Nov 11, 2019

Self-reliance in Food

One of the goals that I'm working towards is to become self-reliant as much as possible in different walks of my life. Given the uncertain situations related to climate change, environmental degradation and the various health-related issues, I believe that becoming self-reliant is the ONLY way to cope with the challenges of the future, for the sake of our's, our children's and our planet's well-being. The concept of self-reliance is not a novel idea - that's how most of our grandparents and our ancestors led their lives. Our generation (and to some extent, our parents' generation) completely moved away from this principle of self-reliance. We are dependent on market forces for every little thing to lead our day-to-day life - right from the toothpaste we use the first thing in the morning to the mobile app we use to track our food intake by the end of the day.

As these market forces are becoming more and more centralized, a few big corporations dictate what the general public should buy. From being a country with many small scale entrepreneurs, we have shifted away to a model where we allow ourselves to be dependent on these 4-5 big corporations for our every single need. 

Self-reliance concerning food is what I want to talk about in this post. Let's look at our relationship with food across different stages - food cultivation, food preservation, cooking and consumption. This is a random post of thoughts across different areas of food. As I gain more clarity, I should be able to articulate this whole concept of self-reliance in a refined manner. But I hope you get a general idea here.

As I make my grocery shopping list every time, I want to reduce the number of items I buy from the store as much as possible. As I don't own a farm, I'm dependent on an external vendor from whom I procure the regular staples like rice, millets, pulses, spices etc. As I don't own a press for extracting oils, I'm dependent on a vendor from whom I buy cold-pressed oils. 

For the value-added products, I prefer to DIY myself - spice powders, batters, pastes etc to name a few.  As I don't buy any ready-to-eat packaged foods, I make most snacks at home. I strongly believe that home cooking is the ONLY way to preserve our health.  The enormous VC funding that is being poured onto food delivery apps indicates that these brands want to grab our wallet share of the daily food budget, which is neither good for our health nor for our environment. 

Our reliance on external factors doesn't stop there. We continue to depend on apps to tell us what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat etc. The fact that users log their daily meals seems to be THE main criteria that boost the valuation of health and fitness tracker apps these days. Yes, food logging is a helpful activity as a post-facto to make us feel conscious and aware of the food we eat daily, which is very much possible using a simple notebook and a pen. If we listen to our stomach, we will automatically know whether we need to eat 2 idlis, 3 idlis or no idlis for breakfast today. Yet, we seem to outsource this simple task to a tracker app and make ourselves dependent on one more external factor. How our personal data is being misused and missold is something to be concerned about.

Let's take a moment and travel back in time - homemade snacks, homemade pickles, homemade spice powders, flours ground at a local mill, homemade pappad/vathal/vadagam etc, green leafy veggies grown in the backyard, some of our grandparents even had a few fruit trees in their home garden. 

If we cannot be self-reliant on some of these areas, let's at least take the help of our local community - 
buy greens from a local organic farm (instead of buying from a multi-chain supermarket), 
invest in a community farm and get a share of the produce grown locally (instead of buying imported produce), 
buy snacks/pickles/healthy homecooked food from a home chef (instead of ordering from Swiggy or loading the fridge/pantry with junk foods), 
patronize the flour mill in your neighborhood (instead of buying highly processed branded flours) 

These are just some of the ideas that I could think of right now. I'm sure there are more we could come up with. Such a model generates employment opportunities and enables REAL value creation. It is appalling to see so many business models generating pseudo-value and getting a ton of investment from VCs. Influencer marketing, being one such business model.

Anyway, from a personal standpoint, these are my goals in the near future towards attaining self-reliance in food:
  1. Learn about organic gardening and grow more greens and veggies in my balcony garden
  2. Find a good flour mill nearby and get the flours ground by myself (no more packaged flours)
  3. Learn the recipes of value-added products that I currently buy - sathumaavu kanji, kadala urundais (chikkis), papad, pickles.
What are your thoughts on self-reliance? If this is something that you are pursuing, let's connect and share ideas.

