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SMART EATING

Making the best of bad food

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Carry a fruit or healthy snack to office

If you are forced to eat out a lot, make some wise decisions about what you’re going to pick — plain dal over makhni, peanuts over chips and dahi over ice cream

She misses home food but there's little Seema Mukherjee can do about it. She is pressed for time and at lunch break, the 28-year-old travel executive ends up at the office canteen ladling greasy aloo sabzi and pulao into her tray. She is often afflicted by guilt pangs for inflicting this fried, spicy fare on her system but says she sees no way out.

"It is hardly the best substitute for home cooked food, " says Nag who moved from Kolkata to Delhi to pursue a career. Since Mukherjee stays alone, cooking at home is hardly a priority. "I often ask myself how best I can manage the situation."

The idea then, as all nutritionists say, is to make 'bad food' - stuff that is restricted not just to office canteens, hostel messes and roadside dhabas but also upmarket restaurants - work to your advantage. Ask Shiv Marwaha, an architect, who has to travel for work every few days. "With my high cholesterol levels, I avoid regular food available outside and end up having probably a plate of freshly cut fruit or cornflakes or a plain omelette for breakfast, " he says. From one who initially enjoyed his dal-makhnis and kadhai paneers, Marwaha, having "realised the folly of having stuff", has now moved on to simple fare like dal-roti or a stuffed kulcha. Sometimes, when traveling by road, he will just have a cup of tea with bread, "much to the dhaba owner's disappointment that I am not trying out his samosas or paranthas".

Of course, the food that's best for your system comes straight from your own kitchen. "It is clean and sensibly prepared, " says clinical nutritionist, Meghna Sharma who often has to brainwash her clients about the kind of food they consume outside. "It's so easy to pick up a bread-pakora or a plate of namak-paras that look delicious but we need to remember that what we eat has a big effect not just on our weight but also our health. So, the trick lies in being sensible about food. " Sharma gives a few examples: "Why not swap ice-cream for fat-free yoghurt, have whole-wheat crackers instead of cream biscuits, or try unsalted, roasted peanuts in place of oily namkeens. "I am sure that once the demand for 'sensible food' picks up, the supply will definitely follow, " she maintains.

It is easy to stick to ideal food options and austere eating patterns when you break from the routine. For instance, recently. media executive Suman Kapoor went on a fortnight-long detox diet at a health retreat. She managed to stabilise her eating habits and knock of a couple of kilos. For a month after she returned to work she conscientiously brought tiffinsfull of salads and healthy food to office. Then her resolve dropped and she went back to her old habits and canteen fare.
"If you have help at home who can do elaborate cooking and packing for you, it can work out but not otherwise, " says the 34-year-old. "I try to make the best of what is available - plain yellow dal with boiled rice with sometimes, a sprinkling of plain peanuts or namkeen, " says Kapoor.

It sometimes takes a crisis to stop people in their tracks and rethink their choices. This is what happened to travel executive Nupur Nath. Office timings she says left her with no time to cook so she ate the canteen thali at her new workplace. Unfortunately she developed a major allergy to the food. "It was tough getting up early just to cook, but I had to do it, " she says. On days when she couldn't, Nath just had to wisen up about eating the best bad food available - "peanuts and chanas or jhal-muri at snack time or a plain tadka-less dal rather than dal-makhni with boiled rice".

The idea is not to get tempted, insists Anuradha Sawhney, who runs a Back to Basics home-food service in Pune. Talking about herself, she remembers how at a big banquet, she picked up tomato soup since it has the least amount of fat and had it with boiled rice. "People were laughing at me but I didn't care. " Another time, Sawhney opted for rice with vegetables, minus the curry they were cooked in. "People normally do the opposite - they leave out the vegetables and have more of the curry. With this choice, I had a large helping of salad that has the maximum fibre and the least fat content. "

For those who are forced to have 'bad food' outside, she suggests rice over rotis (" whatever the cooks there may say, quite a bit of ghee is added to make the rotis soft" ) or paranthas (" maida is an absolute no-no as it has a lot of gluten that sticks to the intestines making absorption of nutrients of other foods difficult" ) and avoid anything that is fried (" you'll pay for it later" ). It isn't tough, Sawhney says, "Once the body gets used to your new diet, things just fall into place, " she insists. Ishi Khosla, author of the recently published, The Diet Doctor agrees, "As it is, food cooked in oil that is not necessarily of good quality, in not-too-hygienic conditions is bad news. " Office canteens, according to her, are mainly about samosas, bread rolls, burgers, chowmein "all oilladen in artery-clogging fat". The vending machines, she says, are stocked with calorie-dense beverages or sugarladen drinks like tea or coffee - "stuff churned out by food contractors with questionable hygiene standards".

She mentions the book, Food At Work: Workplace Solutions for Malnutrition, Obesity and Chronic Diseases, in which the author, Christopher Wanjer, says that the workplace is often a hindrance to good nutrition. It's hard to get a good meal at work. Cafeterias, if they exist, are often expensive and have unhealthy offerings.

Numerous studies, including Wajner's, indicate that office food impacts not just the health of the employee but also that of the company. Khosla cites a US research that indicates that medical bills on account of ill-health caused by obesity amounted US$ 51. 6 billion and led to a loss of productivity of US$ 3. 9 billion done a few years ago. "Not surprisingly, obese workers are twice as likely to miss work. In India, we are getting to that unhealthy state of affairs - there was a time when everyone carried tiffins to work, but not many do that today, " says the nutritionist.

For those who are forced to eat out, wellness consultant, Shikha Sharma suggests simple tips: "I'd say don't make it a regular habit. But if you have to, just ask your canteen guy to make you a sandwich with boiled egg or veggies instead of omelette or have steamed momos instead of a parantha... Once you start thinking healthy, many options will roll out - even from 'bad food', " she says.

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