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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thought for food

Let’s hear it for the five key ingredients of a feel-good diet

If you are as dedicated a dieter as I am, you must have noticed how the food orthodoxy changes on us every few years, leaving us thoroughly confused as to what we should (or should not) eat to lose weight.

First, it is that carbs are good. Then, it is that carbs are bad. And now, it is that only a certain kind of carb (the refined kind that leads to a spike in sugar levels) is implicated in weight gain. One diet regimen tells us not to mix carbohydrates with protein on pain of death. Another insists that we need a judicious mix of both. One school of thought has it that milk is the elixir of human life; another insists that it is toxic to anyone above the age of five.

In other words, one man’s meat becomes the same man’s poison if we give it enough time.

I don’t know about you, but this sort of blurry indecision makes me quite dizzy (and not just from the hunger induced by my latest master-cleanse). After all, what is the point of dietary rules if they are going to be reversed every few years as medical science changes its mind yet again on what is good or bad for us?

My way of coping with this is to simply wade through all the information floating around and zero in on the tips that suit me best – and then stick to them through thick and thin (sometimes quite literally). And for the benefit of my fellow-dieters these are the five favourite elements of the weight-loss regimen that I have drawn up for myself.

1) Coffee
Ah, coffee. Now, how could you possibly go through the day without its enticing aroma to keep you awake and interested? I know I couldn’t. I need a caffeine fix to jolt me into consciousness in the morning – and another in the evening when I am beginning to flag. And just to be on the safe side, a couple of shots in between.

Now for the good news. Recent medical research suggests that coffee increases your resting metabolic rate – which means that you burn off fat more easily (and are half as likely to develop diabetes). So, the number of cups of coffee you drink is directly related to the number of calories your burn off. Time to invest in a good espresso machine, don’t you think?

2) Red wine

First up, the bad news. You aren’t allowed to guzzle a full bottle over the course of the evening. Only a couple of glasses are allowed if you want to reap the health benefits of the antioxidant flavonoid phenolics that red wine contains. How exactly does this work? Well, a substance called resveratrol, contained in grape skins and seeds, increases the good HDL cholesterol and prevents blood clotting and plaque prevention in arteries and thus contributes to your cardio-vascular health.

So, why not just eat grapes, you ask? Now, where would be the fun in that?

3) Chocolate

This one comes with a rider. You have to choose a dark chocolate which has a cocoa content that is higher than its sugar content. And limit yourself to a couple of squares instead of wolfing down the entire bar. But if you stick to these rules, your body will benefit from the antioxidants that cocoa contains, which reduce degeneration of aortic arteries and help shift fat deposits. In layman’s terms, this means that a judicious amount of chocolate actually helps in metabolising fat and turning it into energy (or so, at least, I would like to believe).

4) Sleep

If you truly want to lose weight, then don’t lose any sleep over it. Recent studies have shown that dieters who cut back on sleep while trying to lose weight had 55 per cent less fat loss compared to those who clocked up 8.5 hours of shut-eye. This is because sleep deprivation causes the body to release higher amounts of something called ghrelin. And increased ghrelin levels stimulate hunger and food intake, so that you find it more difficult to stick to your diet and eat more than your otherwise would. They also reduce energy expenditure (so whatever you eat doesn’t metabolise as easily) and thereby promote retention of fat.

In other words, if you sleep less while on a diet you will eat more and your body will store what you eat as fat instead of using it up as energy. So make sure you get a good night’s sleep if you want to lose weight.

5) Laughter

Laugh more; weigh less (especially around the midriff). Okay, I exaggerate but only a little. Laughter does have an effect on our weight, albeit in a roundabout way. If you are happy and contented, the level of such stress hormones as cortisol and epinephrine in your body remains low. And that’s a darn good thing because increased levels of cortisol are directly related to fat deposition in the abdominal area – the so-called ‘toxic fat’ that is related to heart disease and an increased risk of strokes.

So, to sum up: being on my kind of regimen means sleeping for 8.5 hours; waking up to a nice, steaming cup (or two) of coffee; snacking on dark chocolate; drinking red wine; and laughing as long and hard as you can.

