Monthly Archives: July 2011

Making the south Indian diet super healthy!

In the first article in this series we saw what the real traditional south Indian looked like and how it differs from what we eat today and in the second article we saw how one can tweak the south Indian diet (or your traditional diet) to create his/her optimal diet.  Today, in the third article of the series, we’ll answer two questions –

– We have the concept and even the specifics figured out, but how do these come together as food on our plates?

– How can we tweak the traditional south Indian diet to make it healthy and sustainable in the long term?

Revisiting The Basics:

Irrespective of what your food habits and goals are, the first step towards creating the optimal diet is eliminating or at least reducing greatly anti-nutrients from all foods. Specifically…

– Oils – Avoid all vegetable oils. Cook everything in butter, ghee or coconut oil. Use olive oil for super low heat cooking or as dressing.

– Sugars – Avoid anything that is sweet (except fruit). This includes ALL sugar from table sugar to honey to maple syrup to sweeteners and flavored foods from nonfat vanilla yogurt to diet soda to all natural orange juice.

– Grains – Avoid all grains except white rice. This includes all grain containing foods from roti to poori to rava upma to biscuits.

– Beans/legumes – Soak raw beans, legumes and lentils for 18-24 hours before cooking.

Once the clean canvas has been created, we add nutrients. The goal here is, in each meal, to reduce the total calories consumed from foods that contain little nutrition (rice, lentils etc) by substituting with foods that contain plenty of nutrition. For example, instead of eating 3 cups of rice, rasam and potato, eat 1 cup of rice, 1 cup of fibrous vegetables, 1 whole egg, 1 cup meat or vegetable gravy and 1/2-1 cup yogurt.

Following are food groups that are rich in nutrients and lend themselves well to be paired easily with our anti-nutrient free base.

1. Vegetables – Any and all vegetables that are in season and available locally. Organic is of course preferred.

2. Fruit – Any and all fruits that are in season and available locally. Organic is of course preferred.

3. Meat – Any and all meat that is locally available and is free range or grass-fed as the case may be.

4. Dairy – Whole milk, whole milk yogurt, full fat cheese, ghee. Organic and grass-fed is recommended.

5. Eggs – Chicken or other bird eggs. Eggs from free range chickens are recommended.

6. Seafood -Any and all wild caught seafood that is locally available.

Reinventing Traditional Foods:

Now that we have brushed over the basics, I’m going to take 5 very typical and traditional vegetarian south Indian dishes which either lack nutrients or contain anti-nutrients and reinvent them to make them super nutritious and more importantly, nutritionally relevant to our sedentary lives today. Honestly, this is so ridiculously simple and intuitive that you’re either going to kill me for the hype or kick yourself for not coming up with this yourself!

The Dosa:

I love dosa like an anteater loves ants! Every time I came home for vacation from college, I would eat about 10-12 of my mom’s awesome dosas every single day! That’s how crazy I am about this crispy sheet of crack!

Traditionally a typical dosa meal is pretty much just dosa that is served along with some coconut chutney and/or chili powder and/or sambar. Though very skinny in anti-nutrients, the meal is heavily skewed towards carbohydrates and has little to no micronutrients. Here are some ideas to fix this.

– Top each dosa with 1-2 eggs, an ounce of cheese and some finely chopped vegetables. Serve this along with a side of vegetable-coconut gravy for a well rounded meal that is rich in protein, fat and carbs and filled with vitamins and minerals.

– Make the dosa a burrito of sorts and fill it with ghee sauteed vegetables and/or eggs and/or meat. Add in some yogurt to replace the sour cream if you care.

– Make any meat or egg or seafood gravy plump with Indian spices and have plenty of it as a side for the dosa. This is exceptionally delicious and ensures that you get your protein and reap the benefits Indian spices have to offer.

– Make a large dosa. Top generously with traditional tomato chutney, mixed vegetables and/or fruit (onions, mushrooms, peppers, pineapple etc.) and shredded cheese. Bake for 10-15 min or until the cheese melts to create a nutritious and very satiating dosa pizza.

