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Fourteen reasons why Indians are not as healthy as they should be

April 30, 2007

I’ve written a fair amount articles on diet and talked to dietitians and doctors about the ailments which plague Indians. Heart disease, Diabetes, AIDS and Cancer. What seems clear is that all of these diseases are related to lifestyle and at least three to diet. One can never pinpoint the exact cause of any disease as many complex factors come into play including that of the genes.

However there is no doubt that diet and lifestyle have been proven to be linked to disease. I have made my own conclusions after talking to experts and have also made some observations of life around me. I believe that problems today with our lifestyle and diet habits are the following:

1) Eating too many fried foods, ranging from pakodas and jalebis to namkeens
2) Eating a lot of sweets, which are soaked in ghee and often fried as well. This increases fat intake. Sugar is also consumed alongwith the fatty foods.
3) A high consumption of white polished rice which is devoid of nutrition
4) Faulty wrapping of food by consumers and hoteliers. Using non food grade plastic to store food, and also eating food off newspaper which causes lead poisoning as well as ingestion of phthalates. This is extremely common, even in educated households. Often fried food is left on newspaper to soak, and this is very dangerous and fat absorbs lead the quickest. Acidic foods also absorb more of the poisonous agents. Lead is a cancer agent. Newspaper as food packaging is banned in developed countries.
5) A strong belief that desi ghee (clarified butter) can be consumed in large quantities. This is saturated fat and has to be consumed in limited amounts, depending on one’s physical activity.
6) Increased consumption of white bread and baked products, a concept imported from the west. Dangers of white flour are plenty as this is basically food stripped of all goodness. People have also started to use a finer ground wheat flour for making rotis. This is bad for health.)
7) Trans fats are now recognized to be very bad for health, and cause heart disease.  Even a small amount of trans fats are bad for health. Transfats are found in vegetable shortening and margarine and thus in all bakery products including biscuits unless the product is advertised as made with pure ghee. (Updated). Yes, pure ghee is better than fake ghee, but ghee is pure fat so limit it.
8. Lack of exercise
9) Overcooking our veggies and other faulty cooking habits.
10) Heating oil to high temperatures so that it smokes before frying and then actually re-using this oil! This causes toxins and cancer agents to form in the oil. Heating oil until it starts to smoke creates toxins and poisons in oil.
11) High uncontrolled pollution in our cities.
12) Increasing presence of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in our food including milk
13) Intake of chemicals through processed foods. Chemicals like preservatives, colours, and other chemicals. (Update) Read this post: Youve consumed this Chemical Cocktail
14) Pesticides and pollutants on fruits and vegetables. Ensure that you wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly. (Update)

A lot of these habits are the result of our past. As a nation we are rising from poverty. We were a deprived nation and today when someone comes into money he feels that to laze around and eat is a great way to live! Many people believe that using a lot of oil in food is a sign of prosperity. Because as a nation we were poor for so long, and were forced to do hard labour, either in the fields or at home, we never developed a taste for sports. Overall, we Indians are not the sporty kind.

What is seriously required is a separate subject to be taught in school about healthy eating habits and a healthy lifestyle. Today, even educated people do not understand the dangers say from faulty packaging of food. When I used to work for the Times of India I remember that in the office canteen stacks of recycled newspaper were kept for food to be wrapped up in. The highly educated journalists used to casually pack their pakodas in this and take it up to their seats. When I mentioned to a few people that this was dangerous all I got were amused smiles! This was in the year 2000. I do not know if this is still the situation there. I find it strange that we cover our noses at a burst of lead filled smoke from a poorly maintained bus but consume lead directly this way! Its much worse, this direct intake of lead.

Well, we have to pay the price for how we live and what we eat.

Note: A reader, Seran, wrote a comment on another post and mentioned a point that was added to this post. This is about pesticides on fruits particularly on grapes and apples which is very dangerous to health. Many fruits are covered with pesticides and need to be washed with soap or scrubbed throughly with water (soaked and rinsed several times) before they are safe to consume.

