Jul 16, 2019

How I track my habits

Habit formation is a topic that I'm extremely fascinated about. I devour books and essays on this topic, as the concepts branch out across a wide variety of fields such as psychology, behavior, motivation, economics, decision making, sociology, anthropology, evolution etc. 

Our brains like to run on autopilot and that's one of the primary reasons that we should be conscious of our habits, both conscious and unconscious ones.

James Clear in his book "Atomic Habits" states

"Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks"

Habits impact our lives in many ways - be it our health, relationships, time management, sleep and even how we respond to our emotions.

There are some fantastic books on this subject. I'm almost winding up Atomic Habits. Charles Duhigg's The power of habit is another insightful read. From a technology perspective, Nir Eyal's Hooked is another favourite of mine.

The objective of this post is to talk about my "Habit Tracker". A few years back, I came across Seinfeld's "don't break the chain" strategy and got quite inspired by the idea. I have tried various mobile apps to track my daily habits. I have also tried using Evernote to track my daily habits in a note. For the last 2 months, I went back to good old paper and pen. In my journal, I have jotted down the habits for the month as rows and the days as columns. Every morning, I sit down and track whether I achieved the habits for the previous day. 
The habits where my hit rate is relatively high in the past 2 months are
  1. No screen usage after 8:30PM
  2. Daily evening prayer at 6PM
  3. Tea/coffee ONLY 2 times a day
  4. Read at least 15 pages a day
Although many experts recommend that we work on only one habit at a time, I prefer trying many habits and see which ones I'm motivated to work on and which ones I avoid. One key takeaway for me is that 

In order to be consistent, the habit definition needs to be clear, precise and elicit a binary response - "Have I done this habit today or not?".  

In June, one of the habits I tried was "Eat 3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruits a day". The concept of "servings" is a bit vague in my habit definition. For my style of cooking, it isn't easy to quantify servings size. So I decided to remove this habit in my July list.

I believe it is important for us to consciously work on our daily habits, keep iterating and learning what works and what doesn't. 

In this article on why goals are overrated, Mark Manson explains the need to focus on habits

Goals are a one-time bargain. They are the spending mindset. “I will spend X amount of energy to receive Y reward.” Habits are an investing mindset. Habits require one to invest one’s efforts for a little while and then take the rewards of that effort and re-invest them in a greater effort to form even better habits.

I'd highly recommend to anyone reading this post to think about the habits you would want to inculcate and start tracking the same on a daily basis. Dreams/Goals/bucket list can give us direction but it's our daily habits that will help us make progress towards them.

Jul 12, 2019

NatureFresh Acti Heart Cooking Oil Review

Thanks to yet another sponsored ad, I came across this brand of cooking oil. The product name has all the right words to capture our attention - nature, fresh, heart etc. I looked into their ads on youtube. Such fear-inducing messaging and story plot being used! The background music and the voices are so depressing. 

So what exactly does this heart-friendly(?) cooking oil made of?

It is a blended oil comprising of
  • refined rice bran oil (50% by weight)
  • refined rapeseed low erucic acid (canola) oil (50% by weight)
Refined oils are one of the key contributors to inflammation in the body. It is ironic that this refined blended oil brand talks about inflammation and how it affects our heart in their ads.

Canola oil is relatively new in India and is being pitched as heart-friendly oil. Where exactly this canola oil comes from?

Canola oil is first and foremost, a genetically modified product. According to this source

Rapeseed oil is made from the rapeseed plant, specifically from the seeds of the rape or rapeseed plant, which is a member of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family. It was in the early 1970s that canola was first bred from rapeseed at the University of Manitoba in Canada by Keith Downey and Baldur R. Stefansson. In 1998, “the most disease- and drought-resistant canola variety to date” was developed using genetic modification, and this is how the majority of recent varieties are produced. Rapeseed oil and canola oil are often used interchangeably.

Wild rapeseed oil contains large amounts of erucic acid, which is known to cause health problems, so the canola plant was developed from rapeseed in order to use it to produce a food-grade canola oil with lower erucic acid levels. The name of canola oil was originally LEAR (low erucic acid rapeseed) but for marketing purposes was changed to canola oil. This word was derived from the combination of “Canada” and “ola,” meaning oil.

