India’s health obsession

There was a time when having a paunch was considered a sign of wellness and prosperity in India. However, today it only attracts unapproving glances, is a symbol of an unhealthy lifestyle and has become a cause of concern in many urban Indian households.

Indians have long been insulated from the concept of a healthy lifestyle, which usually encompasses a well-balanced diet and a regular exercise regime. Most of us Indians have grown up on a diet rich in fat, spices, and carbohydrates. We may be spared of the ‘fries and ice-cream’ culture but our samosas, mithai, doasas, puris and murukkus are packed with enough calories to last us a lifetime.

My grandmother often used to lament that she grew up healthy and strong thanks to the ghee she was generously fed upon as a child. Needless to say she used to click her tongue disapprovingly and tut tut at my mother’s frugalness in using oil in her day-to-day cooking. I tried explaining to her that she could afford to follow Lord Krishna’s footsteps in slurping a cup full of ghee or feasting upon a pot full of butter and malai simply because she managed to burn all those calories. What with drawing water from the well every day to beating the life out of a cartload of clothes to sweeping the aangan to getting down on all fours and mopping the floors clean. Hell, where was one supposed to get all the energy from for all these chores if not from ghee, butter and malai? Unfortunately, this formula cannot be applied to today’s generation that is trapped in desk-bound jobs and a sedentary lifestyle.

Times are changing. Indians are waking up and smelling the coffee. They are conscious of what they eat, how they eat, and when they eat. Healthy diets and exercise seem to have turned into a national obsession and the health and wellness industry that is more than robust is raking in the moolah.

Rujuta Diwekar’s book ‘Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight’ flew off the shelves like it were a limited edition print. Following suit is wellness expert Namita Jain with her latest offering ‘The Four Week Countdown Diet’. Actress Kareena Kapoor is busy launching fitness books while Bispasha Basu decided to have her share of the pie by launching her fitness video, ‘The Fit And The Fabulous’. Weight and health obsessed youth are avidly surfing health and wellness blogs. Nutritionists have turned into celebrities and there is a hot demand for personal dietitians who can dish out customized diets for each body type. A few years ago, “gymming” was the in thing for staying in shape. It was all about weights and cardio and what not. But now, fitness chasers find comfort in hipper workouts such as aerobics, pilates, belly dancing, tai chi, yoga, and power yoga! Ayurvedic centers that hold the promise of a “truly authentic experience” are mushrooming across the country. Tranquil spas with a zen like atmosphere are seeing more visitors seeking a rejuvenation package walk through their doors and a monthly spa appointment has become as basic as visiting the salon for a facial. Supermarkets are stocking up on organic products and namkeen shops are advertising oil-free snacks in a bid to reach out to the every discerning consumer. Meenaksi Ammal’s ‘Samithu Paru’ that was once considered the gospel for young brides is now replaced by a pack of Sanjeev Kapoor’s zero-oil cookbooks. The city edition of any newspaper is filled with front page advertisements of slimming centers that promise to transform you from fat to thin within weeks. Dinner table conversations center on calories and diets and all that relatives and friends seem notice is your weight, the increase of decrease of it. Now, if these aren’t warning signs of a health-obsessed nation, then what is?

While all this preoccupation about healthy diets, fat busting exercises and weight loss is good for the “healthy” Indian, the change for some reason just doesn’t seem real. Perhaps I should use the term genuine. The point is that switching to a healthier lifestyle seems to have become a fad in modern-day India. The motivation behind the sweeping change that appears to have gripped most Indian households seems to stem from social pressures rather than a physical need to do so. There is nothing wrong in wanting to shed those extra kilos; but obsessing about it because you want to fit into that black party dress or because you want to shut off unwelcome comments from insensitive people simply doesn’t make sense.

Unfortunately or fortunately, the modern day Indian is heavily shaped by societal pressure. The trend is to wear dresses, skirts, blouses, or trousers that are more flattering to one’s figure. The salwar kameez or sari that does a wonderful job of hiding those extra layers of fat is not the preferred choice of clothing for most young women. Men too are sweating it out to fit into slim tees and slacks that show off their well-toned bodies. I suppose Kareena Kapoor’s size zero story is also doing its fair share in inspiring youngsters into acquiring an hour-glass figure. The end result is a fixation that is centered on losing weight, following a healthy diet and joining some form of group physical activity.

Another reason as to why some people are choosing the healthier path to life is that they want to feel good about it. That’s perfectly fine too. But most often than not, it is a half-baked attempt and they fool themselves into thinking that they are followers of a healthy lifestyle. Here’s a simple example that never fails to amuse me. Walk into any Saravan Bhavan or Sangeeta Restaurant outlet in Chennai for an early morning breakfast. You will find uncles, aunties, and even young men and women in their jogging attire cackling around a table laden with anything but healthy food. They walk along Marina Beach and huff and puff in their neighborhood streets or parks, and once they are satisfied that they have completed their ‘morning walk’ they head to the nearest idly/dosa joint and unabashedly order deep fried crispy medhu vadas, ghee infused sambar, and oil laden dosas. A glass of “fresh” mosambi juice with two spoonfuls of sugar seals the deal. Of course they then go back to picking and choosing what they eat during the rest of the day; all in the name of adopting a healthy lifestyle. And then we have our Gen X and Gen Y who booze all night, smoke like chimneys and help themselves to unhealthy pub food, only to hit the gym or embrace a detox diet the next day.

Until now India was grappling with the fair skin obsession. Well, I guess people have had enough of the ‘Fair and Lovely’ fixation and are now busying themselves with the new-age health revolution. It isn’t for nothing that Rujuta Diwekar titled her second book as ‘Women and the Weight Loss Tamasha’. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all out for a healthier life. There is no denying that a healthier life is a better life. But a health obsessed life is absolutely no life! There is a thin line that differentiates a healthy lifestyle and a health obsessed lifestyle. The question is: Do we know the difference?

There’s lots of people in this world who spend so much time watching their health that they haven’t the time to enjoy it. – Josh Billings


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