Your Relationship With Food

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Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda, and as you know, the aim of this podcast is to help you lead a healthier, happier and more hopeful life. And we do so by bringing you ideas, approaches and tools from all over the world which will help you. So our topic today is about our relationship with food. Most people have a love-hate relationship with food. So welcome to the chat. We have with us Niti Desai, who’s a nutritionist, and Dr. Chinmay Kulkarni, who’s a psychiatrist. Thank you for joining us today. So, Niti, I’m going to start with you. There was an article in The Guardian that came out a few years ago which talked about how we need to relearn the art of eating. Eating has become almost like a treasure hunt, where people are looking for superfoods and people are looking for food with Omegas, that it’s taken away the joy from eating. Tell me, Niti, is it absolutely essential to have all these huge amounts of new foods that have been recommended?

Niti Desai: Thank you, Anshu. I think it’s a very pertinent and topical question. Going back, all the regional cuisines, around the world, have developed over centuries and that basically depended on the climate and what kind of produce that region produced. So, for example, in the far east, the island nations— because they have large coastlines, fish or seafood became the staple. In India, because it’s a large country, the coastal regions again have rice and fish or seafood as their staples, while the large Gangetic plains up north are wheat eating regions. And if you go to Europe, the Mediterranean region— because it produces a lot of avocado, a lot of olives, a lot of grapes, this became kind of a staple of that region. So we need to go local, source out the local produce, go seasonal, follow our traditional diet, which has more or less all the dishes. So go back to our traditions, eat local, eat seasonal, and we don’t need to worry.

AB: So, Niti, on that note, actually, what is healthy eating?

ND: So you’ll say, eat your traditional food. To me, a balanced diet is no rocket science. If you eat a variety of foods in moderation, then that is what is a balanced diet. So the diet or your daily plate needs to be looked at and there are very simple kinds of models for that. If you have a plate where half of your plate is full of vegetables and salad, one-fourth contains a protein-rich food and one-fourth has the carbs or the starchy foods, then you have kind of achieved the so-called balanced diet.

AB: Okay, I will come back to you later. I have a further question, but I’ll come back later. Dr. Kulkarni, I wanted to ask you, where do our ideas of food come from? Where are they shaped? How are they shaped?

Dr Chinmay Kulkarni: So that’s a little bit complicated because we don’t know. So there is no one point at which this influence happens. However, what we start eating from childhood to young adulthood, that is very much important because that will generally shape our food choices in the future, but after adulthood. Also, there are many things which influence [us], like advertising influences [us], what food [our] peers are eating influences [us]. So there’s no clear cut answer to it.

AB: So you would say that, say, my children who were born in the UK, their food could potentially be the food that works for them, [but] is different from the food that works for me because I was born in India.

Dr C K: What food they eat at home. I would say if the majority of their meals are at home, then what is cooked at your home, that becomes their main-type of [food], but however, that is not so simplistic.

AB: And Dr. Kulkarni, I also wanted to ask you about eating disorders. The commonly known ones are anorexia and bulimia. But I believe there’s a lot more eating disorders that I’d love you to talk about because there’s a lot of people [who] I know who will stand on their scales every day, or some of them even multiple times a day. And then what happens is if they feel their weight is even slightly higher, then they start skipping meals. So just talk to us in general about eating disorders.

Dr C K: Yeah, there are many eating disorders but— anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, these are more commonly found. And like you said, these are called compensatory mechanisms, which are part of all these people.

AB:  And Niti tell me in terms of your experience with people who come with eating disorders, I mean, mostly people think it’s models, it’s young women. Recently I’ve seen a lot of young boys who started working out, getting really careful. Talk to me a little bit about the genders that you see coming to you.

ND: Yes, as you mentioned, in fact, earlier, it was thought that this is a women centric issue. It’s highly restricted to women, and men are above that. But we are seeing more and more men who admit to what we call emotional eating. Not that they only eat when they are hungry, but for other reasons. Also, earlier, it was the groom who would want to look sharp on the day of his marriage. Now we have the would-be father-in-law who says that my daughter is getting married, my son is getting married, I need to lose weight. We’ve had men who said that we’re going on a boys trip, we’re going for a beach holiday. I want to look sharp. I want to have a dashboard abdomen. So that issue has been there. The awareness is increasing. A lot of women are able to identify now that this issue is there. Earlier we had to help them identify, but now a lot of women are aware that this is there. We just need to find strategies to deal with it.

