By Kaitlyn Pritchard, BBC News, Mumbai: People in India’s capital are often asked to make a choice between two food groups: one that is good for you and one that you are not.
While this is not uncommon, many people are surprised to find out that many of the choices they make have to do with what they are told to eat.
A study of 5,000 people in Mumbai found that more than half of those surveyed had a no-no list of food that they did not like, and many others were concerned about the quality of the food they eat.
They were also asked to list what food items were deemed unhealthy or harmful by the health authorities.
This led to the question, ‘Which foods should you avoid?’
Researchers at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in India, led by Dr Muneer Jafri, analysed these responses and created an interactive website, ‘Food Choices: Health and Safety of Choices’ (PDF).
They found that almost 60% of respondents said they had no-nos for unhealthy or unhealthy food, while 42% had no no-nos for unhealthy food.
“People often assume that it is just a matter of making choices and avoiding unhealthy foods, but we are trying to develop a holistic approach to health that takes into account all the variables,” said Dr Jafre, from TISS.
“We were interested in what people really eat, what their expectations are, and the impact of the foods they eat.”
Dr Jadri’s team looked at responses from people from three different parts of the city: a population living in Mumbai’s suburbs, a larger group of people living in the city’s densely populated core, and a smaller group of residents living in remote parts of central Mumbai.
The team asked people to choose between two different types of food, and then found that the people who had no preference for either were more likely to say they were concerned with the quality and quantity of food being eaten.
They also found that, in general, people were more worried about the food quality than the quantity.
“A lot of people would prefer to eat something with fresh fruit or vegetables rather than a lot of processed and processed foods,” Dr Jaffri said.
“What is more worrying is that a lot people are reluctant to eat a lot less and a lot more of their daily calories are going towards this type of food.
That can lead to health problems.”
Dr Sushil Bhagat, a dietician at the Delhi University College of Medical Sciences, said he had never heard of a study suggesting that people were avoiding healthy food entirely.
“It may seem obvious, but if we do not have a lot to eat, it can be very difficult to keep a healthy weight,” Dr Bhagats study co-author Dr Sankaran Sethi said.
In the study, the researchers asked people a series of questions about their food choices.
They found people who were more concerned about food quality were also more likely than others to have no-tobacco or no-pork items on their list of health-related concerns.
“Many of these people were worried about health issues, which is really concerning,” Dr Sethi added.
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In general, Dr Bhagan said, people tend to eat less when they have a chronic illness.
“The diet that people have to manage with their chronic illness, their food intake is very important, and I think this can be a big part of the problem,” he said.
Dr Jaffe and Dr Sethie said they were surprised that people in India were less likely to eat processed and packaged foods and that their health was better when they were eating more nutritious foods, like vegetables and fruit.
“There are some issues in the country that may have to be addressed,” Dr Pritchett said.
A recent study in the journal Obesity found that people who reported eating less than 5,200 calories a day were more than twice as likely to be obese, with the most common risk factors being diabetes and high blood pressure.
“This may be a very important finding because we don’t really know why people are more obese in India than in other countries,” Dr Sathvik Sankararaman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto in Canada, told the BBC.
“And the reason for that is that Indian people have very different dietary patterns than the rest of the world, so eating a lot too much food, or not enough, or eating too much meat, is really not a problem.”