Nov 4, 2019

Mother's Horlicks Review

I vividly remember this incident. The first time my pregnancy was confirmed, I went to meet a gynecologist for a checkup. The prescription had a list of supplements (Folic acid, Calcium and iron) and a protein supplement drink. She insisted that I take this drink twice a day without fail. I didn't like the taste of it and after a month, I stopped taking it. It wasn't Mother's Horlicks but another brand.

Many of these brands have become a mandatory item in most gynecologist's prescription list, right from the first pregnancy checkup visit. Even if gynecologists don't prescribe them, most new to-be moms purchase these mother specific health drinks(?) as part of their grocery shopping.

Nutrition needs are different during pregnancy and motherhood. The common advice we get from elders is to eat twice the portion size, thereby focusing merely on the quantity of food to be consumed. Or we get loads of recommendations to buy such health drinks(?) targeted at new mothers.

Let's focus on the most popular mother specific health drink - Mother's Horlicks

The phrase "No added sugar" is highlighted prominently on the front side of the pack. It also talks about the vital nutrients for a healthy pregnancy and lactation.

Let's take a look at the Ingredients list:
Milk Solids (59%)
Corn Solids (hydrolyzed)
Cereal extract (3%)
Nature Identical Flavouring Substances
DHA powder
Edible vegetable oil (palm kernel oil)
Natural flavour
Natural colour (INS 100(i))

Contains Permitted natural colour and added flavours (natural and nature-identical flavouring substances)

  1. First and foremost, when the pack states no added sugar, it implies "no sucrose". Do take note of the second ingredient - Corn Solids. HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), Crystalline fructose, Corn syrup, corn solids are all extracted from corn using various processes. They are highly concentrated sweeteners, containing other forms of sugar. Sucrose might be absent in Mother's Horlicks, but the brand doesn't share details on the quantity of glucose, fructose or dextrose present in it.
  2. The ingredient "Nature Identical Flavouring Substances" sounds vague. Why aren't the specific names shared?
  3. All health drinks(?) brands available in the market emphasize the added vitamins and minerals. The long list of such micronutrients is printed, along with their benefits. What about the quantity actually present? Let's compare the quantity of these synthetic vitamins and minerals alongside natural sources

Plant-based natural sources are rich in many of these vitamins and minerals. I have just shared a couple of them against each nutrient in this table. To get the detailed list, go to this link, click on each of the nutrients and read up on the respective article to get the list of sources and their corresponding values. 

It is imperative that we educate ourselves on what foods to eat, how to plan a balanced meal, taking into account the additional nutritional needs during pregnancy. A varied Indian diet with a good mix of cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits, greens, seeds and nuts, condiments and spices etc will help us meet our daily needs of various micro-nutrients. I believe firmly in the strategy - "less variety in a meal, more variety in a month". Do check out my article on this topic if you haven't taken a look.

Let's invest the time to plan out our meals using fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. If you are a to-be mom, I'd highly recommend you take the time to understand the additional nutritional needs and plan out your meals accordingly. Please don't outsource this work to profit-focused food corporations. And also please don't ask for readymade diet plans from dietitians and random strangers on social media. You and the little one growing inside you deserve the time and effort!

Oct 18, 2019

Happiness Journal

The video version of this article if you prefer to listen :-)


A few days back, I had mentioned that I maintain a happiness journal in one of my posts on Instagram. I got a DM asking me to share more about it. I'm sure you would have heard of the "gratitude journal" and how the habit of maintaining a gratitude journal keeps us more at peace. This happiness journal is similar but slightly different from a gratitude journal.

I was reading an article written by Mark Manson titled "The disease of more" on his blog. In this article, he mentions about a survey conducted by psychologists. One of the survey question was "On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you at this moment?" Most of them gave a response of 7, which implies that no one is fully happy or fully unhappy all the time. Things are pretty much fine but they could always be better. So our minds always tell us to chase towards a perfect 10. This constant chasing is what he describes as a "hedonic treadmill". I highly recommend that you take the time to read the complete article.

