Oh, that festival spread!

How can you turn the other way when grandmom fondly offers a super-huge helping of ghee-laden pongal? You can't and you don't, in the name of love and festival spirit. Never mind its after-effects on the waistline, says a sated RAKESH MEHAR

Sanjeev M. is a model dieter, exercising six times a week and consuming calories according to calculations that would befuddle most rocket scientists. For close to 10 months a year, his adoring women friends say he looks like he's sculpted from marble. But come the holiday season, and he turns horizontally challenged, putting on a good four or five kilos that replace his six pack with a family pack. The reason for his abandon: "It's the festivals yaar. I get flooded with sweets from all and sundry and there's no way I can say no to them."

The struggle

There are a lot of nice things about the festival season, but the struggle to watch your weight isn't one of them. For most people, this time of year, from Diwali in November through Christmas in December to Bakrid and Pongal in January, is a nightmarish time because all the sweets, meats and fried foods sink straight to their unforgiving bellies and thighs. According to dietician Sheela Krishnaswamy of Niche, a nutrition-consulting firm, almost everyone gains about five kilos during the festival season, a gain that takes at least a month of rigorous exercise to get rid of.Thus, while the pleasant glow of a sugar high is the most common feeling of the festival season, the month immediately after smells suspiciously of sweaty socks and frustrated souls trying to squeeze themselves into their favourite pants. And as you huff, puff and desperately hold your breath hoping no one hears the buttons pop, you ask why this happens now when we've been celebrating most festivals since the dawn of time. At the top of the list of usual suspects is the fact that almost everything comes off the shelf now. According to Sheela, since we don't need to put in the effort to make sweets and can easily afford what's in the market, we tend to eat rich foods for much longer than in earlier years. "Earlier families made fewer sweets or simply parcelled them off to relatives and friends. But now everyone is buying more and eating more," she says. But our present situation might be more the result of boredom than lethargy, observes Sudeepa G., a sociologist. This is a phenomenon she sees not only during festivals, but also on just about any day off. "Nowadays, we just don't seem to have anything else to do. Any day off sees us either eating out or going shopping." While she isn't a traditionalist who bemoans the loss of "our cultural heritage", she does worry that we aren't built for the levels of consumption we presently enjoy. "Sometimes it's worrying how little balance we have in our lives," she says. There are others who also worry about the way our cultures are being homogenised. Like Sumathy V., a teacher, who sees our present habits as a fallout of accepting traditions that aren't necessarily ours. "While we forget our traditions and cultures, we also tend to absorb the simplest or the most marketed parts of other cultures. In the case of food, we overload ourselves with everything from Christmas cake and wine to Sankranti pongal. We aren't opening ourselves up to new traditions, but just to new products." Reasons and rationalisations aside, as much as you wish to forgo that holiday treat, powerful forces seem to push you inexorably toward it. Detached analysis will tell you that most of those forces could easily be warded off, but when that sinful three-layered chocolate cake passes by, all the blood rushes to your stomach in anticipation, leaving your brain deprived and your will broken.

Problem of plenty

That seems to be one of the biggest problems of the festival season - that there is so much food going around. At home, at work and just about anywhere else you might go, people seem fixed on fattening you up, making you feel like a porker on death row. Like Shilpa, a student, says: "For most of the year, I stay slim simply because I can't afford to eat out often. But during festivals, everyone becomes hyper-charitable, offering two-for-ones, supersizes and just about any freebie combination you can think of." Throw in the relatives who learnt the same exquisite recipes you're mom did, and it's impossible to walk three steps in any direction without hitting a plate of food. The other reason that often gets thrown around is that it is not in our culture to refuse. "When someone old enough to be your grandmother tells you to stuff your face, you better do it. Otherwise, you'll be hearing about it for the rest of your life," says a friend as he reluctantly picks at his second helping of a grandaunt's overly sweet pongal. Every year, experts throw out the same shortcuts, from eating one piece of cake instead of three to wearing tight pants that make you feel too full. And every year, anyone who hasn't achieved enlightenment atop the Himalayas bends and breaks the rules in the name of the festival spirit.

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