– If you’re in a pinch, soak the dosa (or Idly) in a cup of yogurt along with some spices and have that with a side of fruit.

Sambar:

If you haven’t been the source of the greatly embarrassing but absolutely poetic iisssslllluuurrrrppppppp when eating sambar, you haven’t yet been south Indian completely! Sambar is very dear to south Indians and almost every single one of my client’s have asked me ways to include sambar in their diet!

While super delicious and very traditional, sambar generally has more oil that is required and is skinny on nutrients other than carbs. To fix this…

– Try making sambar with ghee and use just the right amount of ghee since the richness of the ghee will make make even a little seem like a lot.

– Load the sambar with plenty of micronutrient rich vegetables. And by plenty, I mean PLENTY! This will result in making the sambar super thick. Top this bowl of awesomeness with 1/2 cup of yogurt and make it a meal!

– Forget the concept of making sambar with a specific vegetable and make mixed vegetable sambar more often. Vary the vegetables you use and see how much variety that brings upon. Though you eat sambar everyday, mixing up the vegetables introduces variety in your diet which in turn nourishes you with a wide range of micronutrients.

– As weird as it sounds to the seasoned south Indian ears, trust me on this and try making the sambar with eggs and/or meat. You will be pleasantly surprised at how well the textures and flavors blend. Since sambar is a lentil and tamarind heavy dish, I’d recommend that you go with meats with a neutral taste like chicken to ensure you don’t have too many competing flavors and aromas.

Tamarind Rice:

There are few things that are better when made for a thousand people than when made at home for a small group and tamarind rice is one of them. Even as a little boy I was never big on temples. I constantly whined and complained and questioned everything from the rituals to the temple cow to the priest’s hairstyles and there was only one thing that could shut me up – the tamarind rice distributed at the temple!

From a nutritional standpoint, there are only two issues with a tamarind rice meal – it is made with vegetable oil and it has nothing more than rice in it. Solutions?

– Make it with ghee or coconut oil.

– Add vegetables and dairy to the meal. The vegetables can definitely be a side and so can a cup of whole milk yogurt which provides some protein and a much needed cooling effect on the tongue.

– If you dare, pan-fry some boneless skinless chicken thigh meat and add it to the other ingredients during the mixing step. The acidity from the tamarind and the heat from the chili powder keep the meat tender and flavorful resulting in some non-traditional awesomeness!

Curd Rice:

There is sushi and pizza and brownies and pot pies and fried chicken and monster burgers… but none of this will ever come close to good ‘ol stupid simple curd rice and pickle! I’m not exaggerating here – curd rice is so close to every south Indian’s soul that no amount of research can take it away him/her for more than a month. Curd rice is food in its entirety – soulful and simple.

That being the case, the only thing that is required on a plate of curd rice and pickle, is vegetables! A meal which has 3/4 cup cooked rice, 1 cup whole milk yogurt and 2 cup of vegetables cooked with ghee contains just the right amount of calories, carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, oooohs and aaahhhs!

Poriyal and Kootu:

Ever heard of a world where vegetables are as tasty as comfort foods? Welcome to India!

But sadly today’s south Indian (vegetarian) diet has little to no vegetables! Vegetarians seem to care only about not eating meat and don’t seem to care much about eating vegetables really! Traditionally, vegetables in the south Indian diet basically meant poriyal and kootu. Poriyal is shredded or diced vegetables that are shallow fried or sauteed along with spices to produce a dry dish and Kootu is vegetables (and coconut) added to lentils to produce a semi-solid dish.

I’m sure every cuisine has a way of including vegetables in the diet, but there are two things unique about the south Indian diet – one, literally any vegetable, from bitter gourd to broccoli, can be made as poriyal or kootu with ease and two, vegetables (in the form of poriyal or kootu) are unbelievably delectable and are loved as much as the other dishes listed above!

So, today, what is wrong with south Indian vegetables? They are cooked using plenty of vegetable oils high in polyunsaturated fats and they are consumed in small quantities. And what is the fix? Cook ’em using reasonable amounts of ghee or coconut oil and consume them, not by the spoonfuls but, by the bowlfuls! Done!

