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Don’t Overfeed Your Loved Ones

4 weeks ago / by Sweta Vikram

The pernicious effects of the Indian “beta, aur khao” culture on health

I was sitting in the lounge at JFK airport and studying for an upcoming quiz (that’s how my life is these days) when I heard a man scream at his kids. “Eat the chicken curry. Cookies also. Hurry up.”

I looked up. I didn’t see a wife/mother. There was a pre-teen daughter and a 10 to 11-year-old boy accompanying him. This was around 9:30 p.m. EST. The kids rebelled. They didn’t want any more food. The dad took out his phone and made a video call. Turns out he had dialed his wife in India (He and the kids were flying down to join her and the rest of the extended family). The mom ALSO insisted that they get another helping of chicken curry with rice and some cookies for the “road.” What road?! They were going to board a flight in a couple of hours and had the option to eat dinner on that plane, again. Why this obsession to over feed and overeat?

Drawing the Line

I love food. I love feeding others. I love trying out different cuisines. But binge-eating and navigating the world with a food-scarcity mindset isn’t something I endorse. What happened at JFK with this man and his kids wasn’t an exception. Desis tend to force feed and get upset if you honor your hunger/body and say a NO. “But I made it for you.” OR “You eat so little.” OR “I spent so many hours in the kitchen.” You know the national language of India, “Beta, aur khao” (eat more}.

First, why does it matter whether a person has half a samosa or two? How can anyone’s appetite be an expression of love for anyone but their body? Second: How can giving oneself digestive discomfort be a sign of appreciation for someone else’s culinary aptitude? I have had way too many people say, “But that’s how we, Indians, show love.”

Really? Adding to lifestyle-induced diseases and pill-popping is your idea of showing care? Taking meds before drinking wine or eating fried foods. Belching or inhaling a tray of desserts along with your medication for diabetes. Bingeing on pakoras when your doctor has warned you about your triglycerides. How is any of this sensible?

The Sacrificial Lamb

I was visiting my parents (this is back when my mom was alive) when an distant family member cooked a feast for a 7 a.m. breakfast. I mean, there was pooris and gulab jamuns and dahi vadas. She knows I don’t eat breakfast. I had specifically told her that I don’t eat anything before lunch but would happily drink tea with her.

The same happened with another aunt. I was supposed to visit her ONLY for tea, but she made “halwaa” and “pooris” and the likes. I didn’t eat at either of these places, but my husband did to keep them happy. Guess who had a bad stomach the next day.

Only so Much You Can Take

Studies show that India has one of the highest burdens of cardiovascular disease (CVD) worldwide. The annual number of deaths from CVD in India rose from 2.26 million (1990) to 4.77 million (2020). There are estimated 72.96 million cases of diabetes in the adult population of India. The number of overweight and obese people in India doubled between 2005 and 2015. Among individuals aged 15-49 years, 20.7 percent of women and 18.6 percent of men are overweight or obese.

India and Indian culture have been revolutionary. If we can break the ice ceiling in the corporate world, be the innovators we are globally, end the heartless practice of Sati, and speak out against dowry, how convenient to hang on to the adage, “By feeding others is how we show love.” We can show love by taking interest in people’s lives, doing an activity together, going for a walk, or enjoying the fresh air.

Ayurveda’s Take

Ayurveda tells us it’s not what we eat, but what we digest that makes all the difference. Three meals a day are more than enough for most of us. Don’t snack in between; wait for your previous meal to get digested before you indulge again. Meaning, there should be a 4–6-hour gap between meals. Use all six tastes in your cooking.

One of my Ayurveda teachers says that very rarely (we aren’t talking about people in war-torn and famine areas of the world) do people die from skipping meals. Illness begins when we hurt our agni, which is the digestive fire. Constant eating, mindless consumption, and forceful feeding extinguishes our agni.

Low agni can create “ama,” which are toxins in the body. Ayurveda will tell you that ama is the root cause of all illnesses. So, by emotionally blackmailing people to overindulge, you are hurting them and reducing their lifespan.

In the old days, people didn’t have enough, and didn’t know when food would be available next. I can see why their mindset would be focused on “paucity” and “stock up.” But what’s the excuse today? If you can purchase a ticket from JFK to Mumbai airport, you can most certainly spend $20 on a meal when you are hungry?

I think it’s time that we snap out of this attitude that’s only hurting even our younger generations. According to Unicef’s World Obesity Atlas for 2022, India is predicted to have more than 27 million obese children, or one in 10 children globally, by 2030. We are nothing without our health. If you can’t inspire others to develop a healthy relationship with food, let’s not emotionally blackmail them into overeating or establishing a toxic bond with diet.

“My mantra became, ‘Face your stuff; don’t stuff your face.” ~ Renée Jones