Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Power of Breakfast

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh", said Piglet at last, “what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

“What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?"

“I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet. 

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It's the same thing, he said."

A. A. Milne, 'The House at Pooh Corner' 

Pooh was indeed right. Breakfast is the most exciting meal of the day and the most important one too.Call it the side effect of modernisation, we have more kitchen gadgets, more cereal shelves in supermarkets but hardly the time or inclination to have breakfast. As India climbs the rungs of development, it is also climbing the rungs of lifestyle diseases. India is poised to earn the title of World No.1 for Diabetes. That iself is a reason enough to re-examine our lifestyle. Where are we going wrong? Or what can we do to get it right?
Breakfast is one such lifestyle change which can well be your ticket to a healthy life. Read on to find out more.

8 reasons why breakfast is a must
  1. Start your metabolism – After fasting for over 10 hours, eating breakfast is like revving up your car's engine. Once your metabolism is up, your body starts burning calories. Starting your day on an empty stomach is like trying to start your car with no petrol in it.
  2. Gets your mind tickingA study has proven that kids who go to school without breakfast are more sluggish in thinking and answering than the other kids. The same applies to adults too. Sans breakfast, you are more grouchy and irritable in the mornings. Think back and you may nod your heads in agreement. 
  3. Stocking upA proper breakfast will give you most of your daily dose of vitamins, fibre and calcium. Miss this bus and you've missed an opportunity to pick up the vital nutrients for the day. Breakfast eaters are known to have fewer nutritional deficiencies.
  4. Weight control – Once you've satisfied your body's calorie and nutrition requirements in the morning, you are less likely to eat an arm and a leg at lunch time.
  5. Set an example – Your kids may not listen to what you say, but they are definitely watching you. When they see you giving importance to the morning meal, they learn a healthy lesson for life too. 
  6. Live long - Dr Roger Henderson, author of '100 ways to live to 100', says, 'Researchers recently reported that people who reach the ripe old age of 100 tend to consume breakfast more regularly than those who skip the first meal of the day.' 
  7. Prevent diabetes – A study on more than 3,000 people  found that those who ate breakfast regularly were significantly less likely to be have diabetes than those who skipped it. Erratic timing of meals means erratic blood sugar levels. This is one of the main causes for type 2 diabetes.
  8. Morning cuppa tea – This one is so rich in flavonoids (anti-oxidants) that it can reduce blood clotting and deposition of cholesterol in blood vessels. Excellent for heart health!
Powering up South Indian breakfasts

The ubiquitous 'jodi' is definitely numero uno on most people's list. And the good news is that it is one of the healthiest foods. A combination of cereals and pulses in the idlis and lentils with vegetables in the sambhar gives you the benefit of most of the food groups. The coconut chutney is best kept for special occasions. You can start this meal with a fruit or make vegetable / lentils based chutneys (thuvaiyals) to get the added anti-oxidant power for your day.

Semolina or rava is rich in fibre. Feel the sandy rough grains and you'll know why. If you are making upma for breakfast the next time, try it this way. Usually you would add a handful of chopped veggies to a cup of rava. In this version,take just ¾ cup rava and 1 heaped cup of chopped carrots, peas, onions, tomatoes, green beans, mung bean sprouts. Fortifying the upma with vegetables, make it a more balanced and nutritious meal to kickstart your mornings. If you find that this is a lot of chopping to do, you can easily use a bag of frozen cut vegetables or chop the previous night and refrigerate. Also try this upma with broken wheat.

Ragi mudde
Ragi or finger millet is a food with high nutrition value. Eaten with a vegetable curry or sambhar it is enough to keep you energised till lunch time. If you find the ragi mudde too sticky to eat, try making dosas out of ragi flour mixed with gram flour.

Savoury pongal
Porridge made with rice and lentils is just the right combination for a great breakfast. Add some cashews or peanuts along with a glass of buttermilk and a fruit to this and your meal is balanced in carbs, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Leave the ghee-laden tempering behind though.

Beaten rice / Aval
Aval is light and fluffy and a favourite of most. It cooks in a jiffy and blends well with most vegetables and spices. The only missing part is the proteins. Keep a box of soya granules handy. Take 1/3rd cup of soya granules with one cup of aval and soak as usual. Add frozen peas, peanuts along with the regular spices to get a kicked up version of Aval upma.
Check out various food resources on the net to learn a variety of steamed breakfasts from different parts of India. Dhokla, Khamni, Handwo, Vatteyappam, Puttu are some of them.

