Food is such an integral part of our culture. One of the first things we are asked when we meet someone is whether we have had lunch. We are offered food everywhere we go, and we must have something, even if we have just eaten. We can’t leave someone’s home without having a bite; it’s (almost) blasphemous. Fair to say, Nepalis connect and bond over shared meals.
The flip side of this is that we end up unnecessarily fueling our bodies, building up a strain in the system that lowers our immunity and makes us prone to different diseases, say experts ApEx spoke to. Partly to blame are all the fad diets social media has exposed us to. “We are not using food to our advantage. And that’s compromising our health,” says Sushila Sharma Khatiwada, a dietician.
Most Nepalis, she adds, don’t have a healthy relationship with food. They are either eating too much or too little. There is also a lot of misinformation about food. Everybody thinks rice leads to weight gain and roti to weight loss. The fact is, both these items are calorie-dense and should be consumed in moderation. “It’s the portion sizes that determine whether we lose or gain weight. We aren’t calibrating the food we eat to suit our needs,” says Khatiwada.
Dietician Kala Nepal has similar views. She says it’s important to eat a balanced diet, ensuring your plate is as colorful as possible, to maintain good health. “Carbohydrates from rice or roti should occupy 25 percent of your plate. The rest should be filled with lentils, vegetables, and salads,” she says.
Eating, Khatiwada adds, should be more of a personal experience than a social one. A sit-down dinner with family and friends is important sometimes but when it shifts the focus away from what our body needs, it can be hazardous.
In the past few years, a variety of diets have taken over the world. There’s the low-carb diet where we limit our carb intake to 20 to 150 grams a day. The main aim of this is to force our body to use its fat reserve for energy. Then we have the wildly popular keto diet, another low-carb, high-fat diet.
The Paleo diet, on the other hand, emphasizes the need to eat like our ancestors, meaning we stick to whole foods, lean protein, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds while avoiding processed foods, sugar, dairy, and grains. Intermittent fasting involves restricting the eating period to eight hours a day and fasting for the remaining 16.
No two diets are the same though the basic principle of all is calorie restriction. Khatiwada says going on a diet without understanding our bodies can do more harm than good. Most of her patients, she says, put themselves on a plan when they hear it has worked for their friend or colleague. But what works for our friend might not work for us because our bodies don’t function in the same way, she adds.
Nepal adds that we have to factor in our medical condition and fitness while choosing a diet or making a meal plan. When patients want her to put together a keto or intermittent fasting plan, she asks them for their blood reports. This, she says, is important to determine whether they have certain conditions like diabetes or high cholesterol.
“Intermittent fasting isn’t recommended for someone with diabetes as it might lead to a sudden drop in blood sugar. Similarly, keto diets aren’t advised for those with kidney problems,” explains Nepal.
People want immediate results and while there are ways to achieve that, quick fixes aren’t recommended. For one, extreme diets aren’t sustainable in the long run. Second, it could destabilize our system and lead to hormonal imbalances and blood sugar fluctuations. Experts advocate a balanced diet as all nutrients are essential and depriving our body of one could cause all sorts of problems.
Balance is the key
“Carbs have gotten a bad rap because people think they cause weight gain. But carbohydrates are actually important for the proper functioning of the brain as it derives energy from it,” says Khatiwada. It’s the type of carbs in the diet that actually matter, and that’s where most of us falter. We equate carbohydrates with white rice. But there are healthier sources of carbohydrates too—like vegetables (other than potatoes), fruits, whole grains, and beans.
Experts agree that the nutritional landscape is always changing, which confuses people. Also food marketing perpetuates a lot of false information. There are baseless claims coupled with memorable slogans and catchphrases that entice us to buy certain products thinking they are good for our health. “But nothing that comes in a package is good for you,” says dietician Anjeeta Sharma.
She instead recommends whole foods—those that are minimally processed and free from preservatives. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains (like oats, barley, and brown rice), beans, eggs, and fish are all excellent sources of essential nutrients.
However, moderation is key to achieving good health through our diet, she adds. Just because something is supposed to be healthy and thus good for us, doesn’t mean we should eat a lot of it. Sharma says she has seen people have huge portions of fruits. But fruits also have carbohydrates and sugar so it’s important to limit their intake too. She says one whole fruit a day is more than enough. “You can have an apple or half an apple and half a banana,” she explains.
Another common problem with our eating habits is that we often tend to starve ourselves, without realizing how that isn’t benefiting us in any way. Not only does it slow down our metabolism, we are also more likely to overeat during our next meal. “We make the wrong food choices when we are hungry. We will reach for that packet of biscuits or noodles instead of cooking, say, a nice vegetable curry,” says Nepal.
Back to the basics
Dietician Aarem Karkee says the traditional Nepali diet of ‘dal-bhat-tarkari’ is the perfect example of a wholesome meal. Our conventional lifestyle, where we had lunch, snacks, and dinner, was ideal. Over the years, our foods started becoming more factory-based rather than farm-based. The rice we are consuming today is highly processed, as are the lentils. Influenced by western culture, we also started eating small meals, multiple times a day.
“We should try to eat foods that are closest to their natural forms. While buying rice and lentils, the ones with the husk intact should be preferred to polished ones,” says Karkee. Besides that, we must also eat according to the season.
Khatiwada says Nepalis have also started ‘stocking the pantry’ as westerners do. But they aren’t reading labels or checking expiration dates of products. This way, she says, our diets have become more toxic than ever before. “It’s important to make conscious food choices because as clichéd as it might sound, you are what you eat,” she says.
Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to diet and good health. So, not every plate will or should look the same. Our food choices and habits should support our lifestyle and culture. As it’s impossible to do a diet overhaul overnight, Sharma recommends starting by focusing on at least one good, nutritionally-dense meal a day apart from educating ourselves about food and nutrition. “Over time, you will find yourself making healthier food choices,” she says.