Now, that doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Try it. You may or may not lose weight. But you will be a much happier person at the end of the day.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Who are you calling aunty?

That traumatic moment when you realise you have tipped irrevocably into middle age

Last week a friend of mine called up sounding distraught. Given that she is generally a ‘glass is half-full’ sort of person, I thought that there must be a major crisis in her life. As it turns out, I was right. She was suffering from a serious case of mid-life crisis, sparked off by a visit to a five-star hotel loo.

It happened thus. She walked in and found a gaggle of excitable 20-somethings gibbering excitedly amongst themselves. They were still gathered around the sink when she emerged to wash her hands. And then, lipstick liberally re-applied, they started trooping out when one of them stopped and asked: “Whose bag is that?”

Without missing a beat, the other replied, pointing to my hapless friend, “That’s aunty’s.”

Yes, you heard right. It was that dreaded ‘a’ word. Aunty.

My friend, a well-preserved woman in her 40s, is used to seeing people do double-takes when she reveals her age and assuring her that she looks at least a decade younger. So, the ‘aunty’ bit was a fell blow that left her catatonic for the rest of the evening.

When she called me the next morning, she still sounded devastated. Did she really look so old that 20-something young women would refer to her as ‘aunty’? Did this mean that she was well and truly middle-aged now? Were the best years of her life over? Was she now on a slippery slope heading inexorably downwards?

I have to confess that I wasn’t terribly sympathetic. As someone who acquired her first niece at the age of 12 (in my defence, my sister is 15 years older than me), I have become accustomed to being called ‘masi’ or ‘bua’ over the years. So what, I asked my friend, was the big deal about being called ‘aunty’? After all, technically speaking, she could have given birth to any of those young 20-somethings. And her kid’s friends called her ‘aunty’ anyway, right?

That wasn’t the point, said my friend. “Standing there at the sink, I had this sudden epiphany. Now when people looked at me, they no longer saw as an attractive woman. They saw an ‘aunty’. They saw someone who was well past her sexy-by date. And as I stood there, I realised that soon nobody would see me at all.”

Yes, that’s a fear that all of us harbour at some level, don’t we? That as age takes its toll and nature wreaks its worst on us, we will turn into invisible women. The women whom nobody pays attention to; who are looked through at parties; ignored as they try to make purchases at a store. The women whom nobody leaps up to open the door for. The women nobody wants to chat up or flirt with. The women who are no longer seen as sexual beings.

In other words, the women who fit into the ‘aunty’ category.

And, for obvious reasons, this is especially hard for women who have been considered beautiful or sexy in their dewy youthfulness. They are used to being the centre of attention in any room they walk into. They are accustomed to being treated with deference. They are used to being objects of desire. They are conditioned to think of themselves as special. So suddenly being reduced to ‘aunty’ status comes as something of a shock.

And to an extent, it was this ‘Beautiful Woman’ syndrome that lay at the root of my friend’s trauma. It was a bit like the jolt an actress feels when she’s first told that she not being tested for the heroine’s role, but for the role of the hero’s mother.

But part of it was also down to the fact that ours is the generation of women who refuse to age. We are unwilling to let Nature take its course when it comes to our appearance. Instead, we rely on extreme medical procedures to keep looking young for as long as we can.

Ours is the generation that embraced Botox and fillers, treating them as lunch-time procedures. Ours is the generation that treats cosmetic surgery as an essential beauty aid, treating face-lifts as extreme facials. And not surprisingly, ours is a generation that looks much younger than our mothers did at our age.

We exercise and diet so that we weigh the same as we did in our 20s. We wear the same clothes as our grown-up daughters. We colour our hair every five weeks to get rid of those greying roots. We slather on the anti-ageing cream last thing at night.

We look in the mirror in the morning and we see a young person staring back at us. Yes, the jawline is a little slack, there is incipient creping of the neck, and the laugh lines run a little bit deeper. But hey, nobody would put us down for 40-something. We don’t look at day over 35!

And then, you walk into a five-star hotel loo and a 20-something calls you ‘aunty’. That’s when you know that the game is well and truly over. You have tipped irrevocably into middle age – and there is no coming back.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hell hath no fury...

