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Traditional treasures

RAJ GANPATH
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HEALTH The key to well-being lies in time-tested traditional cuisines from across the world

Modern nutritional research or ancestral wisdom?

It’s true. Clarified butter sounds more 21st Century than nei . “Take circumin as a supplement” sounds more like health advice than “Add manjal podi ”. “A medley of multi-coloured mixed root vegetables in a coconutty broth” sounds fancier and healthier than avial .

But let me tell you this — traditional cuisine rules! They are a result of thousands of years of experimentation and research. They have been tried, tested and proven on millions of humans. They are not marketed or sold. They don’t contain additives or preservatives. They don’t promise outrageous results in ridiculous periods of time. They were created with only one thing in mind — sustainable long-term health.

One must realise that the majority of health recommendations that make their way from developed countries originate from traditional cuisines. Be it Indian or Mediterranean or Mexican or Ethiopian, all traditional cuisines have in them a plethora of nutritional wisdom.

Today, nutrition experts start off with an aim to create a diet plan that is satiating, sustainable, tasty and health promoting and end up learning (or in some cases, borrowing) from traditional cuisines.

Take South Indian cuisine for instance.

Turmeric ( manjal ), which we add to pretty much everything, is rich in circumin which is now known to combat cancer. Coconut, again a regular in South Indian cooking, is abundant in lauric acid which is antimicrobial.

Dairy products and red meat are a great source of conjugated lineolic acid which is shown to protect against high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, high cholesterol, various types of cancers and promote optimal body composition. Lentils (paruppu) are rich in magnesium which is a natural calcium channel blocker and protects against heart disease. I can keep going but you get the idea.

All this applies not only to the South Indian diet. Every traditional cuisine has such elements of health in different forms and proportions. Based on what the rest of the diet looks like, such protective and health promoting elements are incorporated accordingly.

The South Indian diet is, by design, high in starch (carbohydrates) and hence is more inflammatory than a diet that is low in starch. In order to protect against such inflammation, our diet is rich in spices that are anti-inflammatory by nature (ginger, cardamom, coriander, clove, turmeric).

The point here is that though we’ve been saying that we understand nutrition for many decades now, it is a science that isn’t fully understood by modern man yet.

For example, leptin, a hormone which is now thought to be a key player in regulating appetite and metabolism and hence an integral factor in obesity research, was only discovered in 1994 but diet programmes that claimed to be the best fat loss solution and nutrition experts who claimed to have all the answers have been in existence for much longer.

For the thousands of researchers and nutritionists trying to crack the health and obesity code the answers are right in front of us.

What we need to do now is to merely break down our traditional diet and understand the importance of the different elements there in. Once we do that, it is just a matter of customising our traditional cuisine to suit our unique needs.

So tell me now, what’s for lunch? A gluten-free, low-sodium, high-fibre, high-folate, magnesium-rich meal or saadham, sambar, vendakkai poriyal, keerai kootu and mor ?

(The writer is a certified fitness and nutrition coach.)

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