Forty five years ago our own fledgling doctor, my brother, was just learning his ropes in the medical college. Since he was the first one in our extended family to be studying medicine, he had already become a de facto specialist on many subjects related to health. I vividly recall that evening when he returned from his college, armed with the important edict that coconut oil and sesame seed oil were downright unhealthy and should be banished from the household forthwith. As usual, elders in the house feverishly harked back down memory lane, had hushed pow-wows with relatives far and wide and arrived at the conclusion that those oils were being used as cooking media for at least four generations. So, they had a justifiable counter, tinged in rebellion, as to how they could be unhealthy just because some upstart doctor (actually not even that) says so.
But, new-found knowledge freshly minted at western research institutions, supported by esoteric scientific research difficult to question, was not to be denied. After a brief struggle, one cooking tradition quietly died a little-mourned death and we lost the flavour of those oils for ever. Interestingly, those hard-balls in Kerala who never budged and continued to use coconut oil through the decades, had the last and good, boisterous laugh, when a few years back global research elevated coconut oil to a position of primacy for its goodness. I believe some 1500 studies have proved that coconut oil is one of the healthiest foods on this planet!!
So, how is it that something which was considered harmful to health four decades back has suddenly become manna from heaven? Research, as the answer does not cut it, because even if it is dynamic and continuous, how does one rely on research which turns age-old beliefs and traditionally proven theories on their heads at a whim? The primary reason for the callous dismissal of those oils from the kitchens was cholesterol related and ironically both those oils are considered to be extremely good from a cholesterol and heart's health perspective now. So, there may be something to the conspiracy theory that some vested interests with investments in hectares of land planted with sunflowers and the like were responsible. And how well they did for a few decades!!
What about cholesterol itself? Something which saw the demise of a few traditional items of food, kept a lot of doctors in practice and made for flourishing business in some pharmaceutical companies has itself been called into question now. In 2015 the US Government decided to withdraw many of its warnings about cholesterol, sending shivers of disappointment down the spines of generations of people who were sadistically deprived of their desired quota of fried and rich foods in their prime years.
Under the circumstances, how does anyone decide what is good to eat? One cannot go by what nutritional oracles or other food experts wave their flags for, because they are dime a dozen and have a few hundred opinions among themselves, which are usually contradictory -- sometime ridiculously so. Moreover, they do not appear to value their own opinions seriously enough to stick to them for long. Flip-flops are not uncommon. All those individuals seeking quick reduction in weight and willing to empty their pockets on that count, will stand testimony to the fact that nothing but starvation helps and gradually that is what the so-called experts lead you by your nose to!
Take for example, my dear wife's theory that rice is fattening - period, based on a number of proclamations put out by the expert community. My bleating remonstration that my grandmother lived healthily for 92 years and my own father for 91 and both were primarily rice eaters, fell on very deaf ears. Obviously not proof enough. Brown rice was better than white, was another theory floated probably by people who wanted to get back at White Supremacists with vengeance, with whatever they could lay their hands on - even if they happen to be a few grains of rice! But, as in the case of cholesterol, the theory that the excess starch in white rice might lead to diabetes seems to have been demolished recently. The funny thing is no one seems to care any more - those who wanted to eat white rice continue to and those who threw it out of their windows kept it out.
Olive oil is better than other oils, ran another fad. I have stared in disbelief in friends' homes where their idlis and dosas are eaten with chilly powder mixed with olive oil, (can there be a greater anathema?) instead of sesame oil, as is customary. Pakoras are being friend in olive oil in households to bless them with incremental sanctity. Dr Devi Shetty, the well-known cardiologist nailed all these theories by saying simply `All oils are equally bad'. But nutritionists, backed by olive oil importers, have continued to prop up the commodity.
The list is endless. Ghee was taboo till recently. Now it seems to have acquired a desirable gloss, just because some western scientists have blessed it. Jury is still out as to whether milk and yogurt are good or bad. Tomatoes are hailed as a great food item generally, but some reports have indicted it for possible deleterious side effects. Wheat, which provides sustenance in multiple forms to millions around the world has come under the stick recently. Expert opinion has it that there are some serious reasons for completely shutting out wheat from our food and the anti-gluten brigade just adds its voice to this cacophony. So, brown or white, bread is to be shunned.
Where does one go for information on what to eat? If you go by the various opinions voiced by experts around you, you cannot eat anything in peace. What you have for breakfast, recommended by one set, may become the absolutely wrong thing to consume by lunch time. That is the proven reality.
As my father always said, eat everything in moderation! That should do the trick.