As speculation emerges that Osama Bin Laden may have been betrayed by his first wife, that old saying seems to be re-validated

In 1697, the English author William Congreve wrote a poem called The Mourning Bride which ended with the following lines: “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d. Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.” More than 400 years later, these words still carry a angry resonance as speculation rages that Osama Bin Laden was tracked down not by brilliant spy work by the CIA but because his first wife Khairiah Saber betrayed his location.

Apparently Saber, Bin Laden’s first wife, a Saudi woman now in her 60s, fetched up at the Abbotabad complex sometime in February or March 2011. When challenged by one of Osama’s sons as to why she had come back after such a long time, she replied enigmatically, “I have one more duty to discharge for my husband.”

The extended Bin Laden clan now believes that it was Saber who betrayed him by leading the CIA forces to his door. And all because she was jealous of Osama’s latest wife, the Yemeni-born, much younger Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada with whom Bin Laden shared a bed (while Saber slept alone in a bedroom on another floor).

So, there’s a lesson for you. While the entire might of the US army and the all-seeing eye of the CIA could not bring about Osama Bin Laden’s downfall for well on a decade, his scorned wife managed to do so in a matter of months.

For readers of a certain age, this will bring back memories of that 1996 Hollywood hit, The First Wives Club, starring Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton. The three women are dumped by their husbands for younger models and decide on revenge: by taking their husbands for everything they have. As yet another infamous first wife, Ivana Trump (married to ‘The Donald’), putting it in a cameo appearance in the movie, said, “Don’t get mad; get everything.”

But, of course, that is easier said than done. First wives do tend to get mad – and sometimes very mad indeed. As one man found out the hard way when he left his wife and moved out of the family home. When he came back to collect his things, he discovered that she had cut off the right sleeve of each one of his Savile Row suits. Yet another ex-wife crept into her ex-husband’s house and sewed up prawns in his curtain hems (yes, you really can’t get more bonkers than that).

Others take an even more direct approach. Remember Elin Nordegren, Tiger Woods’ ex-wife? When she found out about his posse of mistresses, she chased his car down, golf club in hand and bashed the windscreen in. (Tiger later gallantly insisted that his wife had been unfairly maligned – to widespread scepticism in the media.)

And then, there are the women who wait for years, even decades, on end, before trying to extract a horrible revenge for the humiliation heaped on them. In the UK, Chris Huhne had to resign from David Cameron’s Cabinet when his ex-wife, Vicky Pryce, recently revealed that in 2003 he had prevailed upon her to take some penalty points he had incurred while speeding on her own driving licence. But in an ironic twist, Vicky found herself charged alongside her husband for trying to ‘pervert the course of justice’.

Across the Atlantic, Republican Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich found himself in the ex-wife trap on the eve of an important primary when his second wife, Marianne, crawled out of the woodwork to announce that he had asked her for an ‘open marriage’ in the last years of their relationship. Not exactly the kind of thing that a candidate hoping to make headway in the puritanical heartland of America wants to hear, right? And sure enough, since then Newt’s appeal among women voters has gone down sharply.

Heather Mills tried a similar smear campaign when Paul McCartney asked her for a divorce, suggesting that the former Beatles had been physically abusive towards her in the course of their marriage. But such was the goodwill towards McCartney that nobody paid the slightest attention to these allegations. No wonder then that when Mills scored a paltry 25 million pounds (yes, you read that right: 25 million pounds) in her divorce settlement, she showed her displeasure by pouring a jug of water over McCartney’s attorney, Fiona Shackleton, in a classic case of misdirected anger.

That’s not to say that men don’t behave badly in the aftermath of a marriage, but their acting out mostly takes the form of retaining a tight control over joint resources while women fall back on restricting access to the children – in other words, each party plays to their strengths. And yet, sadly, both sides lose as a consequence.