AB: Okay, so, Dr. Kulkarni, I want to ask you about one of these. So there are certain things like sugar addiction or over consumption of savoury snacks which give you a dopamine fix, I believe. But sugar is meant to be poison for sure; would you say that? I mean, I’ve heard different points of view. I’ve heard people say a little bit of everything is fine, just keep it in balance. Then there is another point of view which says sugar is poison. Then there’s a third point of view which says if you start taking these things for dopamine, your body stops making its own natural dopamine. So can you tell me, what should we believe?

Dr C K: Many of these things are oversimplified in the public discourse. Sugar: why people are more prone to eat sugar or enjoy sugar is because sugar is a quick source of energy. And throughout the evolution, for millions of years, humans, just like other animals, didn’t have so much abundant food at that time. The substance like sugar, which would give immediate energy, was very much important. So that’s why the sugary foods immediately caused the dopamine release. Basically, once that happens, then your brain learns that, okay, eating this thing makes me feel good. But this is also not only related to the sugars, it is with regards to everything. So even with healthier foods, people can have this dopamine because many times people feel good when they eat healthy because they have made up their mind in such a way that I have to be healthy. If I eat healthy, I look better, and my weight will be under control. So they want that. So  even with salads dopamine secretion can happen, without any sugar.

AB: So Niti what actually is a healthy relationship to food? How would you define it?

ND: So if we start with the basics, we all know that food is the fuel for our body; it nourishes our body. But food is so much more than just this biological necessity. And in fact, the act of eating has so many connotations. I mean, you prepare a special meal for your loved one; any celebration involves food. In fact, the most interesting conversations are built around food and that helps you forge friendships and collaborations. So, I mean, food basically plays a myriad of roles in our lives. However, food is not a reward, food is not a relaxant, and food is not your enemy. So that is what one needs to realize. And in fact, our relationship with food is one of the most important relationships in our lives. That is something we need to realize. And just like any relationship needs tending, it needs a lot of time to nurture, we need to do the same when it comes to food. But this, people find it too cumbersome, it’s too slow, it’s too theoretical. Why not just go on one of the diets, the popular diets, and you kind of achieved your goal. But these results are short lived till you do not establish your relationship with food. So, at its core, a healthy relationship with food involves relieving yourself of the pressure of having a perfect meal every day. Every meal does not have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be the ideal combination. Also, we need to realize the cues: meaning that you eat when you feel physical hunger and you’re able to stop when you feed comfortably full, which a lot of people have lost. In addition, it also means not placing any particular food in a not-go-to list— I mean that it is off limits, I can never have that food or that food group. And at the same time not feeling bad about having that occasional indulgence, having that dessert at your friend’s party. So, in a nutshell, I would say that a healthy relationship with food means that you are in control of food and it’s not food that controls you.

AB: So Dr. Kulkarni, if you can explain to me: what happens a lot of us have got dependent on either sugar or excessively having savoury snacks and the like, which gives you a dopamine rush. How do we counter that? How do we get out of this habit?

Dr C K: What is important is mindful eating. All of us just watch TV and eat at the same time. And that is where we eat too much food, which is not required, which usually our body will give a signal. The first thing which you can do is do mindful eating. That means when you are eating completely, focus on your food. Just look at its colors and how it smells, how it tastes. When you start doing that, you understand that many times your relationship with food improves. Usually nowadays, what happens is that we enjoy just the first bite and the last bite. In between, we are completely [out of] our mind, somewhere else, and we are not even…

AB: Unaware.

Dr C K: Yeah, we are so unaware that we are not even enjoying that. If you start doing this mindful eating, then you’ll understand— I don’t need this much. This type of pattern will basically make you aware that my dopamine is secreted even when I eat a reasonable quantity. That is one of the important aspects. Second is having regular meals. Routine will also make you feel better because you have achieved that, and any type of achievement secrets dopamine. So it is not that it is just sugary or savoury foods that are going to increase dopamine.

