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Why do we crave fried, sweetened food during Diwali?

With a little help from Nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin we try to decode the body science behind that feeling of gluttony that traps us during Diwali – and is there a way to do it better this season

By Madhulika Dash; Picture Courtesy: Four Seasons Hotel Bengaluru

Winter eating is an unique beast: we suddenly tend to eat more, crave more and even drink more. Add to that the festival fervour, and the indulgence galore, and all that more takes a further leap or two. It is the kind of culinary minefield that even the most disciplined eaters find hard to resist. And what makes the craving a little worrisome is the kind of food we crave for, which usually are the deep fried, sugar-coated goodies, or both at the same time – foods that doctors put under the “trudge with caution” category.

Of course, over the years we have found ways to work around the calorie-heavyweights with substitutes that range from baking instead of frying, going sugar free for most and even changing the flour base to make a certain sweet better. And yet, come Diwali, and we find ourselves heading for that second helping of warm gajjar ka halwa that mom made, ladoos from granny house, the neighbours kalakand, the freshly fried kachori that you get around the street – and every other food whose whiff reaches your olfactory senses.

Soon, it is a loop of we had enough, yet we crave for more. But why does this happen? Is there a method to this madness – or is winter festival eating just another form of gluttony as we have been told in the recent years.

Incidentally, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “it is not. There is a good reason that we eat more in winters (and winter festival) as our body is over timing in its work of keeping us active and warm. This dual process needs more food to fuel than the pre-stored fat. And that ‘need’ manifests itself as craving, especially for the high sugared, fried food, which are quick to digest and can easily release the first flush of fodder needed by the body to keep warm.

This is the reason that you can have those two extra puris or even that extra cup of tea with ease – and feel good. The other cause behind the craving is also the lack of minerals. The body, adds Bhassin, “which goes through the wear and tear through every season - summer affects the pH level and minerals in the body; while autumn is bad for the circadian rhythm and winters the inflammation managing hormones including glucocorticoids needs help – does that in winters.”

How does it do that? With the help of two hormones called ghrelin and leptin. This almost Star Trek like sounding names are in fact the twin Asgardians of the body planet, which work in sync to give you the food wanting, food happy feeling. While Gherlin drives the hunger pangs, leptin ensures the health of the small intestine by signalling the body that food is coming and hence nudging it to work with pre-stored fat first. As the resource depletes, new demands are made that shows itself as ‘craving’. That explains why we first look for fast track energy food, which incidentally are the fried food, where the complex carbs are broken, sugar dusted sweets, in which the first layer is for pure energy or a blend of both.

The second range of “cravings” that arise, adds Bhassin, “is for the replenishing resources like the pH level, the minerals and just the recuperation of the liver and the brain that can suffer from major wear and tear through the seasonal changes.”

The dual craving is the reason behind why we love the dal makhana with a dash of cream and butter more than the plain one or why chaats that have the right blend of sweet and savoury and tangy have that irresistible appeal. Of course, what ups the ante on our craving is the reduce day light, which brings down our serotonin levels thus making “feeling low” a recurring theme. A good way to beat is instant carbs, which makes fried food an easy choice, and want.

Fascinatingly, when it comes to the psychology of such food, one determining factor that makes us go for the fried counter and the sweet counter is the mouth feel. When the food is warm and tasty, it automatically awakens the digestive Biles in the body – and the process of digestion begins immediately.

This process which takes a few minutes translates to the brain a sense of satiation and comfort, and to the memory as the food that makes you happy. So the next time you would crave, instead of giving you the option, the brain flashes this very memory image. Result, you keep on having a certain food more than the other. And that, adds the traditional food expert, “is where the problem lies because any one dish or one format of dish in excess inside the body is perceived by leptin as food to be stored, akin to how our ancestors thought about preserving surplus.”

That accumulation leads to weight gain, eventually. The easy way to break this monotony is to break the food memory, says Bhassin, “by giving the body enough variety to taste. And that is where our Diwali thali scores beautifully on thanks to the culinary ingenuity of our ancestors, who for every halva have varieties that go from grain to gourd to dry fruits; or kheer, which has the runnier home version and the lavish gourmet variety too or for the kachoris that go from plain to one with lentils and one with loads of potatoes in it. Likewise, is the case with the varieties of food – savoury, meal kinds, made during the seasons like Undhiyo and Ghanta, two very beautiful dishes that provide you more nutrients in a bowl than a three bowls of taste compromised salads.”

The route to a good Diwali thali eat-out, ends Bhassin, “is in enabling the brain to have a bigger food memory album. And the way to do go for newer options and those you haven’t tried for a long time. Just remember, heavy duty ones for the morning when the hunger hormones are at its peak, and the calming ones like kheer for the evening, when you need that good dose of happiness hormone.”