Summary:

– Rid your diet of all anti-nutrients like lectins, gluten, vegetable oils and sugars and prepare your beans and legumes very well prior to cooking.

– Eat less of foods that don’t have much to offer like rice, dosa, idly, oils etc. and eat plenty of nutrient rich foods like vegetables, eggs, wild seafood and good quality meat.

– If general health is your goal – eat per hunger, eat modified traditional foods to satiety to ensure you get enough mirconutrients and stay active.

– If fat loss is your goal – eat less, eat enough protein, eat starchy carbs only post training, get 80% of your calories from the nutrient rich foods and only supplement with nutritionally skinny traditional foods until you reach your goal.

– If sport performance is your goal – eat enough to recover well, eat plenty of nutrient rich foods, eat enough (modified) traditional foods to satisfy caloric needs, eat plenty of protein and carbs on training days and protein and fat on rest days.

Peace.

Note: None of the pictures used in this article were clicked by me. If you are looking for the recipe or want to compliment someone for such awesome pictures, the websites/blogs from which these pictures were taken are on the pictures themselves.

Pizza, consultation, upcoming posts and bodyweight workouts

1. On Monday I will publish a post I’ve been working on for a while. This post will discuss in detail how you can tweak the current (arguably unhealthy) south Indian diet to make it similar to the traditional south Indian diet but with lesser calories and more nutrients. Following that post, if there is enough interest, I will write a couple more posts that talk about using the new south Indian diet to help you with fat loss and other specific goals.

2. I have way too many things on my plate right now and am working on something huge which I’m super excited about. As a result I don’t have any time for online consultations and have ended up multiple emails requesting online consultation that I am yet to answer. If you are one of those who emailed me, do wait and I will get back to you eventually. If you want to consult with me, I’ll tell you now that the wait time is pretty long. You can send me an email now if you wish and I’ll put you on the list for later. If not, just hang tight and I’ll let you guys know when my schedule opens up.

3. One of my clients/readers just told me today that she hasn’t eaten pizza in over 2 years. In order to end this madness, I will be working with her closely to solve some health issues so we can somehow stuff some pizza into her mouth. Thassraight! I’m a terrible trainer and the worst health advocate ever!

5. Another one of my clients with fat loss goals started off with me on a low carb diet and felt like dog crap. In changing her diet to high carb low fat low protein, she is losing fat and happy and not swearing at me anymore! I have no idea why I’m writing this on this post, but happy clients = happy me.

6. I have two more weeks left in the bay area and I plan on eating anything that is awesome and special to the bay. If you know of any such places that I need to hit up before I leave the country, let me know ASAP!

7. After these two weeks, I will not have access to a gym or barbells or any special equipment for about 4 months. During this time I will be working out using purely bodyweight based exercises. If you are interested you can join me. I will be posting my daily workouts (and food consumption) either on my twitter feed or on my FB group. Follow me if you want to get healthy, strong, fast and lean!

Thats all for now folks. Make it a point to do something awesome this weekend ‘cos

You live only once… awesome you better be!

Training & Nutrition Update – My Optimal Diet

Like I mentioned in the last post about determining your own optimal diet, I have been eating purely per my optimal diet and I thought I’d share my results from eating like this for about 8-9 months now.

The Training:

  • Trained 3-4 days a week for a total training time of about 3 to 3.5 hours per week.
  • 2 days a week – 60 min strength training sessions, 1 day a week – 40 min bodyweight session, 1 day a week – 15 min sprints session
  • Strength training involved back squats, front squats, deadlifts, presses, weighted pushups, weighted chinups, rows and cleans.
  • Bodyweight training involved planks, pushups, chinups, burpees, sprints, jump squats, pistol squats, handstand pushups, elevated pushups and pike presses.
  • I walked about 15 miles (24 kms) per week. This was just my usual walks to clear my head and my strolls with the lady and Calvin.

The Diet:

The following was my diet for the most part. And most part would mean 85% of the time.