You can read through the same article to understand the dangers of canola oil.

Also, do note the ingredients list for the presence of two other synthetic additives:
1. Antioxidant (INS 319) - TBHQ (Tertiary Butylhydroquinone) is used to increase shelf life and prevent rancidity. This additive triggers many harmful effects - vomiting, nausea, hyperactivity, asthma, convulsions, liver enlargements, neurotoxic effects etc. The shelf life listed on the label is 9 months. Just because the brand wants to ensure the product stays on shelves longer, do we have to consume such chemicals?

2. Antifoaming agent (INS 900a) -  Polydimethylsiloxane. The allowed daily intake is 0–1.5 mg/kg body weight per day. 
This oil contains trans fats too. 100 gm contains < 1.5 gm of trans fats. 
As I was reading through reviews on Amazon, I noticed that a few dieticians are recommending this oil. The reviews all look quite similar. Not sure how much they were paid to write such positive reviews.

People in the US are realizing the ill-effects of such refined oils and switching to healthier alternatives like coconut oil and clarified butter (ghee). But here in India, we are ditching our native, traditional oils and switching to canola oil and olive oil for Indian cooking. Enna kodumai saravanan idhu? I know I use this phrase quite a bit, but no other phrase can explain better as to what's happening currently in the food industry in India.

As I had written in my earlier article on olive oil, I prefer to use cold-pressed coconut oil, sesame oil and groundnut oil for my regular cooking needs. I use very limited oil in my cooking and I make deep-fried foods once a week.


Jul 11, 2019

Aashirvaad Nature's superfoods Gluten Free Flour review

The diet terms such as "vegan", "gluten free", "low carb" etc are being used liberally by food brands - be it the product name, FoP labels, advertisements, influencer marketing collateral etc.

One such brand is this newly launched "gluten free" flour by Aashirvaad at a whopping price of Rs.190 per kg. 

Before we jump in and buy products labelled as "gluten free", it is important to check out the ingredients list.

Source: Screenshot taken from Amazon.in (https://www.amazon.in/Aashirvaad-Natures-Super-Foods-Gluten/dp/B07MDVWHRQ/ ) on 11th Jul 2019 12:30PM IST

This pack of Aashirvaad's gluten free flour is made with
Jowar flour
Flaked rice flour
Ragi flour
Dehydrated potato
Milk Solids
Thickener (INS 415)
Psyllium Husk powder
Emulsifier (INS 471)
Iodised salt

  1. Yes, all the ingredients are gluten free but I don't see the need for many of them here. For eg, what do they mean by Starch? I presume it is corn starch (corn flour). Why hasn't the brand clearly stated what the source of starch is?
  2. What's the need for milk solids? 
  3. Even if the above 2 points aren't that critical, one shouldn't ignore the two additives used
    1. INS 415 - Xanthan gum; used as a thickener and as a substitute for gluten. Aggravates food intolerances, asthma and skin irritations
    2. INS 471 - Mono- and di- glycerides of fatty acids - used as emulsifier (prevents ingredients from separating). Usually extracted from soy if it is plant based, which implies that there are high chances of it being GMO.
Traditional preparations such as Jowar bhakris, ragi rotis, bajra rotis, akki rotis etc are made with gluten free flours WITHOUT the need for such additives. Once we learn how to make them, they are so easy to prepare. For binding, boiled raw banana, boiled sweet potato or boiled potato can be used. They aren't absolutely necessary. Warm water is more than sufficient. There are plenty of videos/recipes available. 

1 kg of organic jowar flour is Rs.66 on BigBasket. Why do we need to pay Rs.190 for this pack of gluten free flour?

It is our choice to follow the diet we are comfortable with, but let's not allow ourselves to be fooled by smart marketing.


Jul 3, 2019

Summary of FSSAI New Draft Regulations for Food Safety and Standards(Labelling and Display)

The much-awaited document is finally here. I went through the English version (starting Page 40) in detail. Glad to read through many of these proposed regulations but my only concern is the timing - WHEN will these be enforced. And also hoping that packaged foods industry leaders don't intervene and "adjust" the thresholds defined as per their convenience.

