Why I think undereating is an underappreciated health tip

big pile of food Overeating (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

“I shouldn’t have eaten so much,” my husband groaned. We had just finished a huge lunch at my parent’s house.

“You should have simply refused the second and third servings,” I replied.

“I know. But I just couldn’t. They could have felt bad,” he said ruefully, brushing aside my simplistic solution to a complicated problem – Indian families and force-feeding.

Our families, both sets, believe in the maxim of three big meals in a day and that is set in stone. Growing up, not a day went by without my mom forcing a big glass of milk down my throat first thing in the morning. “Stomach should never be empty,” she’d say emphatically.

Like most mothers, she couldn’t bear to hear a tummy rumble in hunger. My mom-in-law isn’t any different.

Every meal at my in-laws is a sumptuous affair, with MIL ensuring that each ends with a gigantic tumbler of spiced buttermilk.

Our initial gluttony is soon replaced with agony as we rub our bellies in pain after every meal.

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Of food and families

In India, food goes beyond sustenance. While wastage of food is rightly frowned upon, Indian households will prefer throwing away excess food than face the ignominy of having less to serve.

Barkat” or prosperity is the underlying thought. There should be plenty of food to appease the sight and enough to put your family in a food coma. It doesn’t matter even if you have to throw the surplus away.

As people, Indians know the socio-economic implications of hunger. Only the wretched stay hungry. So it’s de rigueur that any family eats thrice a day till the stomachs practically burst open.

And God forbid if you broach the topic of fasting outside the context of religion. Skipping meals is no less a sin for Indian families.

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Why we can afford undereating

A disclaimer. I know India fares dismally on the Global Hunger Index, trailing behind Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. My intention is to not sound tone-deaf to some of our ground realities of widespread hunger. So if I come across as calloused, I sincerely apologise.

With that out of the way, let me tell you that I espouse under-eating as an under-appreciated health tip.

I’ve never been a fan of mindless eating. I’d rather listen to my body and eat just to satiate my hunger rather than follow the clock.

I’ve also learnt from my paternal grandmother (who lived a long and healthy life) eat enough for sustenance, surviving on modest servings. She always believed in leaving space in the stomach for a couple of morsels.

And then there’s research that links calorie restriction with longer expectancy and anti-ageing. A study published in the journal Cell Metabolism said that slashing 15% of your calories for two years can slow down ageing and reduce risk of diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

There’s a good reason why intermittent fasting (IF) is – pardon me — fast gaining popularity. IF has beneficial effects on weight, body composition, cardiovascular health and even ageing.

At a cellular level, fasting can also increase our resistance against oxidative stress, reduce inflammation and even prolong life.

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Says a 2015 study

Data collected in non-human primates indicate that CR in combination with diet quality modifications markedly decrease the incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, and attenuates age-related neurodegeneration, sarcopenia, and auditory loss. Finally, data from human studies show that CR remains the cornerstone in the prevention and treatment of obesity and its complications.

But bear in mind that caloric restriction means maintaining a balanced diet without forsaking any of the nutrients.

The real challenge, however, is not finding the will to eat lesser than usual; it’s convincing your family why you can do fine without an extra poori. But it’s worth the effort.