The science behind eating right: Understanding the dos and don’ts.

From fad diets to fitness challenges and viral healthy recipe reels on social media, the world’s fascination with healthier lifestyles grew during the Covid -19 pandemic and has since only picked up pace. According to a survey, around 78% of adults living in urban India made conscious efforts to build their immunity, amidst the pandemic. While the pandemic-induced consciousness about health might goad us into becoming a fitter version of ourselves, there’s also a lot of misinformation doing rounds.

Given the deluge of information available online, nutritional advice is often confusing. What might work for one, may not for another. A locally-sourced ingredient available in one state might not be found in another. It’s not uncommon to see people lose sight of basic nutritional advice like eating on time, avoiding processed food, or exercising regularly in their rush to follow the latest diet that’s gone viral on social media. That brings us to the question – how does one eat right?

The science of eating right

Eating might be a physical reaction to hunger but what follows next is purely science. Once you eat your food, it mixes with digestive juices in the gastrointestinal tract. Next, molecules break it down into even smaller molecules which are then absorbed by the intestine.

Given that a healthy diet supplies the body with all the necessary nutrients, eating right shouldn’t be more complex than choosing the right foods. Then, how is it that so many of us struggle with our diets? There are multiple reasons why this might be happening, but the most common ones are related to misinterpretation of nutritional advice.

For instance, for many people ‘eating consciously’ would automatically mean starving themselves. Contrary to starving, dietitians recommend people to eat mindfully rather than less. The focus should be on feeling full rather than the quantity of food. So, the next time your heart and stomach are at war over an extra slice of pizza, always listen to your stomach.

Another example would be the consumption of healthy foods. Low-fat biscuits, zero-cholesterol chips, juices, and low-calorie sweeteners, we all have fallen for these products in our pursuit of being healthy. What many people don’t realize is that not every low-calorie or healthy food would be nutritious for them. Many of these products have added sugars, artificial colors, high sodium levels, and preservatives that may hamper your health. Experts have estimated that ultra-processed foods contribute around 90% of the total calories that are obtained from added sugars.

The same goes for ultra-processed foods. Choosing bread or a sugar-rich cereal over a nutritious breakfast option like upma isn’t going to magically help you lose the extra kilos. There’s ample research that highlights the link between high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and diabetes.

The Good vs Bad food argument

Having made the said argument, the next question that arises is what food should be ideal for a healthy diet and

  • how does food become good or bad?
  • Is the occasional eating out affecting your health?

Thanks to restrictive diets and unverified nutritional advice, a lot of us unknowingly end up demonizing food by labelling them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The truth is that healthy eating is different for everybody. For instance, a post-dinner dessert might not do much to your health but can seriously affect a diabetes patient’s physical well-being.

Giving in to the occasional craving does not make you an undisciplined person. You need fuel to function as it provides your body the required energy and nourishment to function. So, the enemy here is not calories but how you consume them. In fact, such restrictive eating may also lead to eating disorders or binge-eating cycles.

The Verdict on the Traditional Indian diet

We are definitely eating a very diverse diet than what our parents and grandparents did. As traditional Indian cuisine evolves over time, there are a lot of doubts cast about if it’s healthy and balanced enough. This is again a myth that needs to be busted. Take the example of pulses. You won’t find a diet that has so many vegetarian protein options.

The spices used in Indian cuisines are replete with healthy compounds and aromatic properties. Next, the diverse range of vegetables we consume supply the much-needed fiber that our body needs for functioning well. Then there are options like millets which are great for gut health. So, the next time you want to hit the supermarket for vegan and gluten-free options, just check your pantry first.

Sure, not all of these ingredients might be good for everyone but that’s where lifestyles factor in. As we lead very different lifestyles than our parents or grandparents, our bodies also react very differently to these traditional Indian ingredients.

Undoing years of unhealthy eating might take time but that doesn’t mean that you should give up on it altogether. Instead, you can start small. You can start with a few changes in your lifestyle and diet and gradually build up a new routine. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Focus on quality and not quantity.

Eating right doesn’t have to be rocket science. It’s more about intuition and focusing on having balanced meals. As you start prioritizing quality over quantity, you would get more comfortable with listening to your body and eating mindfully. If you are having trouble figuring this out, you can always seek professional help from a dietitian or nutritionist to help you eat the right way.