Paleo, Keto and all that Jazz

(A modified version of this article appeared on Arre: link here.)

Over the last few years, my Instagram feed has seen more and more pretty girls diversify their business. From ‘gramming about fashion and beauty they’ve also expanded into food. Invariably, the meals being Instagrammed look like something out of a magazine photo shoot. The standard shot has become a ‘flatlay’ (a picture from directly above the food, for the noobs) of a wooden tray on a rustic table. In the tray we have: a ‘grain bowl’ and a smoothie, or a plate of avocado-on-sourdough with a side of almond milk or an ‘alternative’ classic dish (my favourite is a pizza without cheese, made with shredded cauliflower as the base). For those among us who are used to Raju Chinese, the nomenclature is so misleading that it’s tragic – cauliflower rice isn’t rice with cauliflower, it’s shredded cauliflower which is supposed to substitute rice. Zucchini noodles aren’t pieces of zucchini in a good stir-fry noodle dish, they’re long spirals of (limp) zucchini that you use when you’ve decided you hate yourself.

This is all in a bid to avoid the latest enemy of food bloggers – carbs. Plus wheat (gluten irritates your gut), milk (dairy products aren’t for good for your skin), sugar (didn’t you know sugar is the new cocaine?), fruits (because they’re high in sugar) and pretty much everything that constitutes your everyday diet. The average Instagram influencer breathes in salads and breathes out crunches. On an entirely unrelated note, the average Instagram influencer is usually also in the food business herself, or being funded by the food business occasionally, and does not have a work-day that involves being in an office for ten hours and traveling for another two.

But don’t worry. If a life without aloo parantha and cheese sandwiches seems not worth living, self-appointed dieticians (whom I will now refer to –appropriately- as SADs) will also tell you how to replace normal food with new fancy food. This usually involves one of two things: either some really bad advice (replace all carbs with fats) or complicated expensive food ingredients (say hi to quinoa, kale, acai and goji berries). When you find out that kale is nothing but expensive, terrible-tasting lettuce and that quinoa refuses to take on the flavor of anything that you cook it with and stays as slimy and tasteless as when you first soaked it, then you can be doubly sure that this life isn’t worth living.

There’s a whole sub-industry within the diet industry that seems to deal with how to screw up standard beverages. ‘Bulletproof coffee’ is basically a black coffee with a chunk of butter or coconut oil dissolved in it. SADs would like you to drink this in the morning before you hit the gym. Why? Because milk and sugar are blasphemy anyway and there’s not much left for a pre-gym snack if grains and fruits are also banned. There’s also beetroot lattes, blue algae lattes, spirulina smoothies and wheatgrass shots. The typical SAD starts her day with bulletproof coffee, goes to the gym to do a few hundred squats and comes home to a make a blueberry and chia-seed smoothie in almond milk. On “cheat day” they will eat a single Pringle and make you feel bad about your existence, like you’re basically a pig with your snout in the trough all day.

Medical advice is comparatively more reasonable but no less volatile. This is how it usually goes:

Day 1: Good news: Chocolate reduces the risk of heart attacks.
Day 2: Only dark chocolate is good for you, in moderation.
Day 3: Eat twenty pieces of dark chocolate a day without worry!
Day 4: Actually milk chocolate has essential nutrients and sugar is great for you.

Then it turns out that the research wasn’t conducted on dark chocolate, but on compounds called flavanol that are present (in very small traces) in dark chocolate, and you’d need to eat 12 bars of dark chocolate a day to get the ‘benefits’ the researchers are talking about (true story). The mainstream news around food disappoints and confuses us regularly, which might be why we’re just a bit relieved when a pretty girl on Instagram tells us confidently that a paleo diet includes foods that our bodies are built for, because five thousand years ago, humans were hunter-gatherers.

How do you jump on one of these diets though? If you’re the average twenty-something in India, you either live by yourself (and your fridge is basically bread and spreads) or live with your parents (and eat what is cooked for the family). Do you have the patience and money to buy avocados, chia seeds, quinoa and coconut milk on a regular basis? (The SADs will tell you that you can “make your own” coconut milk and if you believe this you’ve never cooked a meal in your life). Who is motivated to create a pizza on a jowar base with no cheese, when the real thing is a phone call away? And finally, what are our goals here exactly? What is the point of swapping which type of oil you use, when you’re already at one teaspoon of oil in your food? How important is it to reach our (usually unrealistic) body goals vs. just have a good time?

We love food. There’s no two ways about it. Everyone loves eating, whether it’s at home or outside, whether it’s basics or fancy fare. Most of our socializing happens around food. Why, then, do we suddenly have such a complicated relationship with it? Why do we find ourselves second-guessing what we want to order, what we should cook, what the calorie count of quinoa is and how we can cook quinoa to make it taste like rice? (Spoiler alert: We can’t.) This is not an open invitation to go all out and stuff our faces everyday. But can we have rules that are easy to follow and that make sense (“everything in moderation” is my favourite) and just get on with our lives? On the odd day when we want to eat dessert, let’s not think “refined flour, sugar, chocolate, cream, 500 calories” and have a guilt trip while trying to enjoy it – let’s just frickin’ eat it and go for a run tomorrow. Or day after. Or next week. Or…

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