India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Cover Story
March 16, 2020

“The Second Brain Of The Body Is The Gut”

Text by Tanya Vasunia. Photographed by Ritika Shah. Styled by Mayank Choudhary. Art Direction by Aaditya Walia. Food Styling by Daniel Shechter. Assisted by Aastha Parimoo. Hair and Make-up by Anu Kaushik. Production coordinator: Akshay Ma at Glitz Modelling and Production. Location Courtesy: Rooh, New Delhi

Neither the body nor the mind are monolithic entities. And chef Diya Sethi exemplifies that. The global citizen and author, who spoke out on her recovery from anorexia-bulimia, reflects on how a metamorphosis of food culture and women’s changing social roles have transformed urban India’s eating habits. In a wide-ranging dialogue with her, psychologist Tanya Vasunia says in order to eat healthy, we must first understand our mental framework

Diya Sethi is a complex woman. Her relationship with food used to once be convoluted, but today, she’s come a long way, especially after some considerable self-work. While her own case was rather acute, our overall understanding of eating and eating habits — despite their central cultural position — is fractured and in need of conscious repair.

As a working psychologist, I’ve observed an increasing number of people seeking assistance on account of food-related issues over the last few years. ‘Eating disorder’ is an umbrella term for psychological concerns surrounding a relationship between food and body image, where non-treatment can even result in the loss of life. But you don’t need to be diagnosed with one in order to acknowledge that your association with what’s on your plate may be complicated or unhealthy. Even a cursory examination of 21st century trends would make it clear that urban India has noticeably stepped back from having an emotional connect with food, and that we first need to reflect on our individual choices about how we nourish ourselves – a key component to being mentally healthy.

Our bodies are historical libraries. They hold a record of our truths, insecurities and dreams. When we are sad, we process our feelings through tears — and hot beverages, a tub of ice cream, or maybe a bar of chocolate. We are what we eat (and much more than that), but we are also products of our past experiences and associations, which cannot be ignored even when we’re doing something as simple as eating lunch. What we must rather reflect on is the language and approach we may be using.

I’ve always been curious about how professionals working in the food industry view and deal with some of these issues. So, given the opportunity to have a conversation with Diya, who is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and author of The Addict: A Life Recovered, I hoped to gain more empirical insight through her observations, particularly in the context of Indian society. Diya, to achieve the meaningful balance and satiating bond she has with food today, went down a transcendental path while in recovery from anorexia-bulimia, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

But we stayed in the present, continuing the dialogue she began in her book, and delved into some of the vagaries of human nature and how behaviour around food extrapolates into the politics of gender and the many other aspects of our lives.

Excerpts from our conversation…
Tanya Vasunia (TV): I’m really excited to have this conversation with you, because I’d like to learn from your perspective. I think the Indian relationship with food is, or always has been, a very complex one, but today in particular, it’s going in a more negative direction. I know you’ve also lived in various parts of the world, so I’d really like to have an understanding or comparison of this from your point of view.

Diya Sethi (DS): I think that, today, our relationship with food in India is influenced by a need to adapt to certain ‘western’ eating habits (particularly American) that we’ve already adopted but haven’t quite understood very well yet. And we simply accept these discomforts and dislikes [constitutionally] of certain foods, such as dairy products, for instance, as a matter of conspicuous consumption. So what we inherit from other cultures is a psychology towards certain foods — rather than any actual, physical problems. This is how that relationship, at the level of ingredients, has also become corrupt. I wouldn’t know if this has historically always been the case with us, but I do know this is true in the current scenario.

TV: But there are also many contradictory narratives around us in India. Food is a cultural symbol for a lot of things, including social gatherings and religious rituals. Our gusto for it (and perhaps in other parts of the world too) is significant as well, which then leads me to consider certain ideas about how women are supposed to look, how they are expected to behave, and how they are supposed to eat.

DS: That’s an interesting point, and I do think it’s a universal phenomenon. But if you take India, once upon a time, the ‘attractive’ image of a woman’s body was voluptuousness, for instance, and being thin was seen as ‘un-appealing’ or ‘unattractive’ and was even considered ‘unhealthy’. If I had to put a timeline to it, I would say post-liberalisation is when things noticeably shifted. Since then, you suddenly found that Bollywood had begun to celebrate a ‘size zero’ image instead. And a consequence of this change in trend was a change in eating habits.