The part that I'm most interested in is the FRONT label highlighting the nutrition values of added sugar, sodium, saturated fats and trans-fats and the thresholds for color coding high values in RED.

Source: FSSAI Food Safety and Standards (Labeling and Display) Draft Notification

 Though the threshold values seem tight enough, brands are given three years to MARK them as RED in a phased manner if they exceed the thresholds specified

    1. For current year after these regulations come into force - only labeling in the front of the pack, NO color coding
    2. After the 1st year, threshold values + 30% of threshold values are allowed
    3. After the 2nd year, threshold values + 15% of threshold values are allowed 
    4. After the 3rd year, threshold values
High Sugar:
To explain this in simple terms, Let's take the example of Bournvita biscuits
Threshold value specified => For added sugar,  in case the value of energy (kcal) from added sugar is more than 10 percent of the total energy (kcal) provided by the 100 g/100 ml of the product

100 gm of these biscuits contain 30 gm of sugar and provide 457 kCal of energy.
30 gm of sugar contribute 120 kCal (1gm of sugar = 4 kCal)
So the value of energy from added sugar is 26.2%, which is way above the 10% threshold.

For the current year, it won't be marked as RED
After 1st year, the criteria is 10% + 30% of 10% = 13%
Since the sugar level exceeds 13%, starting from 2nd year onwards, these biscuits should show the sugar value in RED.

High Sodium:
Based on Schedule I, I looked at the nutrition thresholds defined for sodium for a few categories
1. Processed cheese - 0.6 gm of sodium per 100 gm of product
Britannia cheese slice contains  1426 mg (1.426 gm) per 100 gm. So this would be color coded RED.
2. Ready to eat breakfast cereals - 0.35 gm of sodium per 100 gm of product
Saffola Masala oats pack doesn't even list sodium in the nutrition facts table, although salt is the third ingredient.
3. Noodles and pasta - 0.25 gm of sodium per 100 gm of product
With this threshold, our nation's beloved(?) Maggi noodles will be color coded RED (100 gm of Maggi contains 1232 mg or 1.232 gm of sodium, way above the 0.25 gm threshold)
4. Ready-to-eat soups - 0.35 gm of sodium per 100 gm of product
100 gm of Knorr vegetable soup contains 4938 mg or 4.938 gm of sodium, way above the 0.35 gm threshold.
Other important points that caught my attention:

1. E-Commerce labeling

When a food product is sold through e-commerce or any other direct selling means, the mandatory requirements of the label as given in these regulations shall be provided to the consumer through appropriate means before sale.

This is such an important regulation if and when it comes into effect. Most e-commerce players neither list the complete ingredients list nor show the screenshots of ingredients and nutrition facts from the packaging. Given that most grocery purchases are shifting online in urban areas, it is imperative that this rule is enforced strictly.

2. Specific names to be printed

In cases where edible vegetable oil or edible vegetable fat is used, the exact names need to be printed on the label (groundnut oil, mustard oil etc)

3. Declare the quantitative value present IF an ingredient is highlighted in the label

Every package of food sold as a mixture or combination shall disclose the percentage of the ingredient (including compound ingredients or categories of ingredients) used at the time of the manufacture of the food, if such ingredient– (i)is emphasized as present on the label through words or pictures or graphics; or (ii)is not within the name of the food but, is essential to characterize the food and is expected to be present in the food by consumers, if the omission of the quantitative ingredient declaration will mislead or deceive the consumer.

This is so required these days, given the predominant marketing of superfoods and other perceived "health" foods. For eg, the label says "potato crisps made with olive oil" but the percentage of olive oil used is not mentioned.

4. Nutritional information table will now contain sodium (mg). McCain Frozen snacks, kindly note this point.

5. Declare omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids content on the label

every package of edible oils, interesterified vegetable fat, both hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, edible fats, margarine and fat spreads (mixed fat spread and vegetable fat spread) shall declare the quantity of monounsaturated fatty, polyunsaturated fatty acid, omega-3 fatty acid and omega-6 fatty acid content on the label.

All packaged oils that proudly talk about omega-3 in their marketing promos, they will now need to list the exact values.