  • I didn’t eat breakfast and ate lunch directly. This was mostly because my last meal ended at midnight most days and I’m just never hungry until lunch time. Most of my calories were consumed after training irrespective of when I trained.
  • I ate real food. I mostly ate white rice, vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, spinach, onions, peppers), fruits (orange, apple, banana, plum, berries, avocado), free range poultry (chicken thigh), wild caught seafood (salmon, cod, snapper, oysters, turbot), organic free range eggs, whole milk yogurt, almond milk and coconut products.
  • I didn’t count calories but made sure I ate about 150-175 g of protein everyday. I supplemented with whey or cottage cheese if I didn’t get good quality meat (which happened a lot).
  • I ate carbs everyday. On workout days I ate rice twice a day along with some vegetables and plenty of roots/tubers. On rest days I ate rice or some roots/tubers during my main meal (which was dinner).
  • I didn’t add fat to my food except for a little bit of ghee/coconut oil. Most of my fats came from avocado, yogurt, meat, coconut milk, fish and eggs.
  • Anytime I ate out I ordered some lean meat and vegetables. If it was PWO, I got rice too.
  • On workout days I ate very few fibrous vegetables and focused on protein and starch. On rest days, I loaded up on plenty of different kinds of vegetables.
  • I drank 2-3 cups of black coffee everyday just because I like coffee.
  • I drank about 3 liters of water everyday. Never forced myself to drink any water but at the same time didn’t let myself get thirsty either. There were days when I was out and didn’t get to drink any water.
  • I never starved but I did overeat a little too often.

Here are the supplements I took.

  • Nothing except whey protein if and when I didn’t quality meat.

Here is how I got my micronutrients.

  • Vitamin D from sunlight.
  • Vitamin C from fruit.
  • Other vitamins and minerals from diet (so no need for multi-vitamin)
  • Omega 3s from seafood

And here are the deviations…

  • Every week. Sometimes twice a week as I got leaner.
  • I ate plenty of frozen yogurt during this period. If I had to guess I’d say I averaged about 10-12 ounces every week.
  • My ‘true cheats’ were epic. For eg. One weekend, in a 16 hour period, I had a plate of Moroccan tagine, 14 oz frozen yogurt,  1 plate of french toast topped with syrup along with potatoes and eggs, 1 large Vietnamese sandwich, 3 pretty big and exquisite donuts, 1 medium pizza and 3 bread sticks.
  • My cheats included frozen yogurt, pizza, bread, ice cream, cereal bars (people eat this for breakfast? seriously?) and more.
  • Days when food was total junk or if I got no vegetables and fruits whatsoever, I’d take one multi-vitamin.

The Lifestyle:

  • Was pretty erratic to start with. I had to travel every week. I’d fly out Monday and fly back in on Thursday. This messed with my routine ‘cos I had to adjust to food availability depending on where I was and since I had to wake up at 4am on days I flew I couldn’t train on those days.
  • Lot of airport and commuting time. I made it a point to never roll my suitcase, to never take the elevator/escalator and to never sit at the gate. That helped in staying active.
  • I ate out a lot with the lady and met friends for dinner/lunch too many times.
  • I kept my stress levels low. Super low actually.
  • On days that I flew sleep was messed up. But on all other days I think I averaged about 7-8 hours of sleep.

Results:

  • Lost about 5 lb of fat.
  • Strength in all lifts were maintained and I PR-ed on the front squat and deadlift.
  • No injuries. No joint pains. No lethargy. No depression. No uncontrollable cravings.
  • Energy level was super high throughout the day. I woke up every morning feeling strong and ready to go!
  • No gut issues. No constipation or loose stools.
  • I wasn’t fat or anything to begin with but I definitely was carrying around some excess fat ‘cos I was preparing for the Starting Strength Cert etc etc, but body composition definitely improved.

The Picture Evidence:

And here is a picture of myself from yesterday.

Yea I know I look like a tool here, but I don't think anyone is here for my purty face. Deal with it!

I know this isn’t the perfect diet or the perfect way to eat or train, but who gives a crap? This is what works for ME. This is what is sustainable for ME. This is what makes ME enjoy fitness. And guess what,

  • I seem to get more than the required macros and micros.
  • I’m getting stronger and faster.
  • My mobility seems to be spot on.
  • I like how I look.
  • I wake up energized and have no issues falling asleep.
  • I feel great throughout the day with no physical or mental drag whatsoever.
  • My blood work looks great.

