I landed at Old Delhi Railway Station from a trip to the hills. I had never been to the historic Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib which is a short walk away. It happened to be Guru Purnima. I just had to go, backpack and all. Can never resist a langar. Food, served in its simplest most communal form. Weddings are also communal but you know most of the people there and you envy them if not downright despise them. Wedding food is fancy yet largely disappointing. But in a langar; sitting on the floor with strangers, one cannot help but think of the food as prasad. In a few hours that day I was scheduled to perform at one of the most posh clubs in Delhi where a full meal would cost half your maid’s monthly salary and among the more exotic offerings was octopus and whale tongue.
The club is exclusive by design. The langar is open to all. There are quite a few people who can inhabit both worlds. Very few actually do. I traverse nearly all levels largely out of artistic curiosity. The posh world is open to me via my education and profession. The mass world is close to me due to my life choices. In both worlds the amount of calories and type of nutrition a person needs to live a healthy life is; of course, the same. The level of suffering may also be similar albeit due to very different reasons. What changes is opulence which invariably presents itself as vulgarity. The way we consume food is downright vulgar. Perhaps it starts with sitting up at a table, having a long list to choose from, being served as if you are doing everyone a favour by just opening your mouth and then throwing away any portion that you don’t like. Society can barely support 1 king at great cost, we have billions of them. And they are all miserable, despite all the opulence.
The first step is to realize that we have gone way overboard. But even after you do, the market is so perversely incentivized that eating simple food is the hardest thing to do. Even at great expense you can’t do it. But titillations are available at every other shop, ten bucks a pop. From colas that will bubble in your stomach to candy that actually sizzles on your tongue. There are dire consequences of course, from severe ailments to the general malaise a junk food junkie has to live with every day. But we simply patch this up with medicine and other junk food which also makes us miserable, only in a different way.
The drives for food, clothing, shelter and sex are so basic that even after we have fulfilled them we don’t know where to stop. I would argue that second after food would be the need for self-expression but that would be a highly privileged stance to take. Regardless, food remains priority no. 1. If you can’t survive you can’t reproduce. Therefore, the satisfaction of consuming food is not just of pacifying hunger but of survival itself. On the rare occasion that you have had to stay hungry for a while, you felt like a different person. Niceties fell out of the window and almost nothing else could hold your attention till you had quenched the fire in your belly. Even if one understands this intellectually, the entire body is designed to function otherwise. Animals also feast when food is in abundance. But they can’t cook, produce and store. Nor is survival for them tied to the ego. Most of our food consumption is therefore emotional in nature. A fact that ought to be abundantly clear to bachelors ordering a triple cheese burst pizza at two in the night. Being hungry and having an empty stomach are two different things. Our bodies work less and less even as the mind labors more and more. And the brain can only use glucose. Most food including main course has therefore ended up being just different ways to deliver sugar to the brain.
In the 1897 World Fair in Brussels, Belgium’s King put over 200 Congolese men, women and children on display for the amusement of the visitors, a literal human zoo. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the visitors kept feeding them sweets which made them sick, some of them actually went into shock. The tribals had survived the most trying wilderness but they were no match for processed sugar.
Sugar; though, is still digestible, till you finally get diabetes. But the colors, additives, preservatives and binding agents are anybody’s guess. And then there are fertilizers, pesticides and micro-plastics that can’t even be mentioned on the packaging. How did things get this fucked up? World population doubled in the last century and we actually managed to produce enough food for everybody yet millions starve to death. Like all macro problems there are layers to this but at an individual level, things remain simple.
It has to start with watching what we eat. When was the last time we had a meal mindfully? It is almost impossible to think of a meal without mobile browsing, a phone call or the ultimate of power moves, a ‘working lunch’. We are just swallowing till the gag reflex sets in. A lot of food consumption from desserts to tea and coffee is down to momentary urges. You let the moment pass, the urge also subsides.
The second step is; right information. Until a few years ago, serious information on health and nutrition was still the domain of nerds and athletes. Now it is widespread. Unfortunately so is misinformation. But the important point is even a lay person without a grounding in biology can make an informed choice. Bloggers and fitness influencers who have been exposing branded food products have been facing flak for being ‘too negative’. What they are doing is in some ways what we do in stand-up. Just calling it like it is. The world is that brutal and deceptive. Grow up.
With awareness and knowledge the next and perhaps hardest step is resisting peer pressure. ‘What are we living for?’ ‘Nothing will happen with one more laddu,’ ‘Are you a supermodel?’ A lot of culture is built around food, either sharing a meal to come together or taboos to avoid mixing with other groups. But like in most other aspects, culture has outlived its usefulness here too. Every day is a feast in the modern world. One has to learn to say no. A 200ML ‘fruit drink’ tetra pack delivers 175 KCal. Even a 20 mins jog does not use that many calories. ‘One more’ and ‘one last time’ are adding to a tally that you can’t undo and are taking away from your life expectancy, the highest price to pay.
Very often, after a show in any city, I find myself struggling to find a half decent meal. Most places shut down earlier than they used to since the lockdown, leaving only McDonald’s and Ice Cream parlors. So I often chose to skip a meal rather than stuff a bolus of carbs down my throat. Food delivery apps are obviously a good alternative. But I have never installed one. There is just something about food being delivered in a box that has always seemed depressing to me. The cheap labor, the fuel burnt and the heaps of packaging represent everything that is wrong with the economy. The disincentives for pollution and bad health are so much lower than the incentives for healthy and conscious choices that it seems futile to even try. But you do your bit. Not littering is like every other random act of kindness. You do it even when no one is watching. Otherwise, you get the hot cruel world we are living in today.
