Because food has become entertainment. When we have nothing to do, we snack, and then we wait a few minutes and snack some more. Whereas our grandparents had to walk miles to buy the ingredients to cook food, we buy super cheap food that are laced with preservatives (which won't preserve us).

And worse, we don't burn off that fat, which is working not just on our insulin levels and arteries, but also playing havoc with our DNA, thereby ensuring our offspring will be even less healthy than us.

My grandparents had fresh fish almost every day of their lives; and meat or poultry at least once a week. They ate in moderation and walked a hell of a lot. Walking a few miles a day wasn't considered infradig or tiring; it was normal.

My point - it doesn't matter what food you eat; if you don't exercise you'll fall sick more often. In fact, in the West it is cancer that is the biggest problem. So take your pick -- diabetes or cancer? I bet you don't care for either.

According to researchers at the Johns Hopkins University, by 2048 all -- yes all -- American adults will be at least overweight if present trends continue. You can bet, in most parts of the world, this pattern will be replicated.

The people responsible for the scaremongering in our schools are either dangerously misinformed or perhaps they are doing it because it helps them get funding from the council. Any effort that is directed towards helping the community will get at least a foot in the door at the council office.

Rakesh Krishnan's articles have been used as reference at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; the Centre for Research on Globalization, Canada; Wikipedia; and as part of the curriculum at the Anthropology Department of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His work has been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; Oped News, Pennsylvania; and Rossiyskaya Gazeta Group, Moscow, among others.