A study on breakfast trends in India throws up crucial questions on our choices and lifestyle

For a change it isn’t all bad news. Health-oriented surveys tend to pride themselves on being harbingers of doom. We’re getting fat. Sluggish. Wrinkled. And it’s all our fault, because of bad lifestyle choices. So, although the just-released ‘Power of Breakfast’ survey has its share of warnings it is heartening that it also points out that we’re doing something right. India’s still believes in food diversity. And home-cooked breakfasts.

The survey done by Malathi Sivaramakrishnan and her team from the Research Centre of the College of Home Science, Nirmala Niketan, Mumbai (supported by Kellogg India) began three years ago when Sivaramakrishnan realised that a number of her students were coming to college without breakfast. Curious about whether the country’s morning meal habits were changing, she began a project that involved interviewing about 3,600 men, women and children aged between 8 and 40 years, from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai.

Of course, studies like this aren’t ever conclusive, and as any health fad cynic knows, data can be interpreted in myriad ways. However, what’s interesting is the fact that, this ended up showing that 91 per cent of the people surveyed believe that their first meal of the day should, ideally, be home cooked. The study does, however, add that ‘of modern options,’ about 75 per cent “perceive cereal to be a good breakfast option,” quoting data from 2003 saying that cereal can increase nutrient intakes.

When the four metros were studied carefully, it emerged that the most nutritious breakfasts are being eaten in Chennai, where people still begin their day with food like idlis, dosas, coconut chutney and sambar. (Chennai is followed by Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai.) Yet, it goes on to caution that, regardless of which city we’re from, 72 per cent of us are having a nutritionally inadequate breakfast. Sivaramakrishnan says that even if Chennai eats better, like the rest of the country its people still don’t get enough “iron, fibre and most of the B group vitamins” at breakfast time. On the other hand, according to the recommended daily allowance (RDA), we’re getting more than enough protein, fat, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C.

Is nutrient-fortified cereal the answer? Journalist-activist Michael Pollan in his influential book, In Defence of Food points out that the Western diet replaced ‘real food’ with nutrients, resulting in the American paradox: “The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become.” After four decades of eating ‘low fat’ food, almost 30 per cent of America is obese. London-based independent consumer watchdog, ‘Which?’ investigated breakfast cereals in 2009 and found all the cereals aimed at children, except rice crispies high in sugar. Cereals marketed as low fat were high in sugar. There were also alarming levels of salt. The saltiest cereal studied had as much salt as a packet of chips. The bottom line? Think of it this way, a donut enhanced with vitamins is still a donut. This is why it’s fun food — not everyday fare.

Nevertheless, this research is a helpful reminder that most of us don’t eat enough nutritionally dense food. Interestingly, it also points out that we don’t eat enough, at a time when health faddists have convinced us that we’re eating too much. While a section of the population may indeed be getting larger because of over-consumption (presumably of the wrong foods), of the people surveyed (all of whom were of Section A and B, which means the ability to buy food is not a constraint) about 72 per cent are eating a breakfast that is not adequate in calories.

The research adds that one in four people skip meals. Usually breakfast. Reassuringly, most children start their day with a good breakfast. However teenagers aged between 13 and 17 skip breakfast the most often. So do women. Considering the fact that children and men are eating, and that we still live in a fairly traditional format, it means that mothers who are ensuring their families get a healthy morning meal are choosing to start their day on an empty stomach. Nutrients missed at breakfast time are not made up through the day.

Clearly this is a call to rethink our food habits. Caught in a storm of different opinions and contradictory surveys, what’s the best way to go about it? Well, Michael Pollan comes in handy here. He’s devised three simple rules to make menu planning easier: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

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