Clearly, MY optimal diet is working for ME from both a health and a fitness perspective! How about you? Have you found your optimal diet yet?

Tweaking Traditional Diets – The Template

Let me start off by saying no real traditional diet needs any tweaking. Traditional diets are already a result of thousands of years of tweaking and they are perfectly healthy (and more importantly non-unhealthy) for you if done right. If that is the case, then why is a random fitness-crazy-not-old-enough-to-tell-you-what-to-do dude attempting to tweak an already perfect diet? Because…

– What you eat today is NOT the traditional diet the way it was meant to be. What you are fed today, in the name of traditional food, is some weird mutant form of the real traditional diet and unfortunately, this mutant version, is not helping on bit!

– Most traditional diets were developed during a time of food scarcity (hence the grain domination and elaborate methods of anti-nutrient reduction). The main goal then was to avoid ingesting anything dangerous. Only after this was achieved did people even look to add in nutrients.

– Though most traditional diets were healthy, they were healthy in combination with high activity levels, long sleep hours, low stress levels and clean air. People ingested way more calories and carbohydrates than we do today and still maintained low levels of body fat and high levels of energy throughout the day. Just the excess food (and hence excess calories and nutrients) provides protection against many deficiencies and it is something we cannot afford to eat today considering our sedentary lives.

The Concept of Tweaking:

Since I have readers from around the world, of different origins and with drastically different traditional diets, I’m going to first explain the concept of tweaking and then provide you with ‘template for tweaking’. Once you understand the concept properly, you can thenuse the template to tweak your own traditional diet and make it work for you by customizing it to suit your very own individual goals. This is precisely how I determined my optimal diet and will post an article tomorrow that shows some results.

I like to approach this in three broad steps.

Step 1: Create a base – with anti-nutrient free foods that were prevalent in your traditional diet.

Step 2: Add nutrients – by eating varied nutrient-rich real foods that have proven health benefits.

Step 3: Customize – by adjusting calories, macro and micro-nutrients based on current goals, activity levels and physical conditions.

Step 1 – Creating a Base:

As mentioned earlier, the first step is to not ingest anything that is potentially harmful. So the goal, in this step, is to find foods that both belong to your traditional diet and have no anti-nutrients in them. In my case, since I come from a vegetarian south Indian family, this would be cooked white rice, grass-fed organic dairy (milk, yogurt and ghee only), organic vegetables (specifically onions, tomatoes, carrots, gourds, plantains, potatoes and various greens), organic tropical fruits and coconut.

As you can see, though they are a part of my traditional diet, I have not included the different kinds of lentils and sesame oil since they, in my opinion, do contain some anti-nutrients that cause discomfort.

Step 2 – Adding Nutrients:

Now let’s look at the base I created from a nutritional standpoint. It contains rice, selected dairy, vegetables, fruits and coconuts and it has the potential to provide me with…

  • more than enough calories,
  • more than enough carbs/starch (from rice, tubers and fruits),
  • more than enough fiber (from vegetables and fruits),
  • enough minerals and water soluble vitamins (from vegetables and fruits),
  • enough healthy fats (from dairy and coconut), and
  • possibly enough fat soluble vitamins (from dairy).

Honestly, this is pretty darn good base to start off with! If you are unaware of the specifics of your traditional diet or don’t have the time or capability or patience to research and find out more, I’d most certainly suggest that you start with this as a base. The only exception might be dairy. I have experimented with and without dairy and it seems to do me more good than bad. You might want to start off without dairy and then see how you feel when you add it in.

Back to tweaking.

If you look into the nutritional profile of all these foods you’ll see that the only nutrients I’m possibly not getting enough of are…

  • protein
  • omega 3 fatty acids
  • choline
  • vitamin B12
  • selenium

In order to fill in these nutritional gaps, I either need to take supplements or add other nutrient rich real food. If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I don’t recommend supplements unless absolutely required and hence would obviously prefer eating more real food to fix the issue. That being the case this is how I would approach the situation.