So coming back to this happiness journal, what I have found is that this journal helps us to recognize and value the moments of happiness that we experience on a daily basis.

The basic idea is pretty simple - 
Every day, I note down a list of events/people/things that brought a little happiness. For eg, my journal entries for today are -
"the methi seeds that I sowed have now sprouted and I see tiny plants coming up. It felt so good, seeing them this morning"
"So many colorful lamps and candles lined up in the grocery store, my favorite festival is here. Yay!"

What to write - Any tiny feeling that made you feel a little happier and cheerful. Write it down in sentences.

How much to write - There isn't a definite number - somedays it could be 1, some days, it could be 3-4. Let's not attach any number and constrain ourselves. There will be days when we don't feel like writing down anything. That's fine too.

When to write - Best to write down as and when you feel it. If that's not feasible, you could do this exercise at the end of your day.

How is this helping me?
  1. First and foremost, it helps me to identify aspects of my life that make me happy. It is more of an inward-looking exercise.
  2. I feel more mindful and being aware of my thoughts and feelings
  3. It feels good to go through my journal entries on days when I'm feeling dull.
Do give it a try. My suggestion would be to use a pen and paper. No digital devices/apps. Hope you found this idea helpful.

Oct 13, 2019

Time for Holistic Wellbeing

A few days back, I had posted a picture of my lunch plate on Instagram, where there was some A2B ribbon pakoda (deep-fried snack) along with veggies, sambhar and rice. There were a few DMs asking why I'm eating A2B snacks since they are made with palmolein oil.

Earlier this week, I had shared that I use pressure cookers extensively and that I don't see any issues in using them. There were a few responses to that Insta story saying that pressure cooking is unhealthy and one should cook the rice in an open pot and drain the starch.

There has been quite an increase in the awareness/interest levels (confusion too) on healthy eating and a continuous search towards finding healthy foods and healthier ways of cooking. Sometimes, I wonder if we have reached a point where we have become obsessed about eating healthy.

My belief is this - "If I eat healthy 80-90% of the time, I'm okay with it. I love to travel, go out to restaurants once a week, relish on bhel puri, kesari bhaath and rasmalai 1-2 times a month. I don't want to give up on all these, just so that I hit the 100% mark".

Several factors contribute to good health and overall well being. In the past few years, food seemed to have hijacked our complete attention. Yes, food plays an important role but isn't the ONLY contributing factor.

In my opinion, these are the OTHER factors that I want to give enough importance, along with food.
  • Exercise
  • Physical activity throughout the day
  • Exposure to sun
  • Spending time amidst nature and greenery
  • Deep breathing
  • Adequate water intake
  • Good quality sleep
  • No smoking or drinking alcohol
  • Stress-free life
  • Finding meaning and purpose in our work
  • Making time for hobbies/interests/passions
  • Leading a disciplined life and not giving into external distractions (social media, Netflix, TV, video games etc)
  • Positive thoughts
  • How we respond to negative emotions like anger, fear, resentment, jealousy etc
  • Supporting relationships
  • Reduced exposure to air pollution
I'm sure there are more factors that can be added to this list.

My ONLY suggestion through this post is - Let's aim for holistic well being and focus on the other factors too, and not spend all our energies in getting a perfect plate of healthy food every single meal. One cannot lead a healthy and happy life if we are just eating 100% healthy but ignoring the other factors completely.

Oct 11, 2019

Plant based sources of Folic Acid (Folates) for healthy pregnancy

Recently, I was talking to a friend's wife who is a gynecologist. One of the points she told me - "We are seeing quite a number of miscarriages in the past 2-3 years. This percentage has definitely spiked up as compared to what it used to be 10 years back. Earlier, we used to advise women not to smoke or consume alcohol. Given the current eating habits, I should add a big list of items under "not to eat" category for pregnant women......"

