In India, it's traditional to top rice, lentils and other cooked dishes with a spoonful of golden ghee (clarified butter). Ghee is not cheap, so this is a lavish gesture that displays one's wealth. And considering the hard work it takes to afford such indulgences, isn't it right to enjoy them?
If you're talking to Arti Varma, a registered dietitian who is trying to help Indian immigrants make more healthful food choices, the answer is no.
Heart disease and diabetes plague the Indian community, says Varma, who moved here from India as a teenager and lives in Burbank. Indian dietary customs that promote these conditions include using lots of oil in cooking, eating too much and snacking on fried foods and rich sweets. Add a distaste for exercise, and the likelihood of health problems multiplies.
"Mostly when I see people, it is too late," Varma says. "At the end, they are reluctant to give up their favorite foods."
So she has taken another tack: education. Volunteering as a consultant to Los Angeles Region Project LEAN (Low-Fat Eating for America Now), Varma has developed the Indian Food Guide Pyramid.
The intent, she says, "is to plant a seed to help [Indians] make small changes before they have to have heart surgery or go on insulin."
The only funding available for the project was a modest sum for printing the educational material. (Los Angeles LEAN is one of 10 regional projects of California Project LEAN, which is a program of the California Department of Health Services.)
In addition to the pyramid, Varma has written a guide for health professionals called "Dietary Recommendations for Indian Immigrants." The guide explains Indian dietary customs, gives regional menus, provides a glossary of foods and other information useful in counseling and contains the food pyramid.
The tip of the pyramid is allotted to fats, oils and sweets, which should be eaten sparingly. On the next level are two groups. Yogurt, milk and paneer (fresh cheese) form one group; the other combines legumes (which are consumed in great variety in India), eggs, chicken, fish and nuts. Vegetables and fruits occupy the next level, and the broad base of the pyramid is devoted to roti (Indian bread), other breads, rice, cereals and pasta.
Foods listed in each category represent the four broad regions into which Varma divides India: the north (including New Delhi), south (Madras), east (Calcutta) and west (Bombay).
The bread and rice group, for example, includes luchis, a fried white flour bread from the east; the northern tandoor-grilled flat bread, naan, and dosa, which is a rice and lentil crepe typical of the south. Western region foods include pooha, a dish made with rehydrated flattened rice. (Varma is from Nagpur in the western state of Maharashtra.) The category also includes pita bread and tortillas because they are often substituted for similar Indian breads.
Recommended servings for breads and cereals seem generous, six to 11 per day, until you examine what constitutes a serving--half a cup of rice, half a naan, half a dosa. If you've ever watched people eating a thali meal in India, you've seen enormous quantities of rice spooned onto the thali and replenished liberally--a day's allotment of starches in a single meal. And if you are invited to an Indian home, you are encouraged to eat more than you would like. "As a guest, you are forced to have second and third helpings," says Varma, who is often chided for being too skinny.
She says her father-in-law grew up eating five eggs a day. The thinking was, "This is an expensive food that rich people can afford; therefore, it must be good." She says another harmful food myth is that a good curry should have a layer of oil floating on top. Still another she cites is that between-meal snacks don't count. But what is considered a snack in India constitutes a meal to Varma.
Many Indians are vegetarians and believe they eat healthfully because they avoid meat. The problem, says Varma, is that they cook vegetables with lots of oil, partly to prevent the food from sticking to the pot. Her solution is to use top-quality, heavy cookware and only a small amount of oil. If vegetables become dry, she adds a little water instead of oil.
Until relatively recently, labor-saving devices like vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and electric grinders were not available in India. And although there are now mixes for dosas and other complex dishes, it was once vigorous exercise to pulverize rice and lentils on a stone grinder for dosa batter. During festivals, women prepared special foods themselves rather than hiring caterers.
Families typically ate seated on the floor, so this area had to be mopped repeatedly. When there were no elevators, people climbed stairs, and they walked because they could not afford cars. All this physical activity promoted big appetites, and eating heartily continues even though labor has dwindled.