Ahmed is a fitness freak. With less than 10 per cent body fat, he has spent a better portion of the last four years carefully constructing his physique. And apart from the time spent in the gym, he has paid equal attention to the kitchen. ‘You can’t out train a bad diet,” he tells me, as we sit down for a conversation.
“My carbohydrate intake used to be severely limited,” he says. What this meant was little or no rice and/or roti — replaced with Grade A proteins. In layman’s terms, this equaled meat, meat and more meat.
This of course, did not go down well with his internal system, taking his cholesterol levels beyond acceptable levels. “The red meat was to blame; now to control the cholesterol, I’ve had to introduce vegetables and lentils into my diet and for the protein, it’s only chicken and fish.’
All this sounds like a lot of effort. Ahmed tells me that in his home, two different meals are made: one for him, and the rest for the others. “Our cooking methods, such as they are, are not conducive to a healthy lifestyle,” he says.
What Mr. Less than 10 per cent body fat is referring to is the copious amounts of oil used in most of our dishes, not to mention the magic of deep frying. “A bowl of Pakistani aaloo gosht has more oil than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
It comes as no surprise that Ahmed does not partake in the dishes that make up the Pakistani cuisine, unless, of course, it’s a cheat meal, when anything goes. On a day-to-day basis however, most of what he has, is grilled this that and the other.
Pakistan’s cooking methods are largely at par with other countries in South Asia — where an intense, never-ending summer and lack of refrigeration can quickly ruin the best of meals. Hence, food is cooked endlessly to keep it from spoiling. And while this method may keep the food edible for a longer period of time, a large portion of its nutritional value is lost. A good example of the above would be haleem and nihari.
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Still, the debate on proteins and carbohydrates is only for that section of society which can actually afford meat in the first place. For a vast section of Pakistan’s population, meat remains a luxury, whereas carbohydrates and Grade B proteins, such as lentils and beans make up most of the meals.
Pakistan is not alone in this. Rich carbohydrates make up the major portion of daily diet in most of South Asia and Africa as well. However, this particular piece is about the diminishing minority that can afford meat on a daily basis.
Ahmed is an extreme example. Not everyone wants to become Bruce Lee or Jason Statham. Some just wait to have a healthy lifestyle and live to see their grandchildren (barring any natural disasters and unforeseen accidents). How can one do that, whilst not running up the monthly kitchen bill?
The answer is simple: watch what you eat, and how much of it. Health bodies across the world have figured out how much and what all one needs to eat to stay healthy. For example, a famous campaign, “5 a day,” encourages the consumption of at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. The World Health Organisation recommends that individuals consume a minimum of “400g of fruit and vegetables a day (excluding potatoes and other starchy tubers)”.
But do we even know how much is 400g?
Dr. Ali, a nutritionist I spoke to, suggests that one of the most important devices in a kitchen which can help with healthy living is a weighing scale. “Start weighing out what you put on your plate and you’ll get a great idea of how much or how little food you’re taking in,” he says. “Even the best of us cannot eyeball how much something will weigh unless we’ve been doing it for a long time.”
From personal experience, there is a step that comes before the weighing and that is knowing the caloric value of what one is eating. A user-based smartphone application, known as My Fitness Pal, does exactly that. It has a humongous database of dishes from all across the world (mostly input by users themselves) complete with their caloric breakdown. So if you’re having 500 grams of qeema matr, just search the app’s database, and input that into your daily consumption. If the dish you’re going to have is not in its list, just make a new entry — put in all the ingredients and the application will calculate its caloric value itself. It will even tell you how much cholesterol you’re taking in based on your food.
Thanks to the media, there’s a growing concern in the public about the food we’re eating. Dead and/or hormone infused meat, tainted milk, fruits laced with all sorts of pesticides and what not. Wily entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this not unwarranted hysteria and opened up shops and services that offer all sorts of clean food: now you can get free range eggs and organic chicken, almond milk and chia seeds, protein smoothies and salads with exotic names. But again, all this comes at a cost much higher than what we pay for all the normal cancerous stuff. A housewife I spoke to tells me about her experience with organic chicken: “it was all bones and such little meat,” she complains. “And it took hours to cook as well — we gave up after a few tries.”
The next time you buy some milk, take a look at its expiry date. Chances are it’s good till the last quarter of this year, maybe even early 2019. Now imagine all the processes it will have gone through to make it last that long. While milk companies swear on their mother’s grave that their milk is good for adults and children alike, it’s mentioned in small print: “consume within four days of opening”. However, if you want to go the other route, get milk from the gawala, then there is the added step of boiling it before it can be consumed. In our already busy lives, here’s one more thing to do.
A healthy lifestyle cannot be maintained without exercise. And just as healthy eating has dawned on adults here, so has the need to exercise. The wily entrepreneurs have jumped on this as well: offering fitness boot camps, from 10 days onwards, promising to change the direction of your ship. I spoke to one such entrepreneur and he told me something remarkable, “I have so many returning customers it’s not even funny. They come for a session and do everything right and then they go back to the real world and reverse any benefits they will have gained.”
This is something I can personally attest to as well, having yo-yoed to various weights and fitness levels. Eventually, it dawned on me that I had to change my sedentary lifestyle. Eat better, and take out 150 minutes a week for moderate exercise. I’ve never looked back. The benefits really do outweigh the cost and trouble.