TV: I completely understand what you’re saying because, during my practice, I’ve often seen people attribute physical and mental illness to certain food groups like dairy or gluten, as you said — but without any actual evidence or scientific testing done, and it could be the adoption of a new cultural ideology that is driving them into neurosis.

DS: Yes, and it’s a function of the cliché ‘learning how to run before you’ve learned how to walk’. People continue to eat certain things simply because it’s trendy to do so, even if they are physically uncomfortable with it. And especially if they’ve been exposed to certain new foods, which their bodies are not accustomed to (what with an increased access to travel as well). Then they go into neurosis about a particular ingredient — imagining that a serious health problem has occurred, when it is only a little bit of indigestion. There are a host of other factors too. But, you know, I’m contradicting what I said earlier. It’s also the other way round: the problem is also because of what we’re not eating.

TV: I think there’s definitely a psychological component as well with wanting to look a certain way or live longer….

DS: So, ‘health’ is also now a premise for a distorted relationship with food, and, as you say, so is longevity. But people who also have very stressful lifestyles, for instance, often take it out on food rather than on addressing their emotional imbalances.

TV: Absolutely. I think food is something tangible, which we can control, and I also think it’s easier to do that instead of taking responsibility for and accepting or analysing yourself. Because when you’re stressed, you can simply continue to live in that state by controlling your food — by effectively trying to prove that you actually want to be healthy. But in truth, you’re going to still remain unhappy and unhealthy like that, or only supposedly healthy.

DS: There have been many articles recently on intuitive eating and the ‘anti-diet’ diet, which are all supported by psychologists and nutritionists, and might even make a lot of sense. But the trouble is that they’re not teaching you how to fix the fundamental emotional imbalance. Firstly, if you already have a mental imbalance and a corrupted relationship with food, you cannot afford to eat intuitively, as it is invariably going to become excessive or a form of denial. Treating food as a reward or punishment is also counter-productive. Some people may agree with feeding a baby on demand; others may not. For some people, having regular meals at intervals, by leaving a four-hour gap, may help because they happen to have genuinely weak digestive systems. For others, eating when hunger strikes could be a better idea. These are the variables. We can figure things out for ourselves instead of being bombarded with dos and don’ts.

TV: But I think we need to first understand ourselves, and we need the space to reflect and think about our relationship with things around us. Some people come into therapy not even knowing that they have a dysfunctional relationship with food. And some people eat without even realising that their individual relationships with food are relevant.

DS: It’s not consistent, and mustn’t be. It never will, because the second brain of the body is in the gut. A lot of people’s emotional Achilles heel is the stomach, as far as the mind-body mechanism is concerned — mine is. When I feel fear, it is in the stomach; when I feel stress, it is also in the stomach. For others, it might be in the lower back, but the stomach is usually the common denominator.

TV: Yes, there’s very recent scientific research to prove what you’re saying about the stomach being the second brain, and it has shown how different physical manifestations of depression are found in samples of gut bacteria. So, the gut bacteria of people who are depressed are actually different from others. This speaks volumes about the connection between the two, and the way to deal with it is through mindful eating.

DS: Eating habits are very important; for example, people tend to eat on the go, which isn’t easy for digestion. So it’s not the food and the ingredients that are always to blame. But in the US, it was serious health problems, stemming from a culture of excess, that led to the growth of a manipulative and brainwashing health food industry at another extreme. Which, as an example, we should avoid becoming vulnerable to ourselves. We need to understand our habits better and get to the bottom of them, by thoughtfully merging what we imbibe from other cultures into our own.

TV: We’ve forgotten that there’s a learning process involved. We’ve become so used to achieving, moving on, and acquiring, that we look for some tangible results even from the food we are consuming — whether it’s [physical] energy, good health, or a long life.

DS: We are actually overthinking it…

TV: … in some ways we are overthinking it, but without managing to personalise it. We’re not reflecting on the very intimate nature of food and what it feels like to us. How does it make you feel when you eat something?