6. Allowance for variations is +/- 10% on the nutrition values on the label

7. Vegetarian food will have the following identification mark

The symbol shall consist of a green colour filled triangle inside a square with green outline

8. Names of flavoring agents need to be declared

In case of artificial flavoring substances the common name of the flavor shall be declared;

In case of natural flavoring substances or nature identical substances the class name of flavors shall be declared.

9. “Date of manufacture or packaging” and “Expiry /Use by” shall be grouped together and given at one place.

10. Front labeling guidelines

  The front of the pack should contain the nutrition values of total calories, added sugar, saturated fat, transfat and sodium. Per serve contribution of energy, saturated fat, trans fat, added sugar and sodium to RDA as per format indicated

11. Any beverage provides energy less than 80 Kcal/ per serve is exempted from colour coding.

12. HFSS food products shall not be advertised to children in any form
There was just this single statement, but no details mentioned.

13. Food Service Establishments having Central license or outlets at 10 or more locations shall mention the calorific value against the food items displayed on the menu cards or boards.
We would now get to know the calorie value of that Dominos Pizza or the McDonalds burger.

14. The package, label or the advertisement of edible refined vegetable oils and fats shall not use any exaggerated expressions like “Super-Refined”, “Extra-Refined”, “Micro-Refined”, “Double refined,”, Ultra-Refined”.

Do take a look at the complete document as there is more coverage than what I have highlighted here.

Jul 2, 2019

The highs and lows of embracing digital minimalism

As I said in an earlier post, digital minimalism is an important focus area for me this year. Today, let me share how my progress has been so far and what I'm planning for July. 

April this year was a more productive month for me. After reading "Digital minimalism", I had cut down my phone usage to an hour per day. Also thanks to Internet downtime for over a week in April, I was able to read quite a few books and did other offline activities that I enjoy. Then in May, I traveled to Chennai and I was there for 10 days. Feeling quite bored, I returned to my old ways. Phone usage went back to 2-3 hours a day. The same continued after I returned home. 

In June, after the school reopened for my daughter, I had set a few daily habits for myself and tracked them diligently in my journal. One such daily habit was "No phone use after 8:30PM". After finishing dinner and winding up my kitchen work, I check my phone one last time around 8:30PM and set "Do not disturb" option. For most weekdays, I was able to follow this habit except for a couple of Friday and Saturday nights. Since I usually like to read a few pages before going to bed, 8:30-9:30PM is reading time, when both my daughter and I would read our respective books. Last 3 months, I managed to finish reading around 10 books and a few are in progress.

Towards the end of June, as I looked through my usage stats in Android's "Digital wellbeing" app, I realized that I have been spending more than 60% of my phone time on Instagram. Though I no longer use much of FB or Twitter, I knew my Instagram use is quite high.

As I was planning my goals for July, I decided to take a break from Instagram for the whole month. The main reason being that I wanted to avoid constant checking and mindless scrolling whenever I feel a tinge of boredom. Also, I realized I was spending more time explaining myself or defending my posts, which is totally a waste of time, especially with people who don't want to hear you out. Though I tell myself I wouldn't be bothered by such comments, I have to admit that my subconscious keeps chewing on the same. 

As Mark Manson says in this article titled Outrage

"It isn’t that our beliefs have changed, it’s that the way we feel about people we disagree with has changed.
In short, people have become less tolerant of opposing opinions. And their reactions to those opinions has become more emotional and outrageous."

I have uninstalled Instagram from my phone for now. The break will give me perspective on how I want to use this channel productively in a way, it adds value to myself and to others. 

Speaking of Mark Manson, I highly recommend this brilliant article "The attention diet". As I'm consciously thinking of ways to optimize my time online, this article couldn't have come at a better time. I just loved the way he has compared nutritional diet (for our body) and attention diet (for our mind).

"The same way we discovered that the sedentary lifestyles of the 20th century required us to physically exert ourselves and work our bodies into healthy shape, I believe we’re on the cusp of discovering a similar necessity for our minds. We need to consciously limit our own comforts. We need to force our minds to strain themselves, to work hard for their information, to deprive our attention of the constant stimulation that it craves."
He also explains beautifully why we should embrace boredom.

"They say necessity is the mother of invention. Well, boredom is the father. Every great burst of creativity or action is inseminated with the wiles of boredom."

Do read the whole article, lots of relevant insights to note.

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