Our farmers rarely follow the norms laid down on these pesticides mostly due to illiteracy. Fruits are not supposed to be sprayed after they are ripe and ready, but Indian farmers do it on a regular basis. Also they use a far greater quantity of pesticide necessary on the crops before they are ripe, and this causes a harmful amount of pesticides to grow within the fruit, and this can never be washed off. They do this either because of faulty reading of instructions or because they want to ensure that they do not suffer any losses or to maximise the crop.

I have been washing fruits thoroughly for several years because like Seran, I too have an uncle who is a farmer. I have also read stories about some Indian farmers who grow separate crops for their own use (some educated farmers know the dangers) but sell the poisonous pesticide stuff in the market.
However, when I tell people how I clean my fruits, no one takes it seriously!

Related Reading: Are we eating healthy food?
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
Tobacco causes cancer
Insurance for heart disease
Are we eating too much?

29 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2007 11:22 am

    I agree with all the points mentioned in this post. The only item I would like to add is “Discipline”. We know that most people are aware of most of these and are not disciplined enough to put into practice.
    thank you for a good post
    -Ram

  2. April 30, 2007 7:26 pm

    I agree with all what you have written.

  3. May 1, 2007 4:45 am

    Hi NIta,
    Regarding reason number 5, I would like to say that it is not all responsible for declining health of Indians. Please read this article- http://www.westonaprice.org/foodfeatures/butter.html

  4. May 1, 2007 6:01 am

    The article you mentioned compares butter and margarine, and ofcourse margarine is much much worse but we in India do not consume margarine and that is why margarine is not mentioned here.
    Butter contains nutrients ofcourse but it is a harmful fat and with today’s poor exercise levels contributes to heart problems. Most people do not consume one teaspoon of ghee which may be healthy, but they consume a lot, and I know families who think that cooking in ghee is a very good thing. It isn’t.
    The main point I made here is that ghee is considered good for health and therein lies the problem. In small quantities for a healthy person its fine, but that is not whats happening. What can be considered good for health are fruits, vegetables and whole grains, not ghee.

  5. May 1, 2007 11:54 pm

    The article I mentioned gives scientific reasons for “not giving up” butter. Even though the title as well as the article, to some extent, appears to compare butter and margarine, the article is only mentioning the health benefits of butter. This is independent of whether it is being compared with any other substance or not. The main purpose of the article is to make people aware that butter is “not unhealthy”.

  6. May 2, 2007 5:56 am

    Well, I had not said give up butter but yes I do believe that butter is unhealthy…but lets take it in context, not in isolation. Firstly I had said:
    ‘A strong belief that desi ghee (clarified butter) is good for health’
    is one of the several reasons why we Indians as a antion have health problems like heart disease, diabetes etc. Now, this strong belief that Indians have that butter is good for health (perhaps you too) is one of the causes to make one eat more butter or ghee than is good for health, and this in combination with lack of exercise can cause health problems. I don’t disagree with you that butter has nutrients.
    Frankly I gave up butter and ghee a long time ago and get my vitamin A&D from other sources like vegetables. Sometimes I do eat cheese and ofcourse I drink milk. I firmly believe that this is a healthy lifestyle. In the olden days people did a lot of exercise and therefore needed more fat, but most people like us don’t. It is my peronal belief that unless one does a lot of exercise one should give up butter and ghee entirely as it is a fat from an animal source.
    You see, even chicken has a lot of nutrients, but there are many who believe that non veg food does more harm than good. That is what I am trying to say here. Butter and ghee do more harm than good.

    • September 28, 2011 10:58 am

      For vegetarians ghee is the best source of Vitamin B12, and indians do seem to have a lot of Vitamin B12 deficiency which is also a risk factor for heart disease.

  7. May 2, 2007 10:24 pm

    Fried foods are definitely a no no.

  8. July 4, 2007 4:09 am

    the answer to breaking bad habits is found in indian scripture. if oly people would apply it.

    http://www.gitananda.org/wisdom-from-the-gita/breaking-bad-habits.html

  9. August 1, 2007 11:26 pm

    In points 6 & 7, white breads and finer ground wheat flour for rotis are mentioned.
    What is the problem with the four and breads. And, what is the alternative.