Many people have taken major positive steps. From going completely off wheat and sugar (far more difficult than even celibacy) to starting ‘sustainable’ businesses of their own. But organic brands make up for all the good they are doing for the environment by going berserk on the packaging. They may start with the best intentions. But the marketing costs and overheads eventually get to them. And all the sermonizing around being saviours of the world doesn’t help either. Like the way vegans themselves put you off Veganism with their religious zeal, overpriced ‘organic brands’ themselves put you off healthy diets. And all the paper packaging is lined with a thin film of plastic without which it wouldn’t work. Even if this packaging is segregated under recyclable waste, the plastic film poisons the composting. Now think of the huge heaps of paper cups that pile up every hour at the water dispenser in malls. One may counter this with aviation and industry emissions. But if we only do the right thing when there are assured rewards and recognition, are we even doing the right thing?
I have succeeded in maintaining a controlled diet because I can visualize the harm bad food does to the body at a cellular level and how mindless consumption is choking the environment. But that is through years of academic and intellectual pursuit. Very few have similar opportunities and good fortune. The clear disincentive to expanding one’s consciousness is the amount of trauma it entails. A plate of exotic pizza with sundried tomatoes and parmesan cheese probably has more air miles on it than your entire travel history. This itself is enough to kill a climate activist’s appetite. If the average person does not have the bandwidth to think that much you can’t blame him. One has to be in a healthy space mentally and physically to be able to expand his circle of empathy past his immediate in-group.
There are levels to this and you will only get more disillusioned as you learn more. It is now well known that the sugar lobby in America paid scientists in the 60s to pin the blame for heart diseases on fats instead of sugar resulting in decades of free run for added sugar while we tried to go ‘fat-free’. At the same time, Aspartame, one of the most common artificial sweeteners in use for over 40 years has been declared ‘possibly carcinogenic’ by WHO. Most salad dressings/sauces are just emulsified oils with a little bit of milk/whitener. Malt powders, Chyawanprash, ‘fruit drinks’, Nutella and colas are almost entirely sugar. It’s right there on the label. One should assume that food labels only include the bare minimum that manufacturers have agreed to after using all their lobbying might. And even that minimum information is very disconcerting. But even if more information does feature on labels, it will not deter the junkie. Cigarettes still sell with the most horrendous packaging. Whatever doesn’t kill you immediately will be sold at discounts.
Even if a determined consumer does manage to include more fruits and vegetables in his diet (assuming he can afford it), he would be heartbroken to know that even fruits and vegetables hardly contain the nutrients they used to. Modern farming is just another form of production. If the soil only has nitrogen from the fertilizers, it may yield what looks like an orange or a tomato but it doesn’t nearly have the vitamins and minerals of an orange or a tomato. Parents telling you food doesn’t taste the way it used to or elders boasting about how something as simple as a potato used to taste way different back in their village aren’t way off the mark. I have begun to notice it myself over the last few years. And the very varieties we breed have been selected for size and sweetness over centuries. In the wild apples were no bigger than strawberries and strawberries were barely noticeable. Most fruits in their original wild form were no sweeter than a carrot or a cucumber. So there is no such thing as an ideal diet that is even possible. But we can take small steps without obsessing:
- Cut out all table sugar so that you can finally realize what tea and coffee actually taste like. Once you get used to it, you will never add extra sugar again.
- Draw simple rules and double down on them. Eg: No meals after 10 PM. Suck it up and sleep early.
- Bigger portions of lentils/vegetables and smaller portions of bread/chapati. You will soon realize that the flour we use is so refined that plain bread is a dessert in itself!
- No ready-to-eat/packaged food to be consumed. Seems very difficult at first but like all habits it needs initial push till it becomes second nature. Tell yourself that if it is packed it is just not an option.
- Please start reading labels
It will be difficult in the beginning but as you wrestle with the withdrawal symptoms, you will learn more about yourself and the world. All your big talk at work and notions of philosophy and politics will pale in comparison with how you struggle to not open a can of bubbly soft drink. The answer to what would happen if drugs were legal is in front of us. People would abuse it till they dropped dead. We are doing it already with food. Over the years I have been trying to practice what I preach. Enough artists and philosophers have died from drugs and shitty lifestyles. The mind can traverse the entire universe on a free leash. But if it can’t even control its own body, it is only dealing in fantasy. Physical discipline not only keeps the body fit, it also keeps your philosophy sober and your worldview humble.
Whenever I am writing these blogs, where to begin and where to end is always a challenge. I wanted to write about food but it is tied to emotions, evolution, economy, lobbies and sustainability. Everything is connected and overwhelming. Food is still a way of showing affection but the world has changed. The simpler times when eating out used to be an occasion, packaged food was a rare treat and fruits were still seasonal is not coming back. But the upside is; you can start a journey to healthy living from anywhere. Health, conservation, frugality, going vegetarian — whatever may be your drift towards healthy living. The conclusion will be the same. It is still possible for a conscientious person to live a life that is light, balanced and easy. Because the answer is always less, not more. The body inherently knows what is good for it. But in order to listen to it you have to shut down all the noise of your anxieties and empty calories.
- Punit Pania