This conversation is the trigger point of this new series of blog posts that I plan to write pertaining to pregnancy.
I'll be sharing my understanding of various nutritional needs during pregnancy and how best to meet them through real, natural foods. Will also be writing about the plethora of mother-specific health(?) drinks available in the market these days. If there are any other topics/questions you want me to address, please do comment below.

The first topic I'm focusing today is on folic acid. When you are planning to conceive, the first thing your gynec would put you on is folic acid supplements. Folic acid supplementation is prescribed to avoid neural tube defects in newborns. According to this paper,

Given that the closure of the neural tube is completed by 28 days post conception, there is a narrow window of opportunity from the time the woman finds out she has conceived and the end of the prevention window.

Folate is the natural form (Vitamin B9) whereas Folic acid is the synthetic form. If you aren't focusing much on your diet, then folic acid supplementation is absolutely essential. Also important to note that women on oral contraceptives may need higher doses of folic acid.

Along with the supplements, it is important to include folate-rich foods in your diet, even before conception. According to this source, the recommended daily dietary allowance for Folate is 600 mcg (microgm) per day.

I looked through the nutrition information provided in "Indian Food Composition Tables" (IFCT 2017) and here's the list of foods rich in Folates.

Total Folates (microgm per 100 gm)
Tender maize63
Kodo millet (varagu)39
Little millet (saamai)36

Moth bean349
Field bean (mochai)290
Cowpea white249
Bengal gram whole233
Cowpea brown231
Bengal gram dal182
Green gram whole145
Black gram whole134
Green gram dal92
Black gram dal89

Green leafy vegetables
Arbi leaves159
Agathi leaves120
Curry leaves117
Mustard leaves110
Mint leaves106
Amaranth leaves, red82
Fenugreek leaves75
Amaranth leaves, green70
Coriander leaves51

Capsicum yellow66
Capsicum red63
Chayote squash (chowchow)63
French beans62
Jackfruit seed55
Peas fresh55
Capsicum green52
Plantain flower49

Bael fruit (wood apple)55

Nuts, seeds and spices
Niger seeds (uchellu/gurellu)140
Gingelly seeds (till seeds)110
Mustard seeds95
Linseed (flaxseed)86
Sunflower seeds82
Poppy seeds79
Long pepper (Thippili)66
Ajwain (omum)52
Fenugreek seeds51

  1. As you can see, there are plenty of plant-based sources that are rich in folates. Eating a balanced, wholesome meal can help us meet the requirement of folates.
  2. Compared to rice and wheat, millets are a better source of folates. Not high enough though.
  3. Pulses and lentils that we use in our day-to-day cooking contain abundant folates. Including a wide variety of pulses in our daily diet will not only help us meet our folates requirement but also provide adequate protein.
  4. Green leafy vegetables are a good source of folates. Spinach, curry leaves, coriander leaves and mint leaves should become part of our daily diet. Prepping the greens might sound time consuming, but worth the time and effort.
  5. Most of the veggies that we commonly consume (capsicum, beetroot, drumstick, ladiesfinger etc) are good sources of folate. 
  6. Condiments and spices commonly used in Indian cooking are rich in folates. Gingelly seeds (till seeds) seem to top the chart in almost every single nutrient - calcium, iron and folates. No wonder, our ancestors called till oil as "nalla ennai" (good oil). There is a common belief that sesame seeds are not to be consumed during pregnancy as it generates heat in the body and might lead to miscarriage. I'm not sure about the truth behind this belief. Given that we use very little quantity of sesame seeds in most of our dishes (podis, chutneys etc), I guess it shouldn't be a problem. If you are concerned, do check with your family elder / gynec.
I'd highly recommend that you plan out your meals based on the above list to ensure you are able to hit the 400-600 microgm per day mark. You can then discuss with your gynec and decide on the dosage of folic acid supplements if still needed. 

As always, my belief is that it is best to get the required nutrients from natural sources than synthetic supplements.

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