So, perhaps the best revenge for a scorned woman is not to get mad or even get everything – but to just get on with it. Move on with your life, rebuild the torn corners of your world and wrestle some happiness out of it. Because more often than not, living well is the best revenge of all.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

In the blink of an eye

That’s how long it takes for us to lose interest while surfing on the net – and increasingly, in real life

If you are as old as I am, you probably remember a time when you actually had to dial-up an Internet connection. Sometimes it took two minutes; sometimes it took ten; and sometimes it didn’t work at all. When you finally connected, every site took ages to open up, and then just as you were finally getting into it, the connection would magically disappear. So then you had to dial-up again...and again.

I remember spending entire afternoons at my desk, just waiting to first get through and then finish my research. Over time I got canny enough to arm myself with a magazine to while away the time spent waiting. Sometimes, just to mix it up, I would buff my nails; call a friend for a chat; eat a sandwich; even do my stretching exercises. (Okay, I made up the last one; but the rest of it is true.)

In case you’re wondering why I am blubbering on about the bad old days of internet connectivity, my nostalgia was triggered by a recent news report that said that people will visit a website less often if it is slower than its competitor by more than 250 milliseconds. What is 250 milliseconds in peoplespeak? Well, it translates as the blink of an eye.

So, if a website is slower than its rival by even a blink of an eye, we will abandon it in favour of the faster one. As Arvind Jain, the resident speed maestro at Google says, “Subconsciously, you don’t like to wait. Every second counts.” Or, more accurately, every nano-second. Harry Shum, speed specialist at Microsoft agrees, “250 milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic number now for competitive advantage on the web.”

And no doubt with time, we will only get more demanding. As recently as 2009, a study by Forrester Research found that online shoppers wanted pages to load in two seconds or less. The moment you hit the three second mark, a large percentage would simply abandon the site and move on. Just three years earlier, however, a similar study had found that the average expectation for page load time was four seconds or less. So, with every year, our desire for speed, well, speeds up even more.

But if you ask me, this is not simply about our impatience while surfing the net. In a sense, this report is a metaphor for our times. We want it all, and we want it now. And by that I mean NOW, not 250 milliseconds later! Okay?

Ours is not a generation that sees any virtue in delayed gratification. And the generation after ours, which has been weaned on smartphones and grown up on Ipads, is going to be even less patient. Soon the 250 millisecond mark will be whittled down to 150 milliseconds, then 50 milliseconds – until a time comes when we will want the page to load intuitively even before we have clicked on it.

We can already see the signs. Everyone is always in a hurry. In a hurry to grow up; in a hurry to hit the fast lane; in a hurry to get rich; in a hurry to get into shape; in a hurry to be famous; in a hurry to retire; in a hurry to...well, you get the drift.

And of course, everyone is in a hurry when on the net. What, 250 milliseconds too slow? Bam, you’re dead.

Sadly, this impatience has percolated into every area of our lives. You see it in the professional sphere all the time. No one wants to stay in the same job for too long for fear of stagnating. They want to move on and up – and on yet again, even if the raise offered is a few thousand rupees. The idea of staying on and working for the same firm – like the company-men of an earlier generation – is anathema to anyone under the age of 30.

Or let’s look closer home. Children, these days, seem to be in a tearing hurry to grow up. The teenage years appear to start at 10 rather than 13; they are dating at 12 rather than 16; and they seem to know more about sex at 15 than we did ten years later.

Personal gratification is another area where our expectations have speeded up. Want to lose weight? Yes. But who has the time or inclination to do the old-fashioned way: by eating less and working out more. That would just mean losing a kilo a week, duh! That’s simply not fast enough.

So bring on the fad diets, the slim cures, the week-long fasts, the plant juice detox. Instead of taking a long-term view, look for the quick fix. Check into a fat farm, a body boot camp, or a yoga retreat for a week or so. And if none of that works, well then a little bit of liposuction never hurt anyone – and you’ll be home before lunch to snack on some fast food.

Ah food! Cooking is becoming a lost art because few people have the patience to rustle up a home-made meal from scratch. And eating out in a restaurant has become like a race against time. I want my menu now. Bring the bread to the table already. What’s with the ten-minute delay between courses? Of course, I don’t want the soufflĂ©; it takes 25 minutes!