AB: So Niti I wanted to ask you about this topic that we’re talking about. We touched on how food companies are promoting all these sugary drinks. So would you blame them?

ND: It is multifactorial. There is not one thing, one reason that I can point out to. We are living in an obesogenic environment where there are just multiple messages that are coming through different media. Earlier, everybody used to like to have some sweets. Earlier, one would either have to get up and make it, or step out of the house and buy it. And then that itself, one would think, oh, it requires too much effort, forget it. And you wait for ten minutes and that feeling passes away. Now, today, whether it is 10:00 pm or 01:00 am in the morning, you feel like having something, you click a button on your cell. And the food is right there in 15 minutes. So now there is no effort involved. These services, because they are competing with each other, are not so expensive. People are again… because of the screen time, and maybe also COVID has a role to play in it, the people are sleeping late, everyone is sleeping late, children are sleeping late, everybody’s watching different OTT platforms. And then naturally, you are hungry at midnight or 01:00 am, and nobody eats healthy at that time. So you’re taking in these whole loads of calories from processed, mainly processed foods, at night. Time and again, our body clock is in sync with what we call circadian rhythm. We have a wake and sleep cycle. So we are supposed to be eating at certain times, sleeping at certain times but everyone has got kind of confused. So this is one reason. The other reason is that because of social media, everybody is out there to give ‘gyaan’. You have lost five kilos and you think you know it all. So there are just multiple contradictory messages being glared at you. There is more misinformation than information. So the public is kind of really confused.

AB: Dr. Kulkarni, I have a very important question for you now. Actually, if you’re extremely skinny or if you’re obese, that’s not healthy. Besides, not just being good for your health, it also socially, gets very awkward. People look funnily, people are excluded. So for parents to tackle a situation like this with their kids, can you advise us on what would be a good way for them to tackle it without giving the kid’s issues, without confusing their relationship with food?

Dr C K: So see, both of these things, these extremes, there are often some psychological reasons to them, and it is important to look at these psychological people. So parents first need to focus on their life and just talk to them freely and understand what is bothering them. Dealing with that is half figured. It is important for parents to make sure that their children get adequate nutrition. That is very much important. And if there is a kind of binge eating, the child is eating too much food, that is not good for the child. Also getting obese and other issues. So in such cases, sometimes restriction of food is required. Sometimes that thing also needs to be done because children might not know the consequences of their undereating or over. Sometimes if the problem is too much, then it’s better to go to a mental health professional for that.

AB: And Niti, a lot of people today live to eat and food should be joyful. Food shouldn’t be something that you’re doing mechanically, right? So how does one balance them out? What would you say?

ND: Yes, so as I said, this whole entire behavior is also now called hedonic eating behavior, where one eats for pleasure. One doesn’t eat because one is hungry, but one eats for pleasure. Of course, it’s a balancing act. And some actionable markers would be, as Dr. Kulkarni said, one is to engage in mindful eating. So, chew your food, as it was said earlier— 36 times. The point is that you need to chew your food well. Don’t gulp the food. No screen time while eating. So no multitasking. If you eat slowly, you’re allowing your brain to tell you that, hey, I’m full, you can stop here. But when you eat very fast, you’re not allowing your brain to even tell you that you’re full. So practicing mindful eating in very simple ways is one way. Another way is of course, pay attention to the language that is being used. Even in the house, you say this is junk food, this is forbidden food. Do not label foods. You can have any food. As I said, in moderation, there are no good foods or bad foods. It’s how frequently you have them and in what quantities you have them. That’s what makes it not-so-good or not-so-bad. So do not label foods. All foods can be part of your diet in moderation. Also, again, eat throughout the day. Skipping a meal is going to play havoc. Also, don’t beat yourself with this occasional indulgence. If you’ve gone for a party and you’ve had your ice cream, do not feel so guilty. As it is always said, it doesn’t matter what you eat between Christmas and New Year. What matters is what you eat between New Year and Christmas. So those seven days of indulgence are not going to do you as much harm. You need to be worried about the 11 and a half months. So again, I was also eating healthy, but now, since I have broken the diet, let me go all out. No, you can just move back to your sensible eating regime for the next meal. And regulate your social media feed. Very important.

AB: That’s a very good point as well.