– What foods are rich in protein? Meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, cheese

– What foods are rich in omega 3 fatty acids? Seafood

– What food is rich in choline? Eggs, spinach and cod

– What foods are rich in vitamin B 12? Seafood, meat, poultry, eggs

– What foods are rich in selenium? Nuts (especially Brazil nuts), mushroom and seafood (especially tuna, crab and lobster)

Clearly, I’ll be best served if I add seafood, minimal poultry, eggs, mushrooms and nuts to my base diet and together these are MY optimal foods. And why MY optimal foods? Because these are the foods that

  • don’t bother ME,
  • MY ancestors have eaten for generations,
  • nourish me with the nutrients MY body needs in order to reach MY goals.

You see my point? Pretty simple isn’t it? Now to make this suit my goals.

Step 3 – Customizing:

The one main difference between our ancestors and us is that they didn’t really have the goals that we have today. Nutrition wasn’t something they monitored and they only cared about getting enough to eat. They lived in an era when food and nutrient scarcity was common while we live in an era of food abundance (at least to people who can afford it). And since food is available in plenty, we have the luxury of having goals. That said, let’s look at my goals and how I customize this diet to fit them.

What are my current goals?

  • Maintain body weight – which means eat just enough to not gain or lose any.
  • Improve fitness – which means get stronger, faster, more resilient and more mobile and that mean more muscle, less fat and well-lubricated joints.
  • Good health – which means no nutrient should be high enough to cause toxicity or low enough to cause deficiency.

In order to reach these goals, I would need to

  • Eat enough to fuel activity. Eat slightly more on training days and slightly less on rest days.
  • Eat only vegetables, tropical fruits, coconut, rice, dairy, seafood, eggs and nuts.
  • Eat isolated starch (rice and tubers) mostly post workout.
  • Eat a complete protein in every meal.
  • Eat fat in all meals except the post workout meal.

Done! This is it! The above 5 points form MY optimal diet! And why MY OPTIMAL diet? Because there exists no such thing as a perfect diet and there has never ever been one diet that suits everybody.

Now keep in mind that this optimal diet will dictate how I eat “most of the time“. On weekends or when I feel like I need something different, I will eat whatever the hell I want ‘cos, well, it isn’t 1900 AD anymore. Being 28 in 2011 and not eating pizza? I can never be that guy! This is a template you can use to come up a solid set of dietary rules to live by for the most part. Deviations are obviously acceptable and how frequently you deviate will depend on your goals and will dictate the quality and timing of results.

So there you go – an easily understandable concept that YOU can use to determine what foods suit YOU and a customizable template YOU can use to create YOUR optimal diet to help YOU reach YOUR goals and suit YOUR lifestyle. What do you think? What is your traditional diet? How can you tweak it to make it your optimal diet? What are your goals? How do you plan on mapping one to the other?

I really like the way this sounds! Maybe I should name this thing before some white guy (pissed off because Indians took his techie job in the bay area and taxi driver job in New York) names it after himself! 😉 What do you guys think? Any suggestions?

But honestly, this is just the start guys. I’ve been doing a lot of brain squeezing recently trying to fully formulate a concept and an easily workable template and I really think I might have something solid at the end of it all! I’ll be sure to share it with you guys as I get closer to the end product, but for now, please share this post with friends and family and help get the word out  .

In the next few days I will discuss my results from following my optimal diet and share some recipes that you can use to make traditional south Indian dishes much more nutrient dense and goal specific.

Peace.

What did healthy south Indians eat in the early 1900s?

The other day I was chillin with the Calmeister and I realized something – my great-grandparents lived long and strong! My great-grandfather lived till he was 88 and my great-grandmother till she was 92. Both of them lived very healthy lives with absolutely no chronic illnesses like diabetes or high BP or cancer and only finally surrendering to infectious diseases during their ripe old ages.

So to understand further how they lived and what they ate, I called my  grandmother (their daughter) who is now 77 years old and lives with my parents in Chennai, India. Though she is diabetic and is suffering from some other ailments, she is doing well for the most part and can talk till the cows go home! Here is what she had to tell me about her parents’ diet.

