All that's sweet, fried & nice

All that's sweet, fried & nice

What makes sweets and snacks such an addiction during festivals and is there a good side to this indulgence? Here are some sweet-bitter truths from Monalisa Kar

Call it our DNA, legacy, or habit, but festivals in India are hard to imagine without the bevy of sweets — some syrupy ones as well as some savouries — that are often deep-fried, are delicious, and calorie-rich. As many would explain, these make a festival more festive. Fat-laden, calorie-heavy, fried, sweet food more often than not are add-ons to the natural sense of happiness and holiday cheer that festivals tend to get along with them. Add to that the coming together of families, relatives, and friends, and it almost completes the logical reasoning of why a feast is a must.

After all, food remains not just the biggest social connect and visual representation of good times. But is that the only reason we make and indulge in these dishes during festivals — especially during Deepavali — despite its recurring “unhealthy” reputation? In parts, says nutritional therapist Shveta Bhasin, who finds our attraction towards fried and sweet food during festivals both a game of the mind and that of craving derived from either the body’s need for energy or certain nutrients. It is around these two aspects that most of our traditional food habits and systems are designed.

Take for instance Deepavali. The festival usually falls during the onset of winters, a time when the human body undergoes two distinct changes, the first being low serotonin levels because of lack of sunlight and Vitamin D. It is a lacuna that the body often manifests by the craving for sweet, high on fat and calorie things, especially fried food that has this 3D effect on our senses. And two, due to winters, the body’s need for energy spikes as a lot of it goes into maintaining the thermal balance of the body to evade any form of seasonal change ailments. This need shows itself by our constant desire to have foods that have a high concentration of carbohydrates and have a high GI index, usually processed food.

It was, continues Shveta, “to counter these effects, that a series of dishes were created that not only scored on complex carbohydrates but also were treats that had the necessary fat content to lower the GI levels to give that satiation feeling like pinni, besan ke laddoo, karanji, imarti, rabri, barfi and even pakoras that had the key ingredient as a good source of fibre, antioxidants, minerals and other essential nutrients.”

In fact, adds culinary researcher Chef Vikas Seth, “it was one of the significant reasons why ghee was used so widely in the making of most of the winter treats. It invariably became a part of the festive celebrations as a source of fat as ghee was easy to process and had the highest smoking point which limited the process of release of free radicals that contribute to the aetiology of chronic health problems. That aside, as a fat it had all the advantages of aroma that according to researchers aids towards the feeling of hunger and satiation.

Or in other words, results in the same sense of smell-based craving and early satiation as freshly baked bread would. That aside, ghee takes a good amount of time to digest thus prolonging the absorption of carbohydrates which allows the body to stay satiated for a long time while having enough reserves to stay active through the day.”

This explains why most meals had during the first half of the day are mostly heavy and comprise of at least one or two fried items or that of sweet cooked in fat.” The other aspect that most of these foods work on, continues Chef Seth, is creating a phenomenon called food bliss through a clever pairing of fat, sugar, and sodium. A concept that the different regions of the brain namely, the hippocampus, insula, and caudate store as comfort food, and is a memory that is triggered immediately by the brain as and when the need arises, which is when the source of energy depletes. Incidentally, in winters because of the low level of serotonin and a spike in cortisol (stress hormone), the need for nutrients often manifests itself as a craving for such food.

But what really happens when we eat fried food or sweet food? First the sugar and starch spur serotonin, a happy hormone, then sodium kicks in the oxytocin, or the “cuddle chemical” which is a hormone that makes you feel the same way as you would if a loved one hugs you (and in some cases orgasm too). For the brain that survives mostly on fat, these foods are like the morning cup of joe that kicks in a sense of joy and a boost of energy that activates the pleasure receptors in the brain.

Neurologists define this phase as a “reward zone”. Unregulated, this process can easily bypass the normal fullness mechanism, create an imbalance between production and accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in cells and tissues that have the ability of a biological system to detoxify these reactive products and enter a phase of a dopamine rush.  It is here, says Shveta, “where the issue lies with these fried, sweet, high calorie and high cholesterol foods that within limits aid in building the cell membrane and making of hormones like oestrogen, testosterone and adrenaline in the absence of Vitamin D. Fat, which is known to enhance the flavour molecules, is the reason why you can taste the deliciousness of halwa even before you take a bite. It throws you into an uncontrollable urge to overeat one form of food resulting in extra calories that often sits as a residue rather than energy in our body.” A dull agni — which as per Ayurveda is responsible for digestion — and an overworked liver only adds to the issue of residual food that remains unutilised and can become a threat to the system. So why was such an elaborate segment of fried, calorie-rich platter of sweets and savoury dishes designed into our food space?

Traditionally, say experts, “most of the dishes were created for an era when people had a more active lifestyle and could burn out most of the food consumed within that day. Today, with a sedentary lifestyle, most of these foods, while retaining the original goodness, need to be limited and paired with food that offsets their negative effect. Have a good amount of fibre, greens, and bitters along with sweets and fried food, says Shveta, “as one way of balancing it out instead of baking that often keeps the fat rather than straining it out in case of frying. And to have most of it around the first half when the possibility of activities is more than in the night.”

Another reason why such foods worked for our ancestors was the timeline. Deepavali especially falls after a month and a half long time of the month of Kartik and Navratris — a time when food habits turn to more starchy, high on fibre and protein food along with fasting. Each of these, says Chef Seth, “along with fasting helps the body burn any residual energy and helps the liver and the digestive tract undergo the necessary maintenance to be ready for the calorie-heavy diet of winters. Thus, having a system that is spruced enough to take on the heavy-duty work of a diet that is high on fat and calories, and manage the cravings that arise due to deficiency of a certain ingredient.”

Even then, frequent addition of food naturally rich in vitamins and antioxidants is required to keep up the digestive prowess and negate the after-effects of occasional indulgence. And since the aftermath of overindulgence in such high fat, high-calorie food is hard to balance, the best route is moderation.

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