Rice Consumption Could Reduce Global Obesity? The Pot-Bellied Tamil Uncle Agrees


Rice Consumption Could Reduce Global Obesity? The Pot-Bellied Tamil Uncle Agrees

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Western science has long been known to have a thorny relationship with traditional Indian customs. Before the Indian government cracked down in 2009, there was a period when American companies tried to patent the supposedly brand-new health benefits of kitchen staples like turmeric and ginger. The US market for probiotics – the good gut bacteria that can be found in every Indian household’s dahi handi – is projected to be worth a whopping $69.3 billion by 2023. Of course, there’s the mass adoption of yoga in all its forms and abominations, including beer yoga and yoga with alpacas. Going by their dedication, you’d be forgiven if you believed that this spiritual discipline was invented by white people a few years ago, and not by our own PM Modi. And who can forget the time a Harvard epidemiologist stigmatised our beloved coconut oil as being “pure poison?”

Given these betrayals, we probably should have expected this latest study presented at the European Congress of Obesity in Glasgow earlier this week. A research team from Kyoto found that increasing rice consumption by 50 grams per day – about three-quarters of a cup – could reduce global obesity by one full percentage point. Professor Tomoko Imai who led the research, said: “The observed associations suggest that the obesity rate is low in countries that eat rice as a staple food.” And the ironically named chairman of the UK’s National Obesity Forum, Tam Fry, claimed: “We have known that far eastern populations tend to be slimmer than in the west because rice is a staple food.”

If you’re left scratching your head at this point, you’re not alone. For decades, common wisdom in India has dictated that dieters should steer clear of the starchy staple. As for slender, rice-guzzling far easterners? I’d like to extend an invitation to the Japanese researchers to observe these specimens in their natural habitat from Tamil Nadu, with love.

Much of India eats rice for three meals a day, with Manipur coming in as the top consumer. But few can compare to the sadam-loving Tamilian, whose fondness for a good puliyodharai with a side of thayir-appalam is immortalised by his bulging belly. The cosy South Indian paunch is a trademark style of the state, and no lungi is complete without the gentle swell of a rice-stuffed stomach over it, testing the buttons of the modest shirt. Nor can you pull off a Madisar nine-yard sari like a true TamBrahm maami unless you have a belly roll or two to hold it all in place.

Clearly, the Tamilian rice belly doesn’t discriminate based on gender, or even location. From Kanchipuram to Kuala Lumpur, it endures, and when paired with a bushy moustache, acts as a distinctive marker of South Indian-dom. A scenic safari through Matunga will reveal dozens of balloon bellies loitering outside Udupi cafes, sagging with the accumulated weight of a thousand idlis.

Even legendary Sri Lankan Tamil spin bowler Muttiah Muralitharan is known as much for his decidedly unathletic silhouette as his absurd wicket-taking records. How this cute, pudgy man with a Level 3 Uncle potbelly managed to be the deadliest bowler in Test cricket history remains one of the great mysteries of our time. But you won’t be finding obesity researchers from Kyoto trying to explain that.

I’d like to extend an invitation to the Japanese researchers to observe these specimens in their natural habitat – from Tamil Nadu, with love.

How Murali achieved his splendid Buddhaesque form, however, is no secret not to the millions of Tamilians who genuinely consider variety rice to be a cuisine all on its own. It appears this is a far cry from Prof Imai’s idea of a healthy Eastern diet based on rice, as the study’s 50 gram recommendation would barely qualify as breakfast for a four-year-old Tamilian.

A single glance at a typical South Indian diet would challenge the good professor’s assumption that the fibre found in rice guards against overeating, but would certainly support the idea that eating rice can be correlated with good health. Keralites, who are close cousins of Tamilians in terms of rice consumption, have the highest life expectancy in all of India, and the other southern states are well clear of the national average. Sure, you can chalk it all up to better development and medical infrastructure and unimportant deets like that. But no number of studies can convince me and other Tamilians that Muralitharan’s power doesn’t emanate from his portly rice belly.