One silver lining that has emerged from the pandemic is the global focus on health and well-being, particularly markers of inflammation and immune health.
The recent Global Burden of Disease study published by The Lancet paints a worrying picture of our health, with a 50% increase in body mass index, blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol since 1990.
All these symptoms are linked with a higher risk of chronic diseases, disability and death.
On the flipside, in many developing countries, we are now paying more attention to our health and well-being.
This is reflected in the burgeoning trends of supplements, superfoods, diets, devices to track our health and fitness, apps for mindfulness and meditation, and high impact exercise regimes.
But like many chronic diseases, many of these health trends and technologies are novel, and their long term effects remain unknown.
If we are discerning about the brand and efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines, we should also be inquisitive about the impact of protein shakes, meat replacements, collagen creams and wearable devices.
A holistic approach to health recognises that we need to harness a connection between our bodies, minds and souls to experience real health and well-being.
Food is more than just calories and nutrients – it connects us to our environment, and it is meant to build our physical bodies in a way that adapts us to our local environment, as well as bring us a sense of mental balance and well-being.
A simple way to assess the quality of food we consume is to reflect on the quality of our minds and bodies.
Perhaps when making healthy choices, we can reflect on how local communities ate and lived before the explosion of chronic diseases, to understand what has changed in our diets and lifestyle.
While the list is long and we don’t need to revert back to living in longhouses, the process can help us find some simpler, more sustainable solutions rather than adding expensive, processed foods and screen time for the sake of our health.Staple diet
One health trend that literally goes against the local grain is to stop eating rice.
Rice is a type of grass that humans domesticated over 10,000 years ago in Asia, and in many Asian languages, rice is synonymous with food – “to eat rice” means to have food.
There are more than 40,000 varieties of rice (Oryza sativa) grown everywhere in the world other than Antarctica.
According to Khazanah Research Institute’s 2019 Rice Report, Malaysians consumed 2.7 million tonnes of rice in 2016.
Rice consumption per capita is the estimated amount of rice “consumed” per person.
The rice consumption per capita does not only include the consumption of rice as human food such as in the form of steamed rice, rice flour and rice noodles, but also non-food consumption such as cosmetics, animal feed and other by-products.
However, in some parts of Asia including Malaysia, per capita consumption of rice is slowing as incomes rise and people diversify their diets, consuming more meat and vegetables instead of starchy staples.
Despite dietary diversification, rice remains the main source of carbohydrate in Malaysia.
Comparing the per capita of rice and wheat, rice consumption stood at almost three times more than that of wheat, suggesting that it is still an important source of carbohydrate for most Malaysians as it is the nation’s staple food.
Wide variety of rice
Rice is a better source of energy, carbohydrate, calcium, iron, thiamin, pantothenic acid, folate and vitamin E, compared to corn, wheat and potatoes.
It is easy to digest, absorbs water to cook quickly, cools the body and provides a sense of satiation because of its natural sweetness.
In tropical Asian climates, a wide variety of rice is grown regionally, and there are a range of preparation methods available, making it an ideal grain to store and consume.
Whatever your taste and cuisine, there is a variety of rice to suit you.
Brown rice has gained popularity, as the bran layer contains minerals, vitamins and fibre which are beneficial, although this also means it takes longer to cook, more effort and energy to digest and becomes rancid more easily due to the oil stored in the bran layer.
Black, purple and red rice are also examples of unpolished rice with high levels of antioxidants, while golden rice is a yellow-coloured polished rice, owing to the presence of beta carotene (vitamin A). Parboiled rice, which is common in South Asian communities, is a type of polished rice that is processed to retain a higher portion of proteins, vitamins and minerals that are usually lost during the milling process.
Basmati rice has a lower glycemic index than most common rice varieties, making it a suitable grain for people with diabetes or a sensitivity to sugar.
Why stop eating rice?
Most people do it to lose weight, or to cut out sugar from their diet.
A common complaint is that some people cannot digest rice, claiming it causes brain fog or a “food coma”, often after a banana leaf lunch.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, these symptoms are caused by indigestion, usually brought on by overeating, not chewing well and/or eating a poor combination of food such as too much rice, excessively spicy food or a meat-heavy meal.
Think of the energy needed to digest a big portion of peppery fish curry or beef rendang, rather than tiny grains of rice.
Often, replacing rice with meat can cause acidity, constipation and stress the liver and kidneys from having to digest and eliminate an excess of complex proteins.
Weight gain, acidity and fatigue after meals are symptoms of a digestive system that is not working at its optimal level, and more often than not, this is brought on by our eating habits rather than food itself.
The trend of cutting out or replacing whole food groups like wheat, dairy and rice because we want to lose weight or cannot digest it seems like an easy fix, and while it works in the short term, it is also driven by a multibillion dollar industry which markets expensive, highly processed, chemically-derived foods to replace natural whole foods.
The gluten-free industry alone is worth over USD$5bil (RM20.9bil).
But, removing a major food group from your diet because you cannot digest it is often a Sisyphean labor.
Unless we address the root cause of weak digestion, which is often related to lifestyle factors and eating habits, the issue will show up somewhere else in the body.
It is unsustainable to continue to eliminate foods from our diet due to indigestion – especially high quality staples such as rice that offer so many benefits.
As modern medicine is now discovering, many health issues are linked to our gut health, which is fed by a myriad of bacteria that rely on the variety of good quality whole foods that we eat.
Ideally, the composition of this bacteria differs by which region we live in, because it is based on the locally grown food that we consume, which in turn helps us adapt to our environment.
This is why we tend to put on weight when we travel, and why Western diets did not encourage rice!
But if we want to continue to enjoy a variety of good food, we need to train our gut microbiome.
Healthy gut microbiome
A recent study published in the Nutrients journal found that people with a gluten-free diet had a reduction in two species of bacteria that function as probiotics, and also had an increased population of bacteria that contributed to inflammation.
Probiotics are an important marker of healthy digestion and metabolism, as they help us break down food and eliminate waste.
Recent studies in Asia have also indicated similar changes in the gut microbiome when refined grains such as bread and pasta replaced traditional grains such as rice.
Strengthening the digestive system and learning to care for our physical, mental and spiritual well-being will resolve many health issues naturally.
Ayurveda recognises that when digestion is supported by a lifestyle that aligns with the natural rhythms of sunlight and seasons, our mental and physical health is tuned easily.
Find your optimal energy and vitality by incorporating some simple practices such as eating at regular times, cooking at home and managing stress through breathwork and meditation.
In the meantime, consider educating and experimenting with the variety of rice that is available, be mindful to eat wholegrains such as rice as part of a balanced meal, and allow this humble grain to grace your plate and enrich your life, as it has for millenia.
When rice is of high quality, well-cooked with adequate water, spices and oil, and eaten as part of a balanced meal, it can reduce bad cholesterol, support bowel function, relieve constipation, and manage blood pressure and weight – all things the recent Global Burden of Disease study says we need.
It is cost effective, widely available and satisfying!
Everything we consume and expose ourselves to contributes to our sense of health and well-being, and when health becomes complex, expensive and tech-heavy, perhaps we need to reflect on what our true values and motivations for health are.
Dr Dhanya Nambiar is an Ayurvedic health consultant. For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only, and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.