Gandhiji on Food

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women beating husk
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photo by Ananth Somaiah

“I would like to say to the diligent reader of my writings and to others who are interested in them that I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search for Truth, I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the Truth , my God, from moment to moment , and therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine , if he still has faith in my sanity , he would do well to choose the later of the two on the subject.”
With this disclaimer, Gandhi adds yet another facet to his versatility – the lesser known but equally (if not more) important comprehensive writings on food and its relation to health. In the years 1942 to 1944, imprisoned in the Aga Khan Prison in Pune, Gandhi began writing and revising chapters for his work on ‘Key to Health’, something he had begun in 1906. To him, the subject of food was so important that he hesitated to release the manuscripts all at once, and took time to go through them repeatedly until the writings were to his full satisfaction.

While his ideas on non-violence, governance, economy, education, technology, truth, independence, commerce, etc. are well known, his understanding of food, ranging from the details of how it needs to be chewed to the order in which food has to be eaten to maximize its benefits to the body, has hardly been appreciated by the public at large.

Gandhi’s definition of what is good health was simple: A healthy man is one whose body is free from all disease; he carries on his normal activities without fatigue. ‘Such a man’, he said, ‘should be able to walk 10-12 miles a day with ease, and perform ordinary physical labour without getting tired. He can digest ordinary simple food. His mind and his senses are in a state of harmony and poise.’

He lived the several experiments he conducted in order to understand how a human being could maximize body ease; and while some backfired, others only reinforced his primary belief that if we looked upon Nature as our model; lesser would be the chances of our going wrong.

On the ‘Right’ Diet

Gandhi was in favour of a strictly vegetarian diet, and this meant grains, pulses, edible roots, tubers and leaves, nuts and fruits – both fresh and dry. He believed that the way our teeth, stomach, intestines, etc. were designed, was to suit vegetarianism. He emphasized the benefits of unpolished cereals and those locally grown, like wheat, rice, and millets like jowar and bajra.Compiled in the year 1942, Gandhi’s writings on food and health hold good scientifically, nutritionally, ecologically and morally even today

On Cereals and Pulses

Sieving after grinding of flour is to be avoided as it is likely to remove the ‘pericarp’ or the outer covering which is a rich source of salts and vitamins, both of which have nutritional value. Instead, they should be cleansed properly, ground on a grinding stone, and the resulting flour be used as it is. Mixing of cereals in a single meal is considered undesirable, since they put a strain on the digestive system.

Gandhi, being aware of the important role of saliva in digestion of cereals, believed that dipping morsels of the chapatti and rice in vegetable or dal gravy made people careless with their mastication, and hence should be avoided or minimised.

Pulses like peas and gram are considered the most difficult to digest and mung and masoor (lentils) the least difficult among them. Pulses supply protein, and hence are needed for those who do hard manual work. People who do a lot of sedentary work can do without pulses, if they have proteins from milk or meat.

On Vegetables and Fruits

Among fresh vegetables, a fair amount of leafy vegetables must be taken every day. Some cucumber, tomatoes, mustard and cress, and other tender leaves should be taken raw. It is best if we grow our own food.

As for fruits, they should include the available fruits of the season .e.g. mangoes, jambu, guavas, grapes, papayas, limes – sweet or sour, oranges, mosambis. The best time for having fruit is in the early mornings. A breakfast of only fruits is recommended for those who have an early lunch. Gandhi considered milk and banana a good breakfast. He rued the fact that most people in India could not afford vegetables and fruits, blamed the administration for the shortage and suggested planting of fruit trees and growing of greens by villagers, which could be easily possible.

On Oil and Sugar

A certain amount of fat is also necessary and this can be had in the form of ghee or oil. If ghee is available, then oil becomes unnecessary. Among oils, sweet oil (olive oil), groundnut oil and coconut oil should be given preference. Oil must be fresh, and it is better to use hand-pressed oil. A certain amount of sugar is also necessary, and this can be had, ideally in the form of fruits. Gandhiji was an ecologist well before ecology began to be talked about in popular media

Gandhi felt, after all, our bodies were never meant to be treated as refuse-bins holding the foods that the palate demands, and that the purpose of food was to sustain the body more than anything else. The root of this lay in a Sanskrit text he was inspired by, which says, ‘A man becomes what he eats’. He believed that those who couldn’t control their palate, would find it difficult to control their other senses.

On Milk and Milk Products

 

Gandhi’s experiments with milk were most interesting. Being a staunch vegetarian, he considered milk an animal product. Gandhi began by excluding milk from his diet for six years, after which he felt none the worse for the denial. Then, as a result of carelessness, he claims, in the year 1917, he was laid down by severe dysentery. Though he was reduced to looking like a skeleton, he stubbornly refused to take medicines or even milk or buttermilk. Finally, he caved in to pressure after a friend and his wife suggested goats’ milk, and soon found that it gave him the required strength to recuperate. “One may generalize that all food stuff are richer in their natural state”.

Despite succumbing to breaking his vow, Gandhi reiterates that there were definite drawbacks in taking milk since it would pass on to the human beings the defects arising from the diseases that animals suffer from because of their domestication. He considered eating meat unsafe for the same reason. Gandhi adds, that he was convinced that there definitely were vegetables that could supply the same substances derived from milk and meat. He enthusiastically advocated skimmed milk, since skimming partially removes the fats but does not affect the proteins, which can help in tissue building and tissue repair.

Though Gandhi declared that what he said was not radically new, his observations were ahead of his time. Scientific evidence is now confirming the goodness of many of the things he propagated – such as the importance of eating only fruits for breakfast, to provide a good alkaline base. Perhaps in the light of developing research on the inadequacies of milk (low absorption of nutrients, etc), the current industrialized and often inhumane processes through which milk is obtained, and his own quest for Truth, there is a good chance that had Gandhi written a 2010 edition on ‘Key to Health’, milk might not have found a place in it at all.  Food, Gandhi emphasized, was not an end in itself; it was a tool for shaping the human being.

Gandhi was an ecologist well before ecology began to be talked about in popular culture. Today, many ecologists and progressive food scientists would agree with his words, “One may generalize that all foodstuffs are richer in their natural state.”