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Ditching Tribal Food Habits Has Rapidly Worsened People’s Health In The North East

One day one of our professors jokingly asked whether we knew the actual impression foreigners held about India. Then we asked him “What is it?” He said foreigners think that Indians cannot eat anything without spices, and that there are cows on the roads in India. Although he said it jokingly, there is some truth to it.

Indian food is heavy in carbs, oily, and most Indians have a diabetic health structure. That is why India has been called the Diabetic Capital of the world. This is the reality of India. Having a spicy dish with your family in a luxury restaurant once a month is not bad. But covering your food with too much spice is really not healthy. Of course, a certain amount of onion, garlic, ginger, and black pepper can be put in food to make it tasty. But your meat masala should not be used in such a volume that after eating, you have to wash your hand five times to remove the colour of your food from your hands! Packed spices are chemically processed. Maggi was banned in India on June 6, 2015, by The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) because it was found to contain a high amount of lead to make it tastier. That was the first time we realised that Maggi’s tagline, “taste bhi health bhi” (taste and health), was wrong.

Photo by meenakshi madhavan/Flickr.

And what about sweets? Most shopping complexes have tea stalls with a Nestlé outlet, and sweets of various colours. People eat these as if it was the last time they would ever get a chance to. I don’t think these people have the right to go to the doctors to treat their Type-II diabetes!

Various research says that tea is a good source of anti-oxidants. Now days, some go for organic green tea also. It’s a good thing, although I am doubtful these teas are really organic. But tea with heavy amounts of sugar and chemically manufactured milk is no less than poison for our body.

Compared to the rest of India, the Northeast has different food habits, and most Northeastern people are non-vegetarian. People in the Northeast tribal belt prefer boiled food, and put a lot of local herbs in their cooking. Arunachal Pradesh is a very good example. People here have incredible knowledge about local herbs and how to use them. Here, as well as in other tribal states of the Northeast, people consume just the right amount of protein. They are very fond of non-vegetarian food, and sometimes we overdose on meat also! But the major problem now is that the consumption patterns of these meat-and-homemade-food-loving people has shifted to various fast food chains and restaurants.

The source of meat supply in earlier tribal society was hunting and pastoralism. Now the source of meat is a poultry farm, a pork farm, or others. Farming is not bad, but the way various chemicals are used to make livestock grow faster and fatter ultimately creates health problems for a person consuming this food. Besides, at home, although people continue to eat boiled food, town areas like Itanagar, Naharlagun, and Pashighat are flourishing with various fast food options. These chains ad their ads introduce a completely new food habit to the tribal people. Youths are the major victims of this. We have a general perception that, because of an active lifestyle and healthy food habits, tribal people in Arunachal Pradesh are healthier. It is true to a large extent, but because of changes in food habits, we’re seeing an increasing number of overweight, if not obese, people in various parts of the capital city Itanagar.

Photo credit: ©Karen Conniff, Mountain Partnership for FAO/Flickr.

Nagas are also very fond of their traditional food habits. They are also very good at making boiled food, enriched with protein. But, after the entry of an ‘urban lifestyle’, what we see in a place like Mokokchung is a certain kind of food only. At least for the town area, pork has almost become a staple food along with rice, and most people eat it there every day. This is an imbalanced diet. Eating only meat leads to various nutrient deficiencies, and most of the time eating only one kind of meat may be more problematic. Meat is a rich source of protein, but where are the micronutrients? Where is the fibre? Nagas, especially Ao Nagas, have their dinner early in the evening (mostly before six o’clock) which is a very good habit. Heavy food after sunset is considered bad for health.

There are three major issues regarding food habits in most of India. Firstly, taking surplus carbs is a huge problem. It is a major cause of Type-II diabetes, high levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) and cholesterol, among other issues. Secondly, protein deficiency is another tragedy in a developing country like India. According to Livestrong, this causes skinny legs and swollen bellies. The third problem is a lack of micronutrients. But in the case of the Northeast, the picture is a little different. Northeasterns are non-vegetarian. They eat meat, fish, eggs and other sources of animal protein. So the problem regarding the Northeastern diet is not protein deficiency, it is an imbalance in the sources of protein.

Meat is a muscle building food, but having a large amount of red meat with a large amount of alcohol is really dangerous for anyone’s liver, and increases the risk of cancer. It was only a few months ago that fish imported from Andhra Pradesh was banned in states like Nagaland and Assam. It was found that it contained cancer-causing formalin. The same fish was available in various daily markets of Arunachal Pradesh. Consumers were not aware of what they were buying and did not even ask the shopkeepers about the risks.

A woman at a food stall in Kohima, Nagaland. Photo by abrinsky/Flickr.
A woman at a food stall in Kohima, Nagaland. Photo by abrinsky/Flickr.

Tribal lifestyle in the state is also changing. Instead of the earlier, labour-intensive practice of shifting cultivation, people are now engaged at the office, school, or shops, where they lack physical activity. If the diet is not adjusted along with lifestyle changes, then in the coming decade we will see a lot of diabetes and cardio patients in Northeast.

Let us come to the case of Assam. Whenever we talk about Assam, we cannot overlook the work of the social reformer Srimanta Sankardeva. Just notice the kind of food that Assamese people use in any religious ceremony. Inspired by Sankardeva, people use moong dal (mung bean), coconut, kumal saol (or Boka Saol, a local rice which has recently got GI tag), or curd. These are not artificially produced substances. These are healthy. Even the songs and dances created by Sankardeva definitely have health benefits too.

You cannot enter the namghar (Assamese prayer hall) without taking a bath; that means you have to be clean.

During Bihu (harvest festival) as well, Assamese people clean their houses, and use jaak (burning dry straw to get rid of mosquitos), as well as use mehendi (henna leaf paste), and turmeric on the body, which is good for skin. Because of the richness of the state’s rivers, Assamese people use to eat fish as a source of protein and other nutrients.

Fried samosas. Image source: Pixabay.

But now the spectre of globalisation has already entered our lives. Globalisation is a process which has brought lots of opportunities along with lots of dangers. Fast food is one of these dangers. Today’s youth brag about how many times they visit KFC or Domino’s, totally ignoring how these modern foods are harming them.

No doubt jalebi and samosa have gotten a generic identity across India. It has become part of our great Indian culture. We respect it. We all have nostalgia for garam samosa (hot samosas) on cold, rainy days. But it doesn’t mean that we will eat only samosas every day. Eating fast food itself is not taboo, but we should limit ourselves. Treating a friend on your birthday to a meal at a fast food restaurant is not bad. But making it a habit is dangerous.

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