  10. August 2, 2007 7:17 am

    Pankaj, the alternative is to use whole wheat bread and flour. Maida or fine ground wheat flour is devoid of the fibre and the vitamins that comes with wheat naturally.
    You can read further on this at this link:

    https://nitawriter.wordpress.com/2006/09/27/maggi-atta-noodles/

  11. Sahil permalink
    December 28, 2007 1:38 am

    I would only address “8. Lack of exercise” – Reason is a lack of open spaces. Especially in the big metros people are living highly unhealthy lifestyles in cramped spaces. When I was young (8-10 years old), we still used to have playgrounds and open walks for enjoying a real game of cricket. Nowadays most kids in my colony play cricket right outside the garage (smashing car windows in the process) because there is really no open space for at least 2 kilometers!

    And it is not that India is becoming overcrowded or those obvious lies-we still have a lot of unused space in the country; the real problem lies with builders who fail to realize the benefit of having such an area for the common benefit of society’s children. In rare cases when a building society does have a large playground, they are booked the year around for marriage parties, Navaratri, Diwali, Holi, this function, building committe meetings etc. etc. Noone is bothered about the kids.

    Also kids nowadays are addicted to the computer (and laptop/iPod etc.) much more than they should be addicted to sports at their ages. Though we do need intelligent kids in the longer run, we don’t want to deprive them of their childhoods. This is what all parents should understand.

  12. Ronald permalink
    January 11, 2010 3:08 pm

    I agree with most points here. However, the 2 points that attack ghee are unfortunate.

    Point 2: In sweets, ghee is not the problem, the use of added sugar is.
    Point 2 should be: The increase in the consumption of refined sugar is not viewed as being detrimental to health.

    Point 5: The belief in the healthfulness of ghee is one thing GOOD about India. Unfortunately because of misinformation it is beginning to vanish. Ghee and Coconut oil are MUCH better than modern commercial oils.
    Point 5 should be : Vanaspati ghee and modern refined oils are seen as healthy alternatives to pure ghee and virgin coconut oil despite being harmful to health.

    A point not mentioned here is that people are nowadays either going low-fat or just replacing traditional fats with modern industrial fats. Modern fats/oils are bad and could cause a host of problems. By going low-fat, the amount of carbohydrates consumed will have to increase to very high levels to compensate for the loss of fat in the diet. Many will consume even more white bread and white rice. This is detrimental to health.

  13. Bryan permalink
    June 23, 2010 2:54 am

    Ghee is extremely healthy, especially if it is clarified from butter produced by pastured cows. In that case it will contain high amounts of vitamin A, D, and K2. K2 is one of the most important vitamins in the prevention of arterial calcification. One’s level of arterial calcification is the BEST predictor of heart attacks and strokes, much moreso than the outdated measuring of total cholesterol or LDL (without reference to the subtypes).

    Eat ghee, but get it from cows who were pastured and ate green growing grass, not grain. It will be full of healthful fat soluable vitamins that way.

    The whole idea that saturated fat is unhealthy is rediculous. You’re saying polyunsaturated seed oils that have existed only the last 2 decades are healthier than what we evolved eating the last million years? Haha. Get real. That myth is based on nothing but heresay and rabbit studies.

  14. J.T. permalink
    August 30, 2010 12:52 am

    Ghee is not “extremely” healthy for you. In fact it’s probably one of the worst foods you can eat. Yeah, sure it has vitamins A&D and maybe even some CLA if it’s from a grass fed cow’s milk. However there are much healthier ways to get A&D, CLA and healthy fat in your diet.

    Ghee is nothing more than a saturated animal fat that has been heated to high temperatures so that it can be boiled down to remove the water and such. By doing so, ghee is now an oxidized lipid, an oxysterol with clinically proven to be harmful to your health.

    If you don’t believe me, just spend an hour or two on pubmed.gov, google, and google scholar search for the key words: oxysterols, oxycholesterol, advanced lipid peroxidation end products, oxidized lipids.

    While it’s true that saturated fats are more temperature stable, that doesn’t mean that they do not undergo the dilterious effects of oxidation from heat, exposure to air and long term storage. Yes it’s true that ghee can be stored without refrigeration but again, that does not mean that it is free from oxidation sitting on your shelf for weeks or months.