Just so you know:

Both my great-grandparents,

  • like everyone else in my family back then and now, were vegetarians consuming only plant foods with the exception of dairy.
  • consumed absolutely no meat or eggs due to moral and religious reasons.
  • were in no way outliers and their food intake, lifestyle and good health were very representative of others who lived in their village during the early 1900s.

Nutrition:

Back in their younger days, my great-grandparents weren’t really that well-off and hence had to make do with whatever food they could afford. As a result…

  • Food was consumed in small quantities saving gluttony for religious festivals.
  • Rice was the staple and was consumed multiple times a day everyday.
  • Lentils were consumed about once a month when ‘specialty’ dishes like dosa and idli were cooked.
  • Vegetables were consumed when available and were mostly less special and mundane (carrots, onions, tomatoes, spinach etc.)
  • Fruits were hardly consumed and if they were consumed, whatever seasonal fruits that were available were consumed.
  • Oils were hardly used. Each person consumed about a tablespoon of oil per day, if that. Sesame oil was the oil of choice.
  • Pazhaya sadham or old rice (rice cooked the previous day and soaked in water to keep), was consumed along with karupatti (palm jaggery) and/or green chili or pickled lemon, mango etc. very often.
  • 2-3 cups of fresh whole milk per person was consumed everyday.
  • When possible, ghee (clarified butter) was consumed in abundance.
  • Sweet and savory Indian snacks were made at home from scratch and consumed about 2-3 times a year during festivals.
  • Buttermilk was consumed (along with rice) when available.
  • Food items containing wheat (like poori, chapathi etc.) were non-existent.

Later in life, as they grew richer and as food became relatively cheaper, the following changes/additions were made.

  • Rice was still the staple and was consumed in every meal every day as cooked rice or old rice or dosa or idly or pongal.
  • 3 square meals were consumed. Breakfast was typically south Indian staples like dosa, idly, idiyappam etc., lunch had plenty of rice along with sambar (lentil based soup), rasam (soup), kozhambu (gravy) and some vegetables and dinner was either the same as breakfast or lunch.
  • Generous amounts of ghee was consumed. I was told that my great-grandfather would dip each piece of dosa into a cup of ghee during breakfast/dinner.
  • More vegetables were consumed but the total quantity consumed by each person per day was still much lower than what is recommended today.
  • Whole fresh milk was still consumed in abundance and they fed milk to their kids by force or foul! I was told that, when he was a kid, one of my grandmother’s brothers hated milk and would demand money from my great-grandparents every time they wanted him to drink milk! They actually gave him the money to get him to drink milk.
  • Fruits were still a rarity but almost everyone consumed a banana everyday.
  • Ghee and sesame oil were used for cooking purposes.
  • Almost all dishes had coconut added to them either as shredded coconut or coconut milk or coconut oil.
  • Dosa and idly were served with coconut chutney (main ingredients: coconut, chili, garlic, ginger and salt) and ghee or oil.
  • Cooks were hired to make sweet and savory snacks from scratch. The snacks were consumed in great abundance but still only 3-4 times a year during important festivals like diwali and new year.
  • Buttermilk was consumed in abundance during the summer.
  • Nuts were hardly ever consumed.
  • Coffee was made from coffee beans that were ground at home!

Activity, stress & pollution:

* People were not extremely active and led moderately active lives. Now these were my grandmother’s words, but considering they had no cars to commute, no TV to watch, no desk jobs to sit at, no couches to sink into and no computers, internet and social media to constrain free movement,  I’m sure their activity levels were still much higher than that of an average person today. Add to this the fact that cooking meant real work and not just sticking something inside the oven/microwave and washing meant beating the crap out of multiple wet clothes and not just throwing a load into the washing machine, I’m pretty sure you’ll be convinced that they were indeed much more active that we are today.

* Children played like children and adults worked like adults – both requiring physical strength and endurance.

* Stress levels were low for the most part other than the occasional ‘we dont have enough food to feed our 11 children’ cry.

* Pollution was, well, much much lower than it is right now.

