An aphorism by the 19th Century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin has entered popular culture, ‘Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es’; that is,‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are’. In English, we often tone down the exuberance and floweriness of the French language; we have reduced Brillat-Savarin’s aphorism to the phrase, ‘You are what you eat’.
So far so good. It stands to reason that food, which we ingest three (or seven) times a day, will have an impact on who we are. The aphorism innocently meant that we need to be mindful of what we eat, as food is our main source of nourishment and nutrients.
A century later, the gazillion-dollar diet industry took this simple you-are-what-you-eat and made a whole monster out of it, thriving on the emotions of fear, guilt, and shame. They told us that we were eating all wrong, that we needed to go on exotic, impractical, and bound-to-end-in-failure diets. They literally plucked random berries, grains, and leaves out of exotic parts of the world: acai berries, goji berries, quinoa, chia seeds, kale…the list goes on…and called these ‘wonder foods’. They told us that fat was bad; then they said, oops fat was good, sugar was bad; then carbs were bad, starch was bad, gluten was bad, fun was bad, life was bad. That we should forsake all the pleasures of eating, and survive on fat-free, sugar-free, carbs-free, gluten-free…fun-free, life-free diets.
The advent of blogs and social media meant that everyone and their cat was a nutritionist, telling us to go on a paleo, keto, Mediterranean, vegan, no-grains, intermittent fasting, detox, Atkins…or some such taste-free-pleasure-free diet. They started writing listicles about the 7 amazing health benefits of goji, and the 9 amazing properties of chia, and 13 ways kale will change your life (for some reason, these benefits come only in odd numbers).
The word ‘diet’ in the dictionary still means ‘diet /ˈdʌɪət/ noun 1. the kinds of food that a person or community habitually eats’. The diet-industrial-complex hijacked this word and twisted it so that there was nothing habitual about the foods that started getting listed as ‘diet’ foods. The diet industry promised magical transformations, that we would achieve the prescribed body weight and shape and live for ever, if only we partake of the berries in their Buddha bowl. Buddha did achieve enlightenment, but that was for eight other reasons, not for the goodness of his eponymous bowl. They turned the act of eating – which was always a joyful indulgence – into a guilt trip. We started wondering if this next bite of golden fried pakora will kill me; we started to fear that dollop of aromatic ghee on top of our tadka khichdi. Will the diet police condemn me to a life of shame if I am caught enjoying a butter-slathered sourdough slice?
For decades now, we have lived in constant fear that all hell will break loose if there are no ‘superfoods’ in our diet. The joy has been sucked out of the divine act of eating. Menus often have calories written next to each item – almost screaming, how dare you ask for this burger, do you not see the 735 calories written next to it?
This diet mania is largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. When did you last see a French or an Italian person on a diet? What is good for the Brits and the Americans, is good for us Indians – we simply copy-paste trends from those countries. That reminds me of an eye-opening book I read a few years ago; French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano. If you do not have the time to read this book, here is a one-line spoiler: they don’t get fat because they eat wholesome fresh, good quality, ‘normal’ food; they eat everything – the so-called fattening things like bread, butter (French food swims in butter), cheese, le bœuf. They savour every bite. They eat in moderation. They eat for the pleasure of eating; no guilt, no shame, no fear hangs like a dagger over a French dining table. If you have a happy relationship with the food you eat, the food will be good to you. If you have guilt and fear every time you eat a fried-to-gold samosa; well, the samosa has fillings too, it will not be good to you.
Eat good quality dadima-style ‘ghar ka khana’, or whatever floats your boat. Indulge in pizzas, and mithai, and burgers, in moderation. Enjoy what you eat. Do not ask what the seven health benefits of this food are. Eat good food, and the nutrients will do their work, they have been doing that for millennia. Do not tell yourself that this meal should not cross the random 700-calorie mark, and do not let the self-styled nutrition influencer tell you that nirvana is attained through exotic berries and grains like acai, quinoa, chia… do you notice how most of these ‘wonder foods’ are from Latin America? Stinks of some shady mafia pushing these on the gullible white man, who then sells these fads to the rest of the world.
Eat well, eat everything, eat in moderation – no binging on one food, no ostracising another. Your body knows what is good for you. The body has its defence mechanisms, it will tell you when some food doesn’t feel right. Listen to your body and eat with your heart. Bon appétit.
This Professor Cooks. And talks about food ideas, food science, food culture, food hacks, and food history. Watch this space for some food, and a lot more food for thought.
Ravi Miglani is a home cook and consumer insights professional. Following a corporate career spanning eight countries and three decades, he is now a professor at Ahmedabad University (when he is not cooking).