Carry on the go 
  • Last night's chapatis can be filled with sauteed paneer, onions and capsicum to make filling carry-on-the-go meals in the mornings.
  • Bake some nutritious muffins with apples, wheat bran, dried fruits over the weekend. These freeze well. On hurried mornings, you can guzzle a glass of skimmed milk while you throw a couple of frozen muffins into the microwave for 30 seconds. You have breakfast ready to eat while driving to work.
  • For those early morning meetings, when there is absolutely no time for brekky, take a large juicy apple along. As a  policy, store some roasted (not sweetened) nuts in a ziploc bag in your office drawer. Ask for a milky coffee. The fruit, nuts and milk makes a nutritious breakfast for a crazy day ahead.
  • Make a sandwich with whole wheat bread, thinly sliced boiled eggs and tomatoes, generously sprinkled with pepper. This can also be easily wrapped in foil and eaten on the go.
Fresh ideas
  • When in season, oranges can be the perfect way to start your day. I mean the fruit and not the juice. Even if it is the unsweetened healthy kind of juice, it is definitely not fresh and the most of the fibre is out. One orange gives you the entire vitamin C requirement for the day and a lot of fibre too.
  • Use broken wheat with broken green moong to make a savoury porridge. It will take you under 10 minutes in the pressure cooker.
  • Remember to fortify each recipe. Idlis with grated carrots, oil-free dosas stuffed with grated paneer, upma and poha with chopped vegetables and so on. Don't stuff an already carb-rich food like dosa with more carbs like potato. 
  • A boiled potato sprinkled with salt, pepper and paprika  has complex carbohydrates and is a solid source of energy. Combine with a handful of nuts and a glass of tomato juice.
You can start your weekends on a cozy note by laying out an elaborate breakfast table. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne said in The House of the Seven Gables (1851) said - “Life, within doors, has few pleasanter prospects than a neatly-arranged and well-provisioned breakfast-table. ” You can also add that little treat to your regular spread like freshly baked muffins from your oven or from the local bakery. Involve your kids no matter how young to help you making breakfast or lay the table. It makes for great bonding sessions too.
Make breakfast a ritual with your family. Those 15 minutes you spend at the dining table can make you reap lifelong benefits.

Shopping list
Whole wheat bread
Skimmed milk
Paneer / Tofu
Chicken salami
Idli batter
Beaten rice -thick variety
Porridge oats
Broken wheat
Dried apricots
Chopped dates
Other seasonal fruits

Sample breakfast for a week

Bowl of oats, skimmed milk and honey
5-6 almonds
1 small orange

3 Idlis with a cup of vegetable sambhar
1 glass buttermilk
Few slices of papaya

Uthapam with carrots, onions, frozen peas
Peanut chutney / thuvaiyal
1 cup apple juice

Soya-Aval upma with vegetables
3-4 apricots
1 cup skimmed milk

Chapati rolls with grated paneer / boiled egg
Tomato salsa / ketchup
1 apple

2 slices whole grain bread with peanut butter
1 boiled egg / 1 cup skimmed milk
½ cup pomegranate 

Rava upma with veggies and sprouts
Handful of dried fruits
1 glass buttermilk

(Originally published in the magazine Windows and Aisles of Paramount Airways)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Understanding Ghee

Ghee has been an inherent part of the Indian household since time immemorial. According to the Atharva Veda, ghee strengthens the body and increases the lifespan. It also equates the stream of ghee to elixir, in the line ‘Ghritasya Dharamariten Sambhritam’. The Sanskrit word for ghee is Ghritam. It comes from the root ghr, which means ‘to shine’. Ghee plays an essential role to fuel the Agni (fire) in a Havan – the sacrificial fire.  Ayurveda places a lot of importance in ghee, as a part of daily diet as well as a vehicle for herbal medications and in treatment of several ailments. The scriptures summarize it as Ayurghritam – which translates to Ghee is life. It is cow’s ghee that is given the supreme place in Vedas as well as Ayurveda.
There has been a drastic change in the perception of ghee since the Vedic times. Today, no health conscious individual will touch ghee with a bargepole. Health food is vanishing off the supermarket shelves at some speed and traditional foods are being given the cold shoulder. The PR machinery behind every health food is so strong that a few weeks worth of print media, internet news and TV channels will thoroughly convince you that the particular health food brand is ‘the best’ for you. Centuries ago, when ghee was the preferred medium of cooking, there was no advertising involved and the scriptures did not have any commercial gains in mind when they claimed that ghee was good for health. With this background, it is worthwhile digging deeper into the mystery that is ghee.

