Take a look around your kitchen. Chances are there's more junk and less nutrition in there than you think.
Most urban Indian homes now stock sweets, pastries or sugary cookies; cabinets are packed with instant noodles and packets of sev; freezers stocked with ready-to-eat goods laden with harmful preservatives. There are probably less vegetables in your crisper than you think; and less fruit on your dining table.
Indians are spending more on food, but getting less nutrition, as the fat, starch and sugar content in meals shoots up.
The National Sample Survey Organisation, through its periodic surveys, provides insight into gradual changes in eating habits. Its report for 2011-12, released two weeks ago, shows that the intake of staples such as cereal is falling, and being replaced by processed and packaged foods.
Interestingly, the NSSO survey covers the period when the economy opened up and incomes rose. This is also a period when health surveys have shown growing incidences of lifestyle and food-related ailments.
"The findings show that while incomes have risen, the food choices that people are now making are not necessarily healthy," says Pranob Sen, chairman of the National Statistical Commission.
As a result of the 'empty calories', in fact, average nutritional intake per person per day has actually dropped - from 2,099 calories in urban India in 1993-94 to 2,058 calories in 2011-12. The standard of required energy in urban areas as defined by the government of India is 2,160 calories per adult per day.
The intake of fat, meanwhile, has shot up, from 42 gm per person per day in 1993-94 to 58 gm.
"Far too many people are switching from home food to refined and processed foods that come in packets. Many think that because they do not suffer from any lifestyle diseases, they're doing ok. They do not realise that even rough skin, dry hair, headaches and weakening memory are all symptoms, results of not eating right - and signs of possible oncoming lifestyle diseases," says nutritionist Mehar Panjwani."
Rising incidences of diabetes and cardiac ailments show that nutrition education in schools is a must," adds VLCC nutritionist Dr Veena Aggarwal.
'When eating out, there are no rules'
The Bavkars are big on chocolate, mithai and processed snacks, and eat out thrice a week.
Their four-door refrigerator is stocked with chocolates, milk-based sweets and pastries.
"It is our weakness and we know it's not healthy, but we can't resist," says Sachin, 44, who has two children and runs an advertising business with his wife.
"Ours is definitely a family of foodies. All of us find it hard to say no to delicious food. But we try to incorporate some healthy food habits to compensate for this."
For instance, Sachin and wife Devaki start their day with a portion of hot water, lemongrass and cinnamon. And kids Aalhad, 11, and Sana, 14, eat a portion of fruit every day in their compulsory fruit break at school. Eggs are eaten three times a week, fried, scrambled or whipped into omelettes.
The Bavkars' frequent indulgences: Processed foods like ready-to-eat parathas; fried snacks like chakli and sev; chocolate, mithai and sugary pastries
"Eggs give proteins and a lot of other nutrients," says Aalhad.
These are the only food norms followed in the house. Breakfast may include cheese and corn dosas, pasta or egg rolls. On days when Devaki does not feel like cooking, she cuts open a packet of ready-to-eat parathas.
"I try to make the breakfast as healthy as possible by including lot of veggies in the dosas or opting for whole-wheat pasta," she says.
Lunch usually consists of masala bhaat, dal and rice or pulao. The kids buy vada pav, sandwiches or dosas as snacks at school.
The rest of the day, all four binge on fried snacks such as chakli and sev.
Dinner is usually bhakri or khichdi with a green vegetable, but twice or thrice a week the family eats out instead.
"When eating out, there are no rules followed," says Sachin. "And when we go out of town, there is just no stopping us. In fact we choose our destinations depending on the food. Like we went to a place in Nashik just because it serves amazing Maharashtrian food."
Devaki has had to cut down on her walks over the past three months, because of her rheumatoid arthritis. Sachin walks for 45 minutes every day; Aalhad has joined an athletics class. Sana does not exercise.
Inputs: Riddhi Doshi
'Taste scores over all else when it comes to snacks'
Banker Soumili Mukherjee, 32, swears by ready-to-eat processed foods. She and her husband of four years, a government employee, snack on prawn and chicken nuggets, chicken popcorn, sausages or salami every evening; her in-laws eat these as evening snacks too.
"After the tiring day's work, we all want something delicious," says Soumili.
"I don't feel like cooking anything elaborate, so frying some chicken nuggets or prawn torpedoes saves time and gives us all food that we can enjoy."
Mukherjee says she knows that many of these snacks contain harmful trans-fats and are high on cholesterol.
The Mukherjees' frequent indulgences: Ready-to eat prawn and chicken nuggets, chicken popcorn, sausages and salami, aloo tikkis and haryali kebabs; take-out foods such as pizza and sandwiches (Photo: Samir Jana/HT)
"I never bother to read the labels while picking up my favourite items from the store," she adds. "For us, it is taste that matters. Taste scores over everything."
Mukherjee says she and her family try to make up for the unhealthy snacks with relatively healthy meals.
"For a Bengali family, it is normal to have up to three snacking sessions a day. My family indulges only in evening snacks. The rest of the day, we are careful to have healthy meals. Our breakfast consists of oats, cornflakes and omelettes. At lunch and dinner, we try to avoid rice and eat chapatis, fish or chicken curry, and dal. We also try and keep the meals low on oil."