    You people are fooling yourself if you think that ghee is good for you. Where in God’s good name did you people ever think this? Was it from internet gossip, folklore, blogs that just blog from information they found on other blogs? Or how about the extremely trustworthy wikipedia?

    A better alternative to ghee that might be good for you, and I stress “might” be good, would be fresh, raw, unheated, whole milk straight from the organic, pasture raised, grass-fed cow. You’d get the goodness of everything as well as the butterfat without the dangers of the heat processing.

    People please, you’ve been duped and suckered and brain washed into thinking that ghee is good for you. NO, you want to lower or eliminate your consumption of oxidized fats and oxidized cholesterol.

  15. Catherine permalink
    October 9, 2010 10:24 pm

    Perhaps Ghee is good for you because the lactose and casein have been removed. Casein has been linked to cancer…check out the study. I believe its a good fat source better than seeds or nuts or from meats… the only other fats that I think might be healthier are fish.

  16. September 28, 2011 10:54 am

    Agree on all points except the 5rh one..homemade ghee is indeed full of nutrition, the fats too are short chain fatty acids,which are not harmful.

  17. mandeep permalink
    February 20, 2012 1:03 pm

    madam, i and my maternal family have been doing the above for years now, including the washing of fruits and veggies immediately after bringing them home, while our habit is laughed and scoofed at by our relatives, friends and colleagues alike. im happy to read someone like minded and agreeing to wat we hav been doing since we were born, thanks to the habit inculcated by our doctor father and mother.

  18. Gautom permalink
    March 26, 2012 11:15 pm

    Very good article and the information you have provided. I hope this article gets translated in all the Indian Languages and teach our kids in grammer schools. Also, quit smoking cigarettes and biris. Country liquior in the remote village is another culprit.

  19. Dalmart permalink
    June 5, 2012 9:28 am

    It’s so silly how Indians think ghee is healthy despite all scientific evidence to the contrary.

  20. Ananth Kumar permalink
    July 18, 2012 10:44 am

    I agree with you and thanks for giving such information to us – Ananth Kumar

    • Ananth Kumar permalink
      July 18, 2012 11:02 am

      What are the oils, we can use for preparation of our daily food, Olive oil is good for health? A diabetic patient can take milk daily at evening.

      • July 18, 2012 11:15 am

        Olive oil is very good. One should use a mix of oils, not just one oil as different oils give us different nutritional value. Actually groundnut oil is very healthy, but unfortunately it is also fatty and should be consumed in small quantities only.

  21. Bharatvasi permalink
    December 6, 2012 10:03 am

    Nita – The article is overall god but seriously overlooked / falsely stated three points -

    1. The modern alternatives to pure indian pastured ghee/butter are all worse than consuming the latter. These so called modern alternatives lack the dense nutrients that pastured ghee/butter has in abundance. Even the poly/mono/trans fat in so called modern alternatives contains omega-6 fatty acids rather than omega-3 found in pastured ghee/butter. MNCs dump their banned prodcuts in India causing damages to Indian’s health. So like our ancestors, it’s better to stick to pure Indian products and use in moderation.

    2. Indians have been playing verious sports since ages. So the propaganda that we used to sit idle is myth. Also now-a-days sedentary lifestyle seems to be the norm over the whole world. Only difference being in most other countries, they do a concious effort to eradicate the negatives of modern lifestyle while we’re still catching up, thanks to the deprivation of Indian and Indians by the Muslim and Western countries.

    3. India was never a poor country. In fact till 17 century, despite attacks and plundering by Muslim Invaders and ransacking of valuables from Bharat (India was then called Bharat), we remained the number one country in terms of GDP and pure wealth owned by citizens, followed in relative close second place by China. The real 3rd world (or 3rd class) countries now being referred as Western countries were beggers who entered Bharat as traders, plundered, looted first its citizens and then started blowing our economy. In two centuries that these 3rd class people were in Bharat, they ensured these memories are forgotten by most natives and they imbibed in their minds that Bharat is poor, which is the most farthest from the Truth. They even went ahead and names us India, which sadly most of my countrymen still refer themselves.

