To Eat or Not to Eat?

Health is in our hands. And it’s not complicated: eat and drink everything, but in moderation, go natural and avoid processed foods as far as possible, and then go burn the calories in the open

A health report in the Independent Online UK cites an article in the British Medical Journal by Dr Aseem Malhotra, a top cardiologist at Croydon University Hospital, who ‘argues that saturated fats have been “demonised” since a major study in 1970 linked increased levels of heart disease with high cholesterol and high saturated fat intake.’

He is quoted as saying that ‘four decades of medical wisdom that cutting down on saturated fats reduces our risk of heart disease may be wrong. Fatty foods that have not been processed – such as butter, cheese, eggs and yoghurt – can even be good for the heart, and repeated advice that we should cut our fat intake may have actually increased risks of heart disease.’

Ah bon? There we go again, I told myself, trust our physician friends, the real doctors – compared to us surgeons, cutters… Non, mais… All right then, so what do we eat? Or do we eat at all? Tell you guys what, let’s all go for brede mouroum baton mouroum and all will be fine, I swear.

And I mean it. Except that we have to go for alternatives to brede mouroum baton mouroum, a rare commodity nowadays. A look at the past century in our country, especially in its latter half, shows that if people escaped death from infectious diseases (including rheumatic heart disease) or accidents, and women additionally from complications of delivery, chances are that they lived to a ripe old age. I personally have known many such seniors in my childhood locality in Curepipe Road, comprising of the area bounded by Lapeyrouse, Abbe Laval, and Prosper d’Epinay streets. And I am sure that many Mauritians of my generation around the country who come from similar modest backgrounds would have a comparable experience.

We would all remember that we ate mostly from our own gardens, where all varieties of vegetables of common usage were grown, a process in which we took an active part too. Not always very happily because often we felt it was a chore, but I recall spending many a happy moment in the garden. For a start, climbing trees, and going and inspecting a pumpkin that big, which had been covered with cloth to prevent it from being damaged by snails and other parasites. Ditto for cucumbers. There were bredes of all varieties, along with salads and the spice herbs such as thyme, cotomili.

Really, the list is too long for me to enumerate, suffice it to say that the trip to the market was only to get a few things that we didn’t grow in quantity, such as tomato or potato, and also fruits not available in the region such as pineapple and those that were imported such as oranges, apples. But we had peach, and three types of guava: white, pink and gargoulettes; there was a prolific bibasse tree, and a very graceful-looking cherry tree on which I watched the cherries bloom and mature, inviting us to make them part of our constitutions! You want to have arouille violette at teatime? Go dig a huge one from the deep end of the garden, where the fatak used to make brooms served as a boundary. I can almost get the aroma of the boiled root, steaming as the hot peel was being pulled off. And manioc too, there next to the poids carre which climbed on the tonnelle prepared for it.

My dada (paternal grandfather) was so fond of the vegetable called bokla that during the season for it almost the whole garden was converted into a bokla field – and when it was ready, he would eat the stuff almost daily. We kids came to hate bokla, although we had a great time playing hide and seek among the tall plants. The pods had a thick, dark green skin, and the seeds looked like soya seeds in colour, only more kidney-shaped. The recipe was: bokla with potato chunks in dry masala – homemade on the sil – to be eaten with parathas made of white flour, for we never used the brown variety in those days. For the past couple of years my vendor in Curepipe bazaar has sold bokla, and only about three weeks ago I had the opportunity to relish it in the same manner as of old, having erased the unpleasant memories and honouring in some way that of my late dada. I am hoping to grow my own bokla next season.

Coarse salt was used for the dishes, and white sugar was routinely used to sweeten tea and anything else At night in the cold winter months, we would sit by the rechaud and warm ourselves with the heat coming from its dying coal embers, as we listened to the elders telling us stories.

As for medicinal plants, they covered the range that catered for ailments ranging from the common cold to colic and itchy skin problems. And by golly they were effective!

Another point worth mentioning is that meat was consumed infrequently, mostly non-veg stuff was salted items, and fish and octopus bought from the itinerant seller on his bicycle, and chicken rarely. Eggs came from the poultry pen that we kept. There was no fridge, and no fizzy drinks were kept in the house: they too were consumed only on rare occasions, in glasses and not directly from the bottle (no cans then). Alcohol was off limit for all but the adults, social drinking mostly. Whoever smoked could afford only the cheaper brands like Chasseur or Matelot, Matinee was too expensive for the masses. I remember the words, spoken half-jokingly (in the woods), of a late friend from the judiciary who used to smoke Matelot. We had teased him about being a miser, since he could well afford a ‘luxury’ brand. No one has proven, he said, that la paille coco gives cancer!

Practically every home had its kitchen garden, and we shared the produce with relatives who visited. I do not remember any spraying of pesticides, or the use of anything but cowdung as fertiliser. Working in one’s garden and helping to cut the bamboo hedge was bracing physical exercise, although at times one did feel the tiredness. Besides, fresh milk – though at times mixed with water! – was bought from the milk vendor carrying the precious liquid in a metal container snugly fitted to the bicycle frame.

On this base of unadulterated foods from one’s garden, tap water, and expenditure of the calories through the hard work involved around the house and the garden, happily toiled and long lived our elders.

Let us hear again what Dr Malhotra told The Independent: ‘From the analysis of the independent evidence that I have done, saturated fat from non-processed food is not harmful and probably beneficial. Butter, cheese, yoghurt and eggs are generally healthy and not detrimental. The food industry has profited from the low-fat mantra for decades because foods that are marketed as low-fat are often loaded with sugar. We are now learning that added sugar in food is driving the obesity epidemic and the rise in diabetes and cardiovascular disease.’

Besides, ‘a recent study indicated that 75 per cent of acute heart attack patients have normal cholesterol concentrations, suggesting that cholesterol levels are not the real problem’, besides ‘figures suggesting the amount of fat consumed in the US has gone down in the past 30 years while obesity rates have risen.’

Further, ‘bad diet advice has also led to millions of patients being prescribed statins to control their blood pressure… when simply adopting a Mediterranean diet might be more effective.’

But there is an opposite view, that of Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, who said: ‘Studies on the link between diet and disease frequently produce conflicting results because, unlike drug trials, it’s very difficult to undertake a properly controlled, randomised study. However, people with highest cholesterol levels are at highest risk of a heart attack.’

And then another study will come along, and then… and then… We have tried it all, haven’t we, fashion-wise: low-carb/high carb, low sugar/ no sugar, brown/white sugar, white flour/ brown flour, not to mention the stifling information overload on what and what not to eat and drink. And we all know what is happening: soaring rates of heart disease, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, etc., nevetheless.

Point is: health is in our hands. And it’s not complicated: eat and drink everything, but in moderation, go natural (a little kitchen garden?) and avoid processed foods as far as possible, and then go burn the calories in the open. As our truly grand elders used to do.

Happy eating!


* Published in print edition on 25 October 2013

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