Deconstructing ghee
Ghee is the ultimate end product of milk. The quality of ghee depends on the quality of milk which in turn depends on the diet of the cattle. Needless to say, ghee is of a superior quality where the cows are allowed roam freely with access to juicy grass and fresh pastures as compared to cattle in concentrated animal feeding operations.  If the milk is adulterated with growth hormones, pesticides and antibiotics, these substances will get concentrated in the ghee too. If the cows graze on lush grassy patches, the ghee is deeper golden due to higher levels of chlorophyll in their milk and butter.
Making ghee at home
When milk is boiled and allowed to sit for a few hours, the fat in the milk floats up in the form of cream. This cream is collected and yogurt culture added to it, to sour the cream. The sour cream is subjected to agitation by a blender or by shaking it in a bottle, and the butter floats on the top. The butter is then allowed to simmer in a heavy bottomed pan until all the water content bubbles out – and the milk solids separate to give golden coloured ghee. This can be filtered to remove the milk solids and this ghee will remain good for a long time without refrigeration. In olden days, ghee used to be preserved in temples for well over hundred years.
Ghee, Ayurveda and modern science
According to Ayurveda, cow’s ghee promotes memory, intellect and digestion. It also promotes wound healing, keeps the skin lustrous and maintains the body’s immunity.
Modern science has discovered that ghee is rich in antioxidants and the fats in ghee aid absorption of fat soluble vitamins and minerals from other foods, strengthening the immune system. Ghee is also found to be rich in butyric acid, a fatty acid with anti-viral properties, which is believed to prevent cancers and tumours. This is probably one of the reasons why cancer was not so commonly found five-six decades ago in India as ghee was a mainstay of the Indian diet. Recent research has detected presence of linoleic acid in ghee which is often lacking in vegetarian diet. Linoleic acid retards the growth of some cancers and offers some protection from heart disease. It also has shown some effect in reducing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass.
Although Ayurveda promotes consumption of ghee for a variety of benefits, it also warns the obese person to use this frugally.
Some facts about ghee
  1. Ghee is a source of beta-carotene and vitamins A, D, E, and K. Beta carotene and vitamin E are vital antioxidants. Vitamin A is naturally present in ghee which is lacking in other edible oils.
  2. Ghee has no milk solids, lactose or sugars. These are separated out when the butter is made into ghee.
  3. Organic ghee has no additives, preservatives, oxidized cholesterol or transfatty acids. Oxidized cholesterol and transfats are responsible for clogging arteries and causing ischemic heart disease.
  4. Ghee is highly stable, will not go rancid even if kept at room temperature. However it is important that you keep moisture away – closing lid of the jar when ghee is hot will cause condensation droplets to form inside and so will removing ghee from fridge to room temperature, which is why refrigeration is not recommended.
  5. It has a very high smoke point – which means ghee will not burn at high cooking temperatures. Our ancestors were very wise in choosing ghee as the medium for deep frying. As ghee became maligned and more expensive, people moved to vanaspati and later to oil as the vanaspati was found to contain heart-harming hydrogenated fats.
  6. Ghee is primarily saturated fat. One tablespoon of ghee provides 14 grams of saturated fat, 28 mg of cholesterol and roughly 120 calories.

The cholesterol confusion
According to the American Heart Association, healthy people must consume less than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol daily – people with heart disease should limit it to less than 200 milligrams daily.  A myth about cholesterol that needs to be clarified here is that even if you ate a zero cholesterol diet – your cholesterol levels will never fall to zero as your liver inherently manufactures cholesterol and it is for a purpose. Cholesterol is essential for production of sex hormones, bile acids for digestion and vital for brain development.  Some of the cholesterol lowering drugs act by preventing the liver from synthesizing it. A report in the Science Daily quotes that “such medications reduce the synthesis of cholesterol which is necessary in the brain reducing memory and cognitive skills.” However, cholesterol in the diet does not improve brain function as cholesterol in the blood cannot reach the brain.
Compare the cholesterol content of one whole medium egg which is 185 mg to a tablespoon of ghee which is 28 mg. So if you feel virtuous about eating a two egg omelette for breakfast and worry about the teaspoon of ghee your mother uses for the tempering the dal, then think again!
In fact a study actually showed that addition of ghee to diet reduced the serum cholesterol levels due to increased excretion of cholesterol and other lipids into the bile.
The all important ratio Omega 6 : Omega 3
The ideal ratio for Indians is recommended as 4:1, but the prevalent ratio is 40: 1 and because of excessive omega 6 in the diet, it is almost touching 150-120 : 1. Anything above ten is considered harmful. Excessive omega 6 fatty acids in diet as compared to omega 3 increase the risk of clotting and therefore the risk of heart disease.

Cooking mediumO6:O3
Sesame / gingelly80:1
Coconut oil1.8:0
Cow’s ghee3.2:1
Buffalo’s ghee2.2:1

Dr B S Raheja, the ex-Director of the All India Institute of Diabetes, categorically pointed out in a report that ‘‘the present epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers’’ is due to ghee not being used in our present diet and their rise is due to a shift in cooking medium and increased consumption of fast and preserved foods. The Diabetes Association of India clearly spells out the guidelines for fat intake in Indians. It highly recommends traditional cooking media like ghee, mustard oil and coconut oil depending on your geography as they have been used in India since centuries without any ill effects. The guidelines also recommend omitting all other refined cooking oils such as sunflower, safflower, corn, groundnut and vanaspatis. These correct the levels of increasing Omega 6 in our body as is visible in the table. Intake of oily fish two-three times a week and omega 3 supplements or flaxseeds in vegetarians will help maintain the Omega 6:3 ratio. Deficiency of Omega 3 is linked to cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, eye problems, some skin conditions and immune disorders.
In present times, one cannot use ghee as generously as our ancestors did, due to its high calorific value, saturated fat and cholesterol levels that don’t match our relatively less active lifestyle– but surely using it wisely will bestow a lot of health benefits. Please consult your doctor / nutritionist before making any major modifications to your diet.

[Edited version published in Complete Wellbeing September 2010 - Here]