The art of eating
Instead of using the body as a temple of God we use it as a vehicle for indulgences, and are not ashamed to run to medical men for help in our effort to increase them and abuse the earthly tabernacle
— Mahatma Gandhi in Young India (August 8, 1929)
Gandhi’s words mirror the situation we are in, one of an increasing lifestyle disorders. Lifestyle diseases arise out of our daily habits, resulting in an inappropriate relationship with the environment. The main factors that contribute to lifestyle diseases include bad food habits, lack of physical activity, wrong body posture and disturbed circadian rhythm (biological clock).
It’s becoming a growing health concern, primarily among the youth. One can notice the trait among urban millennials — five-day-week work culture with long working hours followed by the weekend, which is reserved for watching television and eating out. The idea of home-cooking, eating healthy and indulging in physical activity has no doubt taken a back seat. Besides, night shifts at work and disturbed sleeping pattern or sleep deprivation greatly affect both physical and mental health.
Our ancestors were healthier. They followed a regimen (dincharya) — going to sleep early and being an early riser, eating freshly cooked meals, keeping away from packaged food, and understanding the importance of eating locally-grown seasonal fruits and vegetables. The lifestyle led by our elders is also described in Ayurveda, which literally means “the science of life”. The ancient science also explains in detail how the body reacts to a change in these principles. But in a fast-paced world, much of their wisdom has been lost.
A close look at what we eat
It is surprising that many countries still consider tackling sanitation, immunisation, communicable diseases, malnutrition and other deadly disorders, as working towards good health, but increasing incidences of lifestyle-related metabolic disorders remain largely ignored. These disorders are largely classified under Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). According to World Health Organisation (WHO) projections, the total annual number of deaths from NCDs will increase to 55 million by 2030, if timely interventions are not done for prevention and control of NCDs.
In Ayurveda, promotion of health and prevention of diseases is given more importance than the treatment of the diseases. Health and disease are dependent on three factors: ahara (diet), vihara (lifestyle practices) and oushadha (drug and therapies). Among these, food (ahara) is considered the most important. Pathya is defined as the ahara which is congenial to a person according to his constitution, appetite and digestive capacity of the body. In recent times, many lifestyle diseases are a result of wrong eating and improper cooking.
The art of eating right is explained well by scholars of Ayurveda. Nutritious food is characterised in terms of quality, quantity and time, which vary with age, constitution, habitat, digestive power, season, disease and liking of the patient. Wrong cooking procedures, irregular timing, and consuming imbalanced and non-congenial food, and not following prescribed rules for preparing, preserving and eating food may also cause imbalance of health. Proper intake of diet can not only prevent many health disorders but also play a major role in the management of diseases.
A close look at what we eat is disturbing. Cooking fresh meals is slowly becoming dysfunctional in Indian households. According to the 66th round of the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) 2009-10, contribution of vegetables and fruits to calorie intake of Indians has decreased over time — from two per cent in 1993-94 to 1.8 per cent in 2009-10 in rural areas. In urban areas, it has reduced from 3.3 to 2.6 per cent during the same period. Therefore, obesity is on the rise. Adding to the global burden is consumption of processed food, which contains little or no proteins, vitamins or minerals and at the same time is high in salt, sugar, fats and energy.
‘Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’ is an adage. Yet, changing lifestyle shouldn’t disturb our bed timing, deranging the circadian rhythm. In Ayurvedic principles, nidra (sleep) is key to a healthy life. Acharya Charaka wrote that happiness and misery, proper and improper growth, strength and weakness, potency and sterility, knowledge and ignorance, and life and death of an individual depend on the quality of sleep. Besides, Ayurveda has always spoken about having a good dinacharya (day routine) and a ratricharya (night routine) that define the state of our health, be it mental or physical.
At night, when we are asleep, the body makes necessary repairs. The brain also consolidates memories. The changes that happen at night determine how we feel the next day. When we are in good health and have a good night’s sleep, we wake up feeling refreshed. Poor sleep hygiene disrupts both short- and long-term health. Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body — from the brain, heart and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood and resistance to diseases. Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders, including hormonal imbalance, hyperthyroidism, fatty liver, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, depression and obesity.
We follow some new diets and fads now and then, yet a larger population is at a stake of developing more and more noncommunicable diseases. The facts are scary and alarming. I feel, once the Covid situation eases this year, it will be good to introspect on our eating and lifestyle patterns. We all have realised how important it is to have a better immune system. Also, there is no replacement to good health. We should make health a priority by making a shift in our eating patterns and lifestyle.
Shikha Prakash is an Ayurvedic consultant at Padaav Speciality Ayurvedic Treatment Centre, Dehradun, and a visiting consultant at AMRI Hospital, Dhakuria