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Food habits and exercise trends in India

April 12, 2007

I wrote the following article for A&M magazine some years ago. What I am reproducing here is an updated and abridged version. It is about the rising trend amongst urban Indians to look after their bodies and it also explores whether there is a trend to eat healthy as well.

A casual stroll along Bangalore’s Brigade Road, Mumbai’s Linking Road, or Delhi’s Vasant Vihar reveals more than a fair share of shapely midriffs and bulging biceps. An overweight Sanjeev Kumar might have been accepted as a hero in the seventies and the eighties, but it’s the likes of Salman Khan and Hritik that rule today. And although a plump Hema Malini and Sridevi generated much excitement in their time, it now takes the lissome charms of Priyanka Chopra and Aish to send testosterone levels soaring.
Looks like Indians are finally getting serious about battling the bulge. Or are they?
Skepticism is warranted, for the drive to cut down on the inches has been inching up ever so slowly.

After all, the fitness wave swept India almost two decades ago. Even though health clubs, gymnasiums and fitness centres have mushroomed all over the country, with healthy memberships and bottom lines, and more joggers and walkers are pounding the pathways of parks than ever before, and more markets are launching products for consumers who keep an eye on the waistline, there is still a tendency to eat indiscriminately.

True, this trend is confined to a small section of weight-conscious people in the cities…but even if one takes them into consideration…how many of them are also eating healthy?

Fitness in not as alien a concept as it was a decade ago, but it’s been only superficially entrenched into our lifestyle, even if we just talk urban. And I question their motives…is it health they are looking for or is it a svelte figure? I see the figure conscious, upper class teenagers insisting on low cal food and drink…as far as I can see dieting is what drives them. Not health.

Not that the importance of healthy eating hasn’t crept in at all. The health clubs and aerobic centres which have been around for some time now are emphasising not just fewer calories but high nutrition. Talwalkar’s of Mumbai which started off as a gym has evolved into a fitness centre providing a whole range of services, including that of a nutritionist. But often it’s those who fear health problems who become conscious of a healthy diet. It’s often not a preventive kind of thing…it’s as a reaction to existing health problems.
So, knocking off the ugly fat is still the prime motive, although health is becoming the buzz word as well…the health scares and doomsday statistics of Indians suffering from diabetes and heart disease adding to the panic.

“The main objective of my clients today,” says Kumar Bhat, who runs a fitness club in Mumbai’s suburbs, ‘is to be healthy. And look good ofcourse.”

“Fat constitutes unhealthy and misfit,” concurs Pravan Jain, creative consultant, Mudra, Delhi. He adds that international exposure has given this trend a momentum.

Says Anjali Mukherjee, dietician. ‘We have always tried to create health awareness. We tell our customers not to worry about calories as healthy food is usually low on calories and high on fibre.”

However, it’s going to be a while before the health consciousness levels in India rise to western standards and people become conscious of what they are eating. And from the point of view of products which sell on the health platform, they are still confined to a niche market. The sale of health drinks, skimmed milk and fruit juices is growing…

‘It will be a slow-growth market since the concept is still comparitively new,’ says Dewan. “The change has to begin at the level of basic products, not exotic stuff like mayonnaise.’ he adds.

This has already happened. A tiny section of city people today are readily buying not just juices, but whole wheat breads and biscuits. Five years ago one had to go to special bakeries to buy whole wheat bread, but today everyone is selling it. Whole wheat bread at least seems to have become a mass selling item. What’s interesting is that items like sesame cookies, gur based sweets and even roasted namkeens are available, although in speciality shops.

Companies known for their junk food are trying hard to launch ‘health’ products. All these are visible signs that the process has started. Even the way we eat breakfast has started to change. Kelloggs which had a shaky start is now doing fairly well in India. It has infact created a new market and even the Indian makers of ready made cereals are cashing in on this trend. Some typically Indian good-for-health cereals like dalia (broken whole wheat) is now easily available in n easy to cook packets. And all these cereals sell on the health platform. Extra fibre, extra vitamins and minerals…
A big change from some of the traditional Indian breakfasts which consisted of parathas saturated in ghee or oil, and other fried goodies.
At this rate, products such as sugar free cakes, and jams, and fat free mayonnaise are likely to make inroads into the Indian market in a big way too….although now this doesn’t have much of a market. Already, we see some Indian foods being customized for the diet conscious. In some exotic bakeries you get fat free samosas, and baked namkeen and maybe one day soon we shall get sugar free jalebis and fat-less gulabjamuns!

I think it’s best to take a lesson or two from the west and eat natural food instead of spending so much on packaged foods. They have come full circle…

(An abridged and updated version of the article which appeared in A&M magazine under the title ‘The Shape of Things to Come.’)

Related Reading: Why Indians are not healthy
Faulty cooking habits results in loss of nutrients
Why oils can be bad for health
How to live with Diabetes
What’s in your biscuit?
Chemicals you eat everyday
Health Insurance in India
Faulty food packaging can be carcinogenic
Instant noodles are unhealthy
Over-eating can kill us one day!

(Photo of food pyramid sourced from nutritioninformation.com. Other photos copyrighted to me)

One Comment leave one →
  1. Bbharati permalink
    September 27, 2007 5:55 pm

    fantastic information..i am sure this generation will boost the food industry with diet food demand…

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