Don’t travel too much, said my doctor. The reason was unhealthy food and a disturbed eating schedule. Well, I can’t disagree with her. It is not easy to get simple, home-like food while travelling. And yes, most days, your eating schedule goes for a toss, even if you travel for well-organised events like conferences or literature festivals. Both factors directly impact health and especially for diabetics of India like me.
Roughly 10% of the Indian population is diabetic. After age adjustment, the prevalence in the adult population would be far more. Add to it the undetected cases, and our diabetic population will exceed the population of most countries.
Diabetics of India – We need serious innovation
How well are our society and systems geared to help us lead a normal healthy life? We rarely incorporate a healthy lifestyle in our scheme of things even though almost everyone has diabetes among close family and friends circles.
Let me begin with hospitals, where we discover and deal with disease. Most hospital canteens or cafes serve unhealthy food. The swanky hotel-like corporate hospitals have high-end cafes selling pastries, apple pies, colas, sugar-laden tea and coffee, cakes, samosas, patties, etc. Ask them for a healthy option, and you may get a packet of Marie biscuits, but only sometimes. Switch to government hospitals or medical colleges. You mostly get oily canteen food. A juice shop could be there, but that’s strictly out of bounds for diabetics. Ask for healthy options, and you may get pity with a smile.
Forget diabetics of India, the food served at hospitals is precisely what the doctor advises us not to consume. Why they ignore the quality of food right under their nose is a question I have for them.
Hospitality Industry – Diabetics of India
Let’s look at the hospitality industry as we end up being at their mercy when travelling. I have stayed in all kinds of hotels, from lodges in small towns to the most luxurious properties in the country. No chef worth their salt has yet invented drinks without sugar. That’s simply out of the syllabus for them.
Most of the time, we end up having Nimbu Pani, which is as basic as it gets. No, the problem is not of available options. Indian drinks offer enough options, curd-based or Sattu-based, or seasonal ones like Kanji, but they don’t fit into the elite mindset of our hospitality professionals. Of course, they have yet to try to be innovative. I have often asked for a new dish invented post-independence that has been mainstreamed, and I am still waiting for an answer.
Much of the popular cuisine was developed when there was a need for it, be it the soft Kebabs of Lucknow or Hyderabad’s Osmania biscuits. With a huge population of Diabetics in India, we have not yet invented platters they can enjoy guilt-free. Places that offer diabetic meals, including the airlines, often interpret it as bland food where taste should not be an expectation. No, the sugar-free mithai does not count.
Maybe we diabetics fail to voice our needs and insist on getting what we need. With such large numbers, should our food labels not classify food items as ‘Fit for Diabetics’? The risk is that it would mark most packaged food industry ‘unfit’ for diabetics. Turn the table, and here is a huge opportunity for the same industry to be creative and innovative.
Fresh food on the roadside is far more diabetic-friendly than any packaged food or food sold at high-end eateries, irrespective of how they project themselves as organic or healthy.
Now, let’s look at society. Most people understand the basic needs of a diabetic, as they either live with the disease or have someone around them who lives with it. Genetically we are at high risk even if we do not have the disease. Then, why do we offer sweets to our diabetic guests and insist they eat them? It is not easy to resist what you are prohibited from consuming.
Culturally, we used to have sweets only during festivals we celebrated and not at every possible festival on earth. We have in fact turned the festivals like Navaratri that were meant to be fasting occasions into feasting parties. Occasionally we consumed them during weddings or functions but then these events also included a lot of physical activities. They were not really a part of our everyday food. We may have consumed a piece of jaggery after oily or rich food, but sugar-laden sweets were not integral to our daily meals.
In an era of everything available anytime and anywhere, the temptations are served to us on every possible screen we look at. So, earlier I savoured Ghevar only if I visited Rajasthan during Shravan. Today I can order it around the year from my phone. Look at the sweet shop growth in your cities and towns in your own lifetime and you know what I mean. We have broken all boundaries of consumption that our culture so well taught us to balance.
Are our professional spaces geared up to help diabetics eat healthily and, more importantly, on time? My experience says that we tend to be too flexible with meal timings – deprioritising them for long meetings or flight schedules or just like that. Eating on time and at regular intervals takes care of the disease as no medicine can.
It is time we form Diabetic circles start demanding what we need. This is a huge market and let businesses innovate for us and a healthy society.
First published in The New Indian Express on Dec 18, 2022.