Three lessons from India on shrinking your stomach
Hunger and appetite are huge, resonant words. They have much more of an emotional pull, compared to other words that describe sensations: smell, touch, see, hear and taste.
Hunger is connected to taste and it carries this primal longing. The sweet smell of success, for example is good alliteration but it simply doesn't match the raw energy of someone being "hungry for success".
Describing someone as a soft touch is, well, soft and placid. When you say that a nation - or individual - is hungry for success, for change, for growth, you can practically visualise this happening.
The same positive connotation applies to appetite. When someone is vibrant and passionate, we say that he has a large "appetite for life".
Author Robert Caro, when writing about Robert Moses, New York City's "power broker" who changed the landscape of that city, described him as a man of large appetites. Appetite and hunger are associated with ambition, drive, and relentless pursuit of dreams. As the fight against obesity gains ground, its proponents need to factor in the linguistic significance of the words associated with it.
What is it about obesity that has made it a pet cause of the moment, with everyone from Michelle Obama to Laila Ali wielding their bull horn for it? Is it that obese people are, well, obvious? Or is it a cause with little controversy? Both Obama and Ali are well-intentioned but their message of healthy living needs to be modified East of the Bosphorus.
In South Asia, where I sit, for example, it is childhood malnourishment, not obesity, that is the chief cause for concern. Children are born with frighteningly low birth weights and the battle to regain nutritional stability continues throughout their lives.
I don't presume to know much about malnourishment. The city where I live, Bangalore, has poverty, but the urban poor that I encounter are marginally malnourished. Many of the women are anaemic but they are not necessarily underweight. They are active, doing menial housework for a living and they have learnt to work with and control their appetite.
While travelling East, campaigners against obesity such as Ms Ali, can modify their message; but they can also incorporate valuable lessons from people who are forced to curb their appetite. It will provide a nice variation from simply repeating, "Eat your vegetables".
Here are some (forgive me) tongue-in-cheek measures about how to keep your tongue in check. The obesity police can feel free to adopt and modify these messages.
1. How do restaurant staffers prevent themselves from wolfing down the expensive chocolate and delectable meats that are available to them on site? By telling themselves that the foie gras, chèvre cheese or dark chocolate, don't belong to them. By telling themselves that they may crave that creme brûlée that is lined up against the counter when hunger pangs strike, but they are not allowed to touch food until it is served in the banquet that evening. This same rule could be used in your own house. When you open the pantry to pull out a piece of pie or a bar of chocolate, why not pretend that it doesn't belong to you? The people who help us and cook for us do this routinely.
2. Shrink your stomach. Again, this is a lesson from the staff, both at home and at the restaurant. The average cook eats his first meal at 3pm. I have witnessed this first hand and have heard it reported as well. When you are busy working; when you are racing against the 2pm check-in at a hotel, most diligent workers don't stop to eat. They stave off hunger by chewing gum. The net result of these postponed meals is that your stomach muscle shrinks and forces you to eat less.
3. When you eat, sit down and take your time. Have you ever watched poor people eat? At least in India, they don't eat in a hurried fashion. They relish their food. They actually sit down together and take pleasure in what they are eating. Compare this with hurried TV dinners, or chewing a sandwich while surfing the internet. Where is the pleasure in that? Are you tasting your food?
Eat slow, eat late and tell yourself that high-calorie foods don't "belong" to you. That will keep the diet-doctor away.
Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir.
Updated: April 26, 2013 04:00 AM