    The propaganda of these 3rd class people, who looted from temples, people, ransacked our economy specially the “Rothschilds” – folks referered by “The Crown”, their 3rd class operators – the British, Portugese, Frenchs, Dutchs; all are at fault. Even the modern countries, like the USA and Australia formed by migrants are India(Bharat) haters. So wake up!

    Bharat and Bharatvasis were wealthy and would soon regain their top spot in this world again. It’s now a matter of how or what but when we as a country are going to realise it!!!

    • December 6, 2012 10:39 am

      Bharatvasi, Thank you for the good things you say but there are things I never said. I have not made any false statements. Perhaps you are assuming that I am saying something others have said in the past.
      For example, I never said that you should use the unhealthy equivalents of ghee. What I said is consume ghee in moderation and that too depending on the activity levels. I think that is a fair statement.
      Secondly, I very strongly disagree that Indians are active people or have been in the recent past. We have been poor for a long long time and that is what I said. I did not refer to the pre-British era. I did not refer to us being poor in ancient times. There are several posts on this blog about rich heritage in ancient times. But that is not what I referred to. By many many years I think you assumed that I meant the ancient times.
      Also, I certainly do not think that our sedentary lifestyle can in any way be compared to that of the sedentary lifestyle of people living in say the USA, whatever our past. Over there there is a high emphasis on sports, and schools have large playgrounds, and sports are a big thing. There are public sports grounds and clean public swimming pools where you do not need to be rich to go to. Also labour is not cheap so people do a lot of things by themselves. So let me repeat, our sedentary lifestyles are much worse than those in say the US or Europe.

  22. siddhesh permalink
    January 4, 2013 6:53 pm

    i start to take amul pure ghee with hot cow milk at night before going to bed for sleep from last 15 days. i want to know that is it good to take ghee regular basis ? please suggest me

    • January 5, 2013 8:59 am

      like all natural foods, ghee too has its nutritional properties. Anything in excess is bad though, and the food (specially the fats) you consume need to be counterbalanced by the physical acitivity. Diet also depends on current bodily conditions and also age. Kindly consult a dietician as I am not one.

  23. shanta permalink
    July 21, 2013 1:15 am

    I came across this blog as i was reading about cancer in India. I work in a top cancer research lab in the US and came here 8 years ago from India. From all the literature and observing habits of people here i realized we could have a very very healthy lifestyle. People here consume a lot of red meat and alcohol although things might be changing in India as well. Indian vegetarian food when prepared consciously can give us the healthiest source of protein and antioxidants and other nutrients. However, you are right – we get way more fat and fried stuff than we need. And its just funny how defensive people get when you try and tell them whats better. No one is insulting our country. We are just saying, we probably dont need that many carbs because we arent active enough and pick healthy alternatives for food. We can make baked vadas and do not need to deep fry our cornflakes for snacks. A simple change i love – stuffed capsicums can be baked not fried. Excellent blog on trying to educate people about improving diet and lifestyle. The truth is, we have access and regularly use all the good stuff – turmeric, garlic and several other ingredients we use are very good for health. We just need to eliminate some of the bad stuff and we will be good to go. Exercise is a big big thing out here in the US (not to say that i havent seen morbid obesity and the other extreme as well). Half my labmates run half marathons and bike at least 10 km to work everyday and it took me the entire of my PhD and religious work outs to get strong enough to be able to make my body do that. In school, all the girls stopped playing when they hit puberty and our math teachers promptly substituted games classes. Its possible if we change our mindset instead of thinking everyone is out to ‘get us’ and make fun of India. The truth is we are in a much better situation because we already have the good parts and can make the tastiest vegetarian food. We need about 9 servings (palm size) of veggie/fruits to get a healthy dose of nutrients to fight cancer and we need to substitute with healthy fats, whole grain and brown rice etc. Just tweak our lifestyle a little and everyone is healthy and happy!

  24. Dhirendra permalink
    February 3, 2014 3:09 am

    Thanks a lot for all this posts/writings….

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