You do realise that I don’t have even 250 milliseconds to spare, don’t you?.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The pleasure principle

What if chocolate was diet food; and broccoli was fattening?

One of the more infuriating, immutable laws of nature – which Newton never paid much attention to – is that everything that feels good is bad for you while anything that feels bad is good. Think about it. All those things that bring you pleasure: butter, chocolate, cream, cookies, cake, chips, pizza, paranthas, mithai. Yes, all bad for you. All the stuff that you can barely hold down: broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, brussel sprouts, barley, oats, dalia. Yes, all good for you.

Clearly, God was in a humorous mood when he cooked up the dietary principles that would rule our lives, delighting in playing some sort of cosmic joke on us mortals. Or else how can you explain that both sugar and salt are bad for us (one is implicated in diabetes and the other in high blood pressure). Or that deep-fried food actually clogs your arteries instead of cleansing them. And that red meat is bad for your cholesterol levels while karela is good for your system.

Now, where’s the justice in that, Dear Lord?

What’s worse is that His perversity is not restricted to food alone. It extends to almost all areas of our life. Staying up late at night, reading in bed or watching a DVD, with a brandy by your bedside. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But no, it is, in fact, very bad for you. Getting up early, on the other hand, and heading out for a jog to wake up your system and get your heart pumping. Now that’s very good for you – even though it sounds like the stuff of nightmares (well, my nightmares, at any rate).

Snuggling deep into a couch: bad for you. Sitting up straight as a ramrod in a stiff-backed chair: good for you. Driving to work comfortably in a nice air-conditioned car: bad for you (and for the environment). Getting all sweaty and breathless as you cycle to work: good for you (and yes, the environment).

I could go on (and on) but I think you can just take it as given that if you enjoy something – whether it is scoffing a triple sundae or wearing impossibly high heels – then it will inevitably be bad for you. And if you detest something with all your life – the rowing machine at the gym or the Isabgol that you mother makes you drink every night – it will be good for you.

Of late, however, I have been wondering whether it is human perversity that is to blame here, rather than the Almighty’s. Is it really that everything that tastes or feels good is bad for us? Or is it simply that we are programmed to hanker after the forbidden, to love what we should not? And it is that dichotomy in our nature that makes everything that is bad for us seem so bloody good.

In other words, if broccoli was in fact, fattening, would we be hankering for it like we do for chocolate instead of scraping it off our plates when no one is looking? If butter was a diet food, would it taste half as good? Or would we be gagging even as it coated our taste buds?

This perversity that seems to characterise human nature – and behaviour – extends further. Anything that is cheap and readily available seems to lose value in our eyes; while anything that is prohibitively expensive and hard to find becomes infinitely desirable.

In 18th century England, for instance, when oysters were plentiful and cheap, they made up the staple diets of the poor. In those days, no prosperous person would think of serving them up for dinner guests. Now that they are expensive, they have been transformed into a luxury food item. But surely, they tasted much the same no matter what they cost? It’s just our perception of them that has changed, not the oysters themselves.

But the more things seem out of our reach, the more attractive they become to us. I’m sure if caviar wasn’t so prohibitively expensive, there’s a good chance that it wouldn’t have the cachet it does. Ditto champagne and first-growth wines. And white truffles. Or any other high-priced ingredient that you can think of.

I guess Shakespeare was right when he said that nothing was either good or bad; but thinking made it so.

But if that is really true, then could we really re-think our perceptions of what is good or bad for us? And could we possibly re-define the rules instead of allowing them to define our choices?

Well, a girl can dream, can’t she?

I know how things would be in my ideal world. The healthy breakfast option would be parathas rather than muesli. Full-fat milk would be better for you than that horrid skimmed version. Desserts would push your metabolic rate up. Exercise would be very bad for your health. Staying up late at night would increase your energy levels (while getting up early would sap them). Dieticians would insist that you had five servings of caffeine every day (rather than those dreary fruits and vegetables). And as you grew older, your waistline would get thinner while your hair got thicker (instead of the other way around).

If you ask me, that would be a world worth living in – and surviving to a ripe old age.