Summary:

  • Rice was the only grain consumed and it was consumed in abundance.
  • Lentils were consumed only occasionally.
  • Sugar was enjoyed without guilt but only 2-3 times a year.
  • No other grains (wheat, corn, rye etc.) were consumed.
  • Vegetables were consumed when available.
  • Fruits were rarely consumed with the exception of bananas which were an everyday food.
  • Ghee was the cooking fat of choice following by sesame oil which was a close second.
  • Ghee, when available, was added to everything (rice, dosa, idly, chutney etc).
  • Plenty of milk (~ 3 cups/person) was consumed.
  • Meat and eggs weren’t consumed due to moral and religious reasons.
  • Activity levels were moderate but presumably much higher than right now.
  • Stress levels were low for the most part.
  • Pollution was relatively much lower than right now.

Discussion & Conclusion:

So what does this mean? A vegetarian diet is the healthiest diet? Rice is super healthy and over-consumption is perfectly fine? Vegetables aren’t as critical as we are made to believe and can be eliminated? Milk is nutritious enough to fill in all the nutritional gaps? Ghee has life extending properties? No. No. No. No. And no!

Firstly, we need to keep in mind that this is information about the dietary practices in a small village almost 100 years ago, as recollected by my 77 year old grandmother. Now I am absolutely sure  that the information is spot on because for none of my questions did she have to think even for a millisecond! She had no idea I was going to ask her about her parents’ food intake but when asked she spit out these answers like she’d been waiting for someone to ask her these questions for many many years! But still, the information we have here has the potential to be useless.

That said, let’s look at some obvious inferences.

1. Forget what they didn’t eat. Look into what they did eat for the most part – white rice, vegetables and fresh whole dairy.

2. Forget carbs, cooking oils, meat, fat etc. Look at their lifestyle – active, low stress and pollution free.

What can we conclude based on this?

Their diet might have been less than optimal with respect to nutrient density, but, the key inference here is that, their diet was completely devoid of anti-nutrients! There was no gluten or any other potentially toxic protein from other foods. There were no oxidizable vegetable oils used under high heat. Dairy products were consumed whole and weren’t processed or powdered. No artificial sweeteners or preservatives were used. Pollution was minimal and hence inhalation of toxins via vehicle and other exhaust was trivial.

How is this relevant today?

The way I look at it, long term health results from the coalition of four critical components – nutrition, activity, stress and toxins (via inhalation).

Without any effort at all, our ancestors had three of the four components very well controlled. The only component they had to control was nutrition and they realized that as long as they didn’t consume anything that was potentially dangerous to them, they didn’t have to worry much about nutrition either (other than making sure there was enough food in the house).

We, on the other hand, are royally screwed on all four fronts! We are surrounded by foods that are engineered with the sole aim of making us fat and sick, our activity levels are laughably low, our stress levels are dangerously high and we inhale toxins from the air all day everyday! And guess whats even more messed up? We have little to no control over pollution and, in some cases, stress levels. So clearly, our only opportunity to make the best out of what we have is to control nutrition and activity!

So whats the take home message here?

Say you’re at a random restaurant but you are determined to eat real food that is good for you. The menu has bread, rice, fruit, cheese, vegetables, eggs and meat. Meat and vegetables are the best options because they are real food and contain protein, fat, vitamins and minerals right? But, as is true in most restaurants, what if the vegetables are sauteed/fried in vegetable oil and quality of meat is questionable? Still think meat and vegetables are your best bet? Well, of course not! In such a case you are better off eating white rice, cheese and whole fruit and getting your protein and vegetables at a later time when good quality food is available.

Sure it is important to eat nutrients. But understand that it is more important to stay away from anti-nutrients. After all, its impossible to eat everything thats good for you, but its very possible to not eat whats not good for you. Keep it smart.

If there is enough interest, I will write a post listing out some really cool ways of tweaking the traditional south Indian diet to make it work for you today. Whether your goals are general health or better performance or to lose belly fat or to gain muscle, the south Indian diet can absolutely do it for you! Let me know in the comments section if such an article will help.

Peace.

%d bloggers like this: