EAT THREE MEALS and don’t snack in-between. Not because I am dieting, but because if I snack—that is, consume a food or drink between meals—I am unable to do full justice to lunch or dinner. That upsets me because I really look forward to my lunch. Others may not have this problem. They may snack and also devour their main meals. Snacking, says a National Institute of Health study, contributes close to one-third of daily energy intake, with many snacks consisting of energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods. Indians love their snacks, particularly traditional ones—pakodas, masala peanuts, sev, Bombay Mix, kurkure, bhujiya, and so on. Not surprisingly, the savoury snacks market in India is ready to hit the Rs 1 lakh crore mark by the end of the current decade, growing at a healthy double-digit pace, according to consultancy firm Ikon, with the branded segment holding 60 per cent of it.
Why do we snack? Because we can. Think about it—our ancestors who experienced food scarcity would have consumed food during daylight hours, leaving long hours of fasting overnight. But we, with 24-hour electricity, can eat at all hours. Studies show that exposure to artificial light for prolonged periods causes, at least in rodents, an increased disposition to metabolic diseases. It wouldn’t be surprising if the same were true of those of us who work night shifts, for instance, in call centres. Other studies have shown a relationship between snacking and emotional turmoil and with social factors such as being in poor neighbourhoods and not getting access to fresh fruit, and so on. Several studies make a distinction between fibre and nutrient rich snacks such as nuts, and junk food such as chips, with the latter category being deemed as the culprit for obesity and other health issues plaguing our worlds. Snacking, guilt, ill-health, and obesity have become a vicious cycle for us in the 21st century.
Is there a way to break out of it? Like our brains, does our body create new pathways based on what we have consumed in the past, and lead us to choices that determine our snacking patterns? What if our bodies, like our minds, have different reactions and very complex relationships with food and snacking? I read voraciously and widely, so the connections I make between different fields would be dissimilar to those of someone who reads deeply and perhaps only non-fiction, or only military history, and may not connect how one gardens to ideas about citizenship. They may, however, be able to tell you the precise details of Napoleon’s battle plan to conquer Europe.
I prowled through the world of science for an answer to the question of what you choose to eat, whether you snack, and how frequently you do so. Your first choices of food, it seems, may be determined by genes. We have taste receptors related to sweet, fat and bitter tastes. As pre-schoolers, we choose specific foods based on the genetic variants related to these taste receptors, that is what researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada found. Other researchers from Norway found that a diet with 65 per cent carbohydrates, which is often what the average Norwegian eats in some meals, causes a number of classes of genes to work overtime. This affects not only the genes that cause inflammation in the body, which was what we originally wanted to study, but also genes associated with development of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, dementia, and type 2 diabetes—all the major lifestyle-related diseases, they say. This means that the same foods may be healthy for one genetic pattern but not for another. Forget pill popping—all those expensive omega 3 supplements for a healthy heart may have a placebo effect for your body, but may be very effective for Inuits eating fatty fish and meat. Why? Because they have genes that break down fatty acids differently from us.
It is an accepted medical fact that the brain and the stomach are intimately connected. The brain sends signals to the digestive system
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The ‘what you choose to eat’ question has a more robust answer in science than the ‘how frequently’ you choose to eat. The evidence concerning the effects of snack foods on obesity has been mixed, with a number of interventional and observational studies not finding a link between snack foods and increased weight status.
In this technologically infused age, we even have a start- up—Habit—whose founder Neil Grimmer claims to have found the gene-mother of all diets. Habit collects the right biological inputs (DNA etcetera) and converts them into a perfectly tailored diet. “Powered by big data and computational biology, for the first time ever we’re able to tap into nutritional insights that live inside our DNA, our blood work, our gut microbiome, and even our metabolism,” Grimmer told aTED crowd. Based on your DNA, you are slotted into one of seven Habit types, each with dozens of sub-variations from ‘Slow Seeker’ (best suited for foods rich in fibre and carbs that are absorbed slowly) to ‘Fat Seeker’ (‘fat is a valuable fuel source for you’). Along with receiving your tribal designation, you’re assigned a personalised eating plan, depicting your ideal plate, suggested nutrient goals and daily calorie target.
But before you rush off and pay a whopping $300 for the diet recommendations, there might be an easier way to deal with snacking. Mind over matter—that is the key. If you think that snacking would cause all sorts of health-related problems, think again. In Mind over Food: How Your Brain Eats, Marc David highlights an interesting titbit about how our brain communicates with the digestive organs. ‘The information highway of brain, spinal cord, and nerves is like a telephone system through which your mind communicates with your digestive organs.’ If you are about to eat an ice-cream cone, the notion and image of that ice cream occurs in the higher centre of the brain—the cerebral cortex. From there, information is relayed electrochemically to the limbic system, which regulates emotions, hunger, thirst, temperature, sex drive, heart rate and blood pressure. Within this system, a pea-sized collection of tissues known as the hypothalamus integrates the activities of the mind with the biology of the body—it transforms the sensory, emotional and thought aspects into physiological responses.
If you love chocolate fondant and devour it with complete delight, the hypothalamus will send activation signals to your stomach, intestines etcetera via a positive channel— parasympathetic nerve fibres. Your digestive system will be stimulated fully, making it burn calories more efficiently. However, if you eat the ice cream and feel guilty, or scold yourself for succumbing to it, the hypothalamus will use the ‘guilt’ channel, the sympathetic fibres, to send the signals, resulting in an inhibitory response from the digestive organs. Translation: not just indigestion but also less calorie burning, and more storage of this guilt-infused fondant as body fat. Thoughts are transformed into physiological responses in your body. Scary, right?
There is an upside to this finding when it comes to snacking. To fully metabolise the snacks, try this experiment. Scoop a spoon of fresh Sitaphal ice cream from Naturals and savour it. Think how delicious it is, how much you are enjoying the flavour and how great life is. Relax and day dream. See what happens to its digestion.
It is, by now, an accepted medical fact that the brain and the stomach are intimately connected. Those who experience irritable bowel syndrome do so primarily because their brains translate high stress into poor digestion. Now we know how it is done—the brain sends signals through a negative pathway.
This emotional-physiological connection between the mind and the body is interestingly captured by a fundamental proposition articulated by a number of religions and philosophies: mind over matter, carpe diem, seize the day, live in the moment, live joyously because tomorrow we die, and so on.
Just like we have unique fingerprints and, just like how our reading habits shape the way we observe and think, our bodies too are differently designed by us, by our experiences, by what we eat, by what we taste and how our genetic make- up responds to taste, smell and the texture of food, and most importantly, how we think about what we eat.
Lower your stress and guilt, be at peace with the world and consume each morsel with delight, and your digestion and metabolism may improve by leaps and bounds.