Madhur Kotharay On Superfoods, Modern Medicine & Diet Trends
Image Credit: Author Madhur Kotharay and his latest book 'Superfoods, Super Life'.

The wellness industry discovers and rediscovers superfoods every couple of months. While any foods the West classifies as superfoods have long been humble Indian staples, it is important to delineate superfood from super hype.

In Superfoods, Super Life author Madhur Kotharay, shows how to properly use common Indian superfoods to prevent disease and improve health. Using 20 common ingredients that have long been a part of Indian diets and cuisines the author explains the impact these simple staples have on our gut diet and overall health.

In an easy-to-understand manner, the author delves deep into each of the ingredients, the common uses and their benefits making it easy even for non-readers to understand and incorporate them in their daily lives. Slurrp learns more in a conversation with the author.

How did this book come about? What was the inspiration behind writing this?

Most people fall into two categories: Those who believe the ‘food-be-thy-medicine’ talk is hyperbole at the other extreme, claim that anything ‘natural’ is the panacea.

Overdoing ‘natural’ remedies actually does a disservice to the value of healthy foods – turning sceptics into hardened critics. On the other hand, these sceptics also need to know that the wisdom surrounding superfoods is not just supported by grandma’s tales but also by mainstream research published in peer-reviewed papers over the last 20 years.

What both sides fail to recognise is that modern medicine and superfoods are complementary, not conflicting, this book aims to educate people about this by offering an objective exploration of the power of Indian superfoods.

Every year, there is a ‘new superfood’ trending. Why is that? What is the reason for this quest behind superfoods?

Superfood trends share two common features: they are new and untested. The allure of something ‘new’ brings a sense of hope and excitement, like the fresh start offered by a new year. Being ‘unproven’ panders to people seeking quick-fix health solutions. These new, shiny options seem more promising because no one has tried them long enough to explore all their effects.

Most of the superfoods you mention from tomatoes to spinach and carrots are staples of many Indian Kitchens, did we know a thing or two about holistic foods all along?

Any superfood that has passed the test of time has to have merits.

Traditional foods like moringa, amla and jamun are of Indian origin. Their health properties are mentioned in Ayurvedic textbooks written centuries ago, which shows that our ancestors had an empirical understanding of what modern science is discovering now.

For example, our ancestors considered hing a carminative, meaning it helps relieve gas, and a ‘heart tonic’. Modern science has found that the compounds in hing indeed relax the smooth muscles of the digestive tract, facilitating gas release. The same action helps lower blood pressure, as similar muscles line our blood vessels, demonstrating that our ancestors knew about the many benefits of superfoods without possibly understanding the underlying mechanism.

However, not all of this knowledge was figured out in our kitchens. Asafoetida (hing) and carrots, for instance, originated in Iran, and cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. Foods like pineapple, papaya and tomatoes can be traced back to South America. Indians have acquired the wisdom supporting these foods as global trade prospered over the last 2,000 years, bringing a rich variety of superfoods into our traditions.

What were the facts that surprised you while you were writing the book?

I used to think holistic foods were special because of their significant vitamins, minerals and fibre contents. However, I found that their benefits are mainly derived from their phytonutrients – plant compounds like lutein, lycopene, quercetin, kaempferol, anthocyanins, lignins and so on that confer both preventive and curative medicinal benefits.

For example, the jamboline in jamun, curcumin in turmeric, lycopene in tomatoes, gingerols in ginger, EGCG in green tea and betalain in beets pack a health punch far beyond their vitamins and minerals possibly can.

Today as more and more Indians are on the move, working or ordering online, how does one ensure that our diets and our foods are healthy?

I don’t have a simple answer for this. While travelling in urban India, I’ve found it challenging to access good quality food, except in 5-star hotels. My choice, which might not suit everyone, is to carry natural supplements to obtain similar nutrients.

Healthy food is far more expensive than cheap, junk food. So, it’s wise to apportion a larger portion of your budget to food. I believe “it is better to have a pristine heart and a rickety car than the other way round.”

We must educate ourselves about why and which foods play a pivotal role in our health, and then, make an effort to consume more of them in our diet whenever possible. 

Food and disease are intrinsically linked; how can good food stop bad health?

Many lifestyle-related disorders, like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, fragile bones (osteoporosis), arthritis, dementia, Parkinson’s disease and even some autoimmune conditions, are often triggered, nurtured or worsened by oxidative stress and inflammation. 

Oxidative stress is like fire, while inflammation is the resultant smoke. They can both be manageable in the short term but their prolonged or excessive presence is risky. The body has chemicals to protect us against their damage. But these chemical levels drop with age, making way for disease and ageing. 

Ills of modern lifestyle, such as stress, inadequate sleep, lack of exercise and processed foods, increase oxidative stress and inflammation, causing an early onset of degenerative diseases and ageing.

The highly potent phytonutrients in superfoods act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. They can prevent or delay the onset of many diseases, slow their progress and, occasionally, offer remission.

What was the most challenging aspect of bringing this book out?

Finding authentic nutritional information and medicinal benefits of foods found mainly in India, such as jamun, amla and sabja, was the physically challenging part of this task. International nutrition databases don’t feature details about them. I had to go through hundreds of research papers to extract relevant data, a very tedious process.

The mentally challenging part was avoiding the easy way out by gathering information from popular websites, both Indian and international which often contain wrong information, possibly copied blindly from some source without verification. Instead, I had to rely entirely on published research papers, reviewing nearly 10,000 of them. The book ultimately includes 1,600 references!

The emotionally difficult part was knowing that someone could be harmed ‘because’ of my work. For example, while turmeric or garlic are beneficial in fighting cancer, they cannot replace conventional treatment. Yet, despite all disclaimers, some people might stop their medicines and switch to beets to manage their BP. The book’s contents necessitate a responsible approach.

How can one incorporate the superfoods you mention in their daily lives?

The first step is awareness. You need to know that sabja (sweet basil leaves) is not only a falooda ingredient but also a good digestive aid.

The second is to develop strategies that you can incorporate over the long term, not just a few months. Consuming spinach soup every day is not a sustainable option; rotating different foods is a more viable choice.

In the appendix of the book, I provide a summary of the various health benefits of the twenty ingredients covered in it and which foods you can obtain them from. People should choose their health priorities based on their needs, like anti-diabetes, heart-protective, etc. Then they should shortlist the foods that can help in those aspects. Finally, they should spend time learning how to prepare various dishes using these foods and rotate them regularly.

Here is an example: Below is one of the two pages that summarise the health benefits of various nutrients.

One fact you would like to share with our readers regarding health and superfoods?

Many people start thinking about their health only when something goes wrong. After all, modern medicine is quite capable. However, any renowned doctor will tell you that prevention is far easier than treatment. 

Preventive strategies should begin in your 20s, and not 40s or 50s. Some disorders take 10-20 years to take root, such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes and once they set in, they are difficult to stop. Superfoods can only slow their inexorable march after that.

My favourite example is of a mobile phone lying near a table’s edge. Life’s challenges will keep pushing it towards the periphery. You don’t know which jolt to the table will cause the mobile to fall and break. Once the phone falls and breaks — you are sick — your options are significantly limited. 

Therefore, a vital wellness mantra is consistently pushing back on oxidative stress and inflammation. Consuming superfoods is your most powerful tool to achieve this.