DS: I think that’s not entirely true. I think we’re trying to go against our grain — when our grain is the sarson ka saag that comes in the winter, and you’re looking forward to it with the butter… those desires haven’t been lost. We should just relearn how to eat intuitively instead, given that we don’t even get things out of season here, maybe more so now. But traditionally, we haven’t eaten things out of season. So, as you said, no one’s really thinking for themselves anymore.

TV: Yes, in fact, I often ask people if they’ve actually developed a food intolerance because of having eliminated something from their diet….

DS: We need to step back and undo the brainwashing. I think we have certain facilities in this country that are not easily available or affordable in other parts of the world. One of these is Ayurveda, even though I think it’s a double- edged sword. I think that while an Ayurvedic diagnosis can help people understand their constitutions, its prescribed diet can also become restrictive in the context of modern western diets and foods.

TV: I always believe in a cohesion of treatments. I feel Ayurveda, in collaboration with western nutrition, blood tests, and so on, in order to see a patient’s progress, is very necessary.

DS: True. It’s all there for a reason — a modern medical diagnosis, a western nutritionist, and an Ayurvedic doctor, all looking at the basic constitution of the body, and saying, ‘alright, how do we manage this, all together?’ Right? That could re-establish people’s healthy approach to food.

TV: So, if someone who wants to change their relationship with food had to take something away from our conversation today, what would you ask them to think about?

DS: Well, the crux of our conversation is not about a corrupt relationship with food that originated from a health problem, but with a relationship with food that is actually the source of that health problem. So I would first tell a person to go to a therapist and not to a nutritionist, because, fundamentally, it is a problem at your subconscious or emotional level.

But, on a connected note, until a well-known person or celebrity is willing to stand up and talk about this publicly, I don’t think it’s ever going to come out of being taboo. If you take the example of how Deepika Padukone talked about depression, we need an equivalent for this. It will take that, I’m afraid. I’m giving a very honest answer. But this conversation has come at the right time, and hopefully it will have a far-reaching effect, because we’re not just talking about people suffering from diagnosed eating disorders; we’re also talking about ‘healthy’ people whose lifestyles or social interactions are being affected by a corrupt relationship with food. They may actually be more frightened of food than of alcohol, and may be using alcohol to satiate their appetites instead.

TV: And alcohol is a great mood alterer, isn’t it? It’s very interesting that you say this, because if someone is actively drinking in order to suppress their appetite or avoiding social situations when it comes to food, we would, in the psychological community, identify that as symptomatic of the beginning of a dysfunctional relationship with food too, especially when we look at how an eating disorder now doesn’t mean only anorexia.

DS: But again, a distorted relationship with food or alcohol is a symptom and not a cause of eating disorders. Because there is also a fear, a fear of body image. There’s a fear of people, a fear of competition. There’s a fear of judgment. There’s a fear of not being interesting enough at the dining table.

TV: It’s a cyclical process; you avoid sit-down dinners, and eventually that builds up an anxiety within you. And that will manifest as another kind of behaviour. Maybe it’s over-exercising; maybe it’s eliminating carbs for that week. And, you’re right; we effectively use food as a punching bag. But it’s not just women; even men undergo eating disorders…

DS: Invariably, the source is an emotional problem. And the outcome is a health problem. Depriving the body of cholesterol, for instance, is what can also create
high cholesterol…

TV: That’s the thing. We don’t have the right information; we can’t trust where it’s coming from. I think this is what creates hysteria; this is what creates false rumours about food. Like you said to me earlier, ghee is essentially a ‘fat’, and that’s the association that most people make with it. So when they think about ghee, they don’t think about it as a nutrient but as a ‘fat’…

DS: …or as a carb. ‘Carb’, ‘fat’, ‘protein’, for God’s sake. One of the most divine things on earth is a bowl of pasta, but 200 grams of pasta will obviously make you feel uncomfortable; a 75 gram portion won’t hurt. It’s one of the most easily digestible foods. And that’s also about where you need to start learning how to feel full…

TV: I think we don’t want to learn anymore. We’ve got to a point where we want to ‘know’ instead, because learning means we could fail, and that can directly impact us. The irony is in the way we’re going about it; we’re inevitably creating a bad rapport with what we eat. What’s very important is awareness. When you eat something, know how much you’re supposed to eat. Have that kind of conscientiousness….

