This fascinating topic takes us to a timeline 40 to 50 years ago and before.
The extended family was intact. So there were plenty of hands to share household chores and quality time to prepare food together from age-old recipes, to eat and to feed children. A number of curries, sambols, chutneys, pickles and short eats were prepared in a day at home. Condiments such as chili and curry powder were also made at home, sing songs were conducted by family members each evening, newspapers were read in a leisurely manner, family conferences and discussions resulted in reduction of family disputes, gardening was a way of life to harvest flowers, fruits, greens and vegetables, clothes were sewn for the whole extended family and long walks were taken as groups. Even animals were fed by the entire neighborhood so there was no excess of cats and dogs as these were considered common pets in the community.
Food was eaten as curries in a dish or meals, not from packs or tins. Most importantly there was much less processed and ultra-processed food produced in factories, excluding the odd chocolate, and biscuits.
Home processing ensured that some fiber or bran was left in the food (eg: the processing of grain at home with pestle and mortar into flour). This also involved a certain amount of exercise. Chili powder was ground into a paste, so was curry mix using the grinding stone. Spices were thus freshly made every time and this provided a certain aroma to the food.
Among the aspects of folk life that we find in ancient Sri Lankan folk tales, food is a central item. Paddy cultivation was the primary occupation of the rural folk in the past and rice was a central part of their diet. This was consumed with either meat or fish, vegetables and different types of greens, and fruits were also part of their daily diet. There were substitutes for rice as well such as yams and jackfruit and at least one of their three meals consisted of Rotti, Pittu, and Thalapa. The people of the past were equipped with both tangible and intangible knowledge as to how to process these food items and it can be seen how at present, various kinds of food have been modernized based on these ancient food recipes. (A study of the food habits of ancient Sri Lankan people as depicted in local folk tales. Ranasinghe, M.L.G.T.T, University of Kelaniya, International Conference on Humanities,2015, http://repository.kln.ac.lk/handle/123456789/7833)
The advent of processed food made with vast amounts of energy and with the addition of excessive amounts of salt, sugar, chemical preservatives, colorants and taste-makers. In fact if ultra-processed, the raw materials from which this food is made cannot be recognized in the end product. Many ultra-processed foods are manufactured to be ready to eat requiring no preparation before quick, easy consumption. The current state of research shows that excessive consumption of ultra-processed food might contribute to poor dietary quality and obesity.
Today, less time is spent preparing meals at home, which means that meals are often less nutritious as people (especially in towns) rely on ready meals, fast food, and street foods. With these foods, being readily available in the market and often affordably priced, overweight and obesity have seen a sharp rise especially in childhood. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), globally 40 million children under five years of age are overweight while over 120 million boys and girls (age 5 -19) are obese. In Sri Lanka, prevalence of overweight and obesity in schoolchildren and adults has increased. For instance 45 percent of women of reproductive age (15 – 49 years) are either overweight or obese.
In the past, home remedies as preventive measures were taken in the form of herbs for detoxing such as aralupethi, cleaning the throat with lime and pepper on a swab of cotton wool, drinking concoctions of pas panguwa or coriander each night before going to bed. The entire family took deworming medications once in two months or so. Come COVID-19, the value of these simple measures have been exalted and turmeric was bought out of shops as the key antiseptic.
The east has known the value of chili, paprika, turmeric, dill, fenugreek, cumin, curry leaves, cinnamon, cloves and cardamoms for generations, long before the scientific evidence on aromatics was published. Tamarind and neem were considered godly protectors of good health.
What does all this signify? Living in harmony with nature, in its bounty and the emphasis on a sustainable diet. A sustainable diet consists of using resources that are regenerated and replenishable using less energy and water to produce. The sustainable diet includes a lot more plant based foods in a wide variety. Tables were weighed down with a variety of fruits, vegetables, greenery, animal source food and spices which contained a wide range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytonutrients which helped boost immunity. Meals were planned and larders were full of food.
Food Based Dietary Guidelines (FBDGs) create the platform to go back to our traditional diets best suited to the genes inherited from our forefathers and mothers. These would include messages on enhancing the variety in the diet especially with regard to the inclusion of varied plant material, both popular fruits and vegetables as well as those underutilized such as wood apple, lavalu, different types of gourds, and different types of greens made in a variety of ways.These underutilized crops referred today as Future Smart Foods such as wood apple, jackfruit, snakegourd, drumstick (murunga), sweet potato and various types of pulses; cowpea, black gram, soybeans are ‘hidden treasures’ that offer tremendous opportunities for fighting hunger and malnutrition.
Currently the FBDGs are being revised by the Ministry of Health and partners based on the situational analysis of health and nutrition in Sri Lanka, a task supported by FAO and the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka.
Even though life expectancy has increased on average, this can be attributed to advances in the health system and medication. But those who lived up to a very advanced age are fewer in number today. These people who lived up to their nineties or beyond 100 did so on natural living without much dependency on pharmaceuticals artificially made, vaccines nor processed food.
So let us plan our diet based on sustainability, with variety restored with fresh produce and condiments sourced from one’s own home garden and the local environs.