ND: Yes. And lastly, of course, if you think that you’re really struggling and this is also affecting your other aspects of life, then seek help.

AB: So thank you for those tips. Dr. Kulkarni, you also talked about mindful eating and chewing and not being on the television. If there’s one exercise that we can give adults to change the way they think about food, what would you recommend? One.

Dr C K: I will say don’t overdo anything. It is not necessary for you to have great food experiences at every meal, so don’t overdo healthy eating. So there is this, nowadays, it’s not a diagnosis yet, but there are people who say that there should be something called as orthorexia. You are so obsessed with healthy eating that it is hampering your state of happiness and life.

AB: Absolutely. And then you’re freaking out. Like Niti just said, if you have one wrong thing, your body goes into, like, panic.

Dr C K: That’s right. So have adequate nutrients. That is very important. And don’t overdo anything.

AB: And Niti, one exercise you can give us.  I know you gave us a bunch of tips, but is there one exercise you can give people that’s going to help people?

ND: Just keep this basic idea in mind. Have a variety of foods. Do not get stuck to a few foods or do not eliminate certain foods or food groups. Have a variety of foods, have them in moderation, and you have achieved the elusive balanced diet or the healthy eating plan.

AB: So, Dr. Kulkarni, where do our ideas about food come from? So how are they shaped?

Dr C K: One of the important factors is obviously the, as I said, evolutionary. Second aspect is the way in which we were raised. So the food habits which we have developed in early childhood, that is also very important. Third thing would be social media or styles or fads. Overall, these are the main things which kind of determines what type of relationship one will have with food.

AB: So, Dr. Kulkarni, I also wanted to ask you, like you just said that people are concerned about is this healthy, is this good, so I find that with me and with a lot of people around me, there’s constant anxiety about food that: should we be eating this, should I not be eating this? Can you comment on that? Is that normal or is that not right?

Dr C K: So to some degree it is good, but don’t overdo that.

AB: So I’m going to do a rapid fire round. Niti, I’ll start with you. What are people’s top concerns that they come to you with? Men, women, children.

ND: Of course. I am a clinical nutritionist, so I see a lot of patients who have the so-called lifestyle diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol levels. Of course, all of them have their origin in incorrect eating habits. So men generally come in when there is some medical issue; women— weight loss for different reasons; children— unfortunately, childhood obesity is very much on the rise, so we are seeing a lot of obesity in children these days.

AB: Okay. And common misconceptions to do with food.

ND: Oh, there are too many. One is that if I skip meals, I will eat less. And that’s one of the best ways and the quickest ways of losing weight.

AB: Okay. And how often do you think people should take their weight or BMI? Once a week, once a month?

ND: So somebody who is looking at active weight management, we will ask them to weigh themselves once a week, same time, same scale, same place. As you mentioned earlier, we have had people who weigh themselves before and after meals also, like, they’ll do it six times in a day. And of course, there are enough people who weigh themselves every day, but we generally would say once a week.

AB: And Dr.  Kulkarni, how can we tell that we or someone else needs to revisit their relationship with food? Is there a marker? One marker?

Dr C K: If it is causing some type of physical problem, then definitely one has to. But if it is also causing you mental disturbance in a way that, suppose you are obsessed with losing weight and all the time, throughout the day you are thinking about: am I seeing? Am I obese? And how do I lose weight? So that is also kind of a distress. If any of these two things are there, then definitely you must.

AB: Okay. And at what age, normally, do the problems show up with people or they start showing up, if there’s a problem with the relationship with food? So what age should parents watch out for their children?

Dr C K: Yeah. So as far as eating disorders are concerned, young adults and adolescents.

AB: Thank you so much, Dr. Kulkarni and Niti for that insightful conversation. I’m sure we’ll help a lot of people with that. Thank you for making time to be with us. And to our listeners, thank you for being here with us today. We hope you learned something new. We hope you learned something really important, and I hope we’re going to help you lead a healthier, happier, and more hopeful life. For those of you who have questions for the experts, or if you have any suggestions on what I should cover, please send me an email. My email address is anshu@wellnesscurated.life. And if you enjoyed this show, please share it with your friends. Please give us a like and please do subscribe to this channel. We bring you something really interesting every week. Thank you for being here with us and we’ll see you next week.