New Delhi: Nandita Iyer, a doctor and a nutritionist, figured her way around the kitchen only in her late 20 as the rigours of medical college studies left her with little time for anything else. Her time-off for over a year in the US some 15 years ago was when she really got familiar with cooking and began a blog to record her culinary adventures. Her first book appeared in 2017 and her frustration with the "click-bait and oversimplified information" available on the internet has prompted a second book, "Everyday Superfoods" (Bloomsbury), that aims to provide a practical and sustainable approach to healthy eating.
"Whether the cooking inspired the blog or the blog inspired the cooking, I cannot tell for sure. After I moved to Bengaluru in 2011, having a small kitchen garden also inspired a great deal of garden-to-plate cooking. Learning about seasonal foods, heirloom seeds, organic fertilisers, etc. made me feel closer to the food that I was cooking and eating," Iyer told IANS in an interview.
"Given my background in medicine and nutrition, the kind of click-bait and oversimplified information regarding healthy eating and nutrition on the internet always frustrated me. I wanted to dig deeper and write a book that could be a partner in everyone's quest for a healthy lifestyle, offering scientifically verified information.
"I also wanted to draw attention to the various nutrient dense foods available to us in India and for people to ask the right kind of questions when they choose a healthy ingredient or a superfood. Providing everyone with a practical and sustainable approach to healthy eating was my primary goal and I am happy that it is something that comes out clearly," Iyer said.
To this extent, although the book is primarily about superfoods, it is much more than just a list of ingredients and recipes as the author additionally focuses on why it is not enough just to add superfoods to our diet, but to modify our lifestyle and relationship with food.
"The superfoods compendium has a list of 39 foods, most of which are easily available in India. There is a deep dive into the health benefits of each ingredient, sourced from peer-reviewed scientific literature. The book also nudges the reader to focus on goals such as control of diabetes mellitus, weight loss, better skin and hair, better digestive health, and several more.
"Success is about making it easy to incorporate superfoods into our daily diet by making weekly menu plans, shopping tips, using the right storage and cookware, swapping out unhealthy ingredients for superfoods, setting up a kitchen garden, and more. Sustainability is critical as a conscious consumer should choose planet-friendly ingredients," Iyer explained.
The book also includes 60 recipes for beverages, meal-prep, breakfast, salads, main courses, and desserts, all made using more than one superfood ingredient.
Can superfoods boost your immunity and improve your mood?
"Regular consumption of superfoods rich in proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, zinc as well as certain spices and prebiotic foods (special plant fibers that help healthy bacteria grow in the gut) contribute to a good immunity, either by providing protein for the building blocks of cells and antibodies or via antioxidants that fight free radicals and food rich in specific micronutrients. Beans, tofu, amla, black pepper, garlic, onions, nuts and seeds are some of the foods to include in the diet," Iyer explained.
"Chemicals in the brain such as serotonin, endorphin, dopamine, phenylethylamine, norepinephrine and melatonin are responsible for a feel-good sensation via their own unique mode of action. Superfoods rich in certain nutrients help maintain these levels or enhance them to induce happy feelings and an improvement in mood. While quite a few foods help improve the level of these 'happiness hormones', one example is dark chocolate. It is rich in a neuromodulator called phenylethylamine which plays a role in mood regulating, and along with other psychoactive substances is said to be responsible for a happy feeling," she elaborated.
There is a strong lobby that says non-vegetarianism -- particularly of the red meat variety -- is contributing to climate change and is pushing for vegetarianism and veganism. What are her views on this?
"As far as all such lobbies are concerned, it is the nature of activism of all kinds to not be nuanced because it is much easier to rally around and sell an all or none message of all meat-eating being harmful for the environment. The reality is that these issues are much more complex and there are no easy answers. Food is a deeply personal thing.
"People have an emotional attachment to the diet they grew up eating. We need to keep these sensitivities in mind while making certain extreme statements about food. Science has proven that industrial animal husbandry is a big contributor to global warming. The consensus among scientists, nutritionists and environmentalists is while it is traditional for many cultures around the world to have a meat based diet, it is good idea to reduce the consumption gradually with more focus on plant based meals.
"The meatless Mondays movement is an example of encouraging people to take one such small step by not eating meat on one day of the week. Any kind of extreme activism advocating 100 per cent plant based food is not beneficial in the long run," Iyer maintained.
Noting that there is a need to distinguish between a farmer in rural India raising a handful of animals for his personal consumption versus a company raising lakhs of animals, she said the distinction between a large company with industrial meat production and a village house in India with a goat and two chickens running around for personal consumption is critical in any discussion around the politics and economics of food.
"The latter is sustainable, acceptable and humans have done that for thousands of years and the former is definitely problematic. A poor farmer in rural India may not be able to afford or have access to a wide range of produce or alternate protein sources. A privileged person living in urban India can well afford to replace some of his meat with plant based sources or plant based meat substitutes," Iyer said.
What's her next project?
"As an author, I always feel I'm going to take a break after finishing a book, but I never manage to secure that break. I am working on two exciting book projects and furthering my education in Hindustani classical music. A lot of my non-writing and non-working hours go into riyaaz. Any bonus free time is spent with my son or in my kitchen garden or playing with my pup Ida," Iyer concluded.