Vegetables and fruit are not a focus area, Soumili admits, but her family does not have health issues and is not even overweight, she adds.
Eating out is usually at tea time too, with the Mukherjees visiting a pizza parlour or sandwich café near their home.
"We have a lot of cheese and mayonnaise during these outings. I know indulging in even 1% sugar or empty calories is bad for health. But when I am indulgent, there is no point in feeling guilty. Instead, I make it a point to go for long walks every day to maintain my health. In fact, I have lost weight compared to three years ago, because of the walking."
Inputs: Mou Chakraborty
The Mukherjees' frequent indulgences: Ready-to eat prawn and chicken nuggets, chicken popcorn, sausages and salami, aloo tikkis and haryali kebabs; take-out foods such as pizza and sandwiches
'I hate all vegetables'
Sales executive Naresh Mathur, 48, and his wife Arpana, 42, usually eat home-cooked roti-sabzi for lunch and dinner and snack on sprouts, fruits and salads - all things that their children will not touch at home.
The three kids - aged 10, 14 and 18 - instead make themselves instant noodles, pre-prepared processed snacks like paneer nuggets, and sandwiches roasted in ghee, loaded with cheese and mayonnaise "but no veggies!".
They also like packaged fried snacks like bhujia-sev, cheesy pizzas and pasta dishes or buttery pav bhaji when eating out, cold coffee with lot of cream and sugar, and aerated drinks.
(Photo: Himanshu Vyas/HT)
This is their diet, breakfast, tea time and dinner. Lunch is roti-sabzi for the younger ones, because that's what the school mandates, for health reasons.
"School is very strict," says 10-year-old Gungun, "but once I come home, I binge on my favourites."
The eldest, Suhani, says she hates all vegetables. "In college I survive on fast food and colas. I know these things are not good for my health, but they are so tasty," she adds.
Naresh and Aparna say they try to get their children to eat more nutritious food, but usually succumb to the kids' demands for junk food, consoling themselves that at least they are eating.
"Their diet is not good, but they will change their eating habits once they grow up," says Naresh. "That is what happened with me. Right now, they are watching all these tempting ads on TV and refuse to eat ghar ka khana."
Inputs: P Srinivasan
'There's no time to cook'
Manprit and Shruti Shergill prefer simple, home-cooked meals. Shruti even loves to cook. But the couple ends up eating out at least three times a week.
"Work pressure means that I often don't have the time to cook," says Shruti, who runs a wedding photography business.
"Often, I'll be out for a client meeting and end up ordering coffee and a burger or a sandwich. There are days when this is repeated several times a day."
Her husband, a freelance photographer and cinematographer, also eats out and skips meals more often than he'd like.
The Shergills frequent indulgences:Restaurant meals; chocolate and mithai; instant noodles (Photo: Subrata Biswas/HT)
"Commuting really messes up meal timings; you end up eating wherever and whenever you can," says Manprit.
The 28-year-olds admit, however, that they are also foodies who love to try out new restaurants. "We try to avoid greasy pizzas and pastas. But you can tell that the food is never quite as healthy as at home."
Manprit and Shruti say they are still eating healthier than they were four years ago, when they were dating and living on fast food, junk food, and oily, spicy office canteen fare. After Manprit developed a digestive disorder, they made a conscious decision to 'eat healthier'.
"I know that some of the food we eat is still very high on sodium and fat and is not good for us," says Shruti. "But there's not much more we can do."
Inputs: Namita Kohli
'I don't know what to believe about food any more'
Banker Tejinder Singh Ahluwalia, 38, likes to joke that he's a "pure non-vegetarian". His parents, meanwhile, have a sweet tooth and cannot eat chapatis without ghee. And his two children, aged 4 and 5, are hooked on cheesy pizzas and chocolate.
"I'm not sure if cheese is too bad. After all, it's made of milk… I really don't know what to believe any more," he says. "What one reads about food is so confusing. First they say milk is good, then they say milk is not good. Ghee became a four-letter word in the kitchen, so we restricted its use. Now we read that it's good for the joints."
Ahluwalia's wife Neeru says she is becoming concerned about the family's diet.
The Ahluwalias' frequent indulgences: Mithai; pre-packaged frozen foods, soups and instant noodles; cheesy pizzas, burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken (Photo: Gurpreet Singh/HT)
"I think we need to cut down on the high-fat meat preparations that Tejinder prefers over vegetables and dal," says the homemaker. "We keep a close watch on his cholesterol and make sure he exercises. I also make sure everyone has eggs, fruit, salad and curd once a day."
The family does not eat out much during the week, Neeru says, adding with a pause, "the children do call for pizzas quite often, and snack on pre-packaged frozen foods, soups and instant noodles."
When eating out, the family prefers burgers, fried chicken and hot dogs. "I know these are not good, but then once in a while, we feel it's ok," Neeru adds.
The Ahluwalias' fridge is also full of boxes of sweets. "I cannot resist mithai," says Tejinder's mother Paramjit Kaur, 70. "I'm glad I am not diabetic, but I am always worried that I am eating too much sugar."
Neeru says they are now having difficulty getting the two kids to cut down on chocolate. "They end up crying for it at the market," she adds. Chocolate and cold drinks are not kept in the house, adds Tejinder. "It's only rarely that these are allowed."
Inputs: Chitleen Kaur Sethi