DS: So, I’m going to ask you a question now. How is this peculiar or particular to India today?

TV: What I do have from my research are the stats. And if we’re talking about a difficult dynamic with food without getting to the point of a proper diagnosis, then India seems to have faced the brunt of it. And this added uncertainty has been almost unbearable for us. It’s not just Indians, though. For us, however, having to undergo so much change recently, having globalised so much and so rapidly — it’s just been easier to join the rat race than to take a step back and think. You’re healthier when you reflect and are in touch with yourself. But doing that needs space and time, and for some particularly fragile people the thought is inconceivable. When we abuse food — and by that I mean, restrict ourselves — what we are abusing is our own self.

Then there’s the paparazzi that has erupted over the last two-and-a-half to three years, and all of a sudden, there’s messaging even about where people go out to eat. Celebrities are frequently caught at particular restaurants, and some of them are explicitly and implicitly sending out a signal about a standard of ‘success’ and what it looks like, what it means. And that’s a lot to live up to — for anyone. We look towards things that make us feel more acceptable or lovable. And in India particularly, we still tend to think of ourselves as the ‘underdog’.

What about you? Does your approach to food change depending on which part of the world you’re in? Do you find yourself in a different frame of mind?

DS: No, but it’s taken hard work to get where I am. I eat very locally, wherever I happen to be. The moment I step out of India, I have absolutely no desire for an Indian meal. I’m not trying to avoid it because of affectation or pretension or any kind of complex. I just eat locally. But then, I’m the product of a very international life. I’m someone who’s never lived in any particular country for more than three years at a time — I’ve lived in Southeast Asia, China, Africa, the US, the UK, Europe, France, and the Middle East — so I’m used to adapting quickly to the culture of where I am. I don’t feel any intimidation or fear.

One very useful way to recover is to actually cook yourself. For instance, you’re not going to find the same corrupt eating habits in rural India, because they don’t have the luxury of not cooking on their own. But even the Americans and the British, like affluent Indians, have largely stopped cooking today because of life on-the-go. Going to the pub. Having shepherd’s pie, seven beers, then home. The Americans are the same. It was all the quick food that replaced going home and cooking. Europeans — and when I speak of Europe, I’m specifically referring to France and Italy — on the other hand, never eat on the run. Even if they don’t cook, they go to a restaurant. There’s a lot of attention paid to what they’re going to eat, the glass of wine that marries well with it. It’s the culture and the importance of sitting down and eating. Europeans love to cook. So, that’s another big reason why they have sustained a fundamentally healthy relationship with food, even the affluent.

TV: And I think what’s happened in India too, at least, for the middle class and upper class, where you’re one step away from what you eat because you’re not cooking it yourself. And therefore, there’s also this psychological element — and I’ve seen it in my clinic — where there’s a lack of trust between who’s prepared the food and who’s eating it.

DS: I tell you — one of the advantages of ‘pretty’ food is that you develop a friendship with it. You look at it in so many different ways. So the beauty of it is in the sense of smell, sight, sound. You need to know when to start adding liquid to the risotto because you have to listen if you’re doing three other things in the kitchen. You hear the crackle and the spit… and every sense comes alive. It’s like an orchestra, and you are the conductor. You are going to sit down and appreciate every bite, that effort that’s gone into it.

TV: Effectively, what you’re describing is mindful practice. When people come to us and talk about their preoccupations with weight gain or anything like that, we ask them to be mindful while eating. We do this exercise where we ask them to get a Parle-G biscuit and take a small bite. To feel the biscuit… smell the biscuit, and that’s exactly what you’re describing. And you’d be shocked that most people have never done this. The first time I asked patients to feel a Parle-G biscuit, I got a few giggles and a few ‘are you sure about this Tanya?’ looks. But at the end of it, it is so powerful. It’s about being in tune, being aware.

DS: And you know what, that’s where the off-switch also is. That thing about knowing when you feel full; it should come automatically. Say, for example, you’ve got a vanilla-infused dessert. You will never want a second one of those. If you taste the vanilla — and smelling and tasting go together — it’s so strong that there’s an automatic cut off. There’s only so much vanilla you can take in, both via smell and taste. If you go to one of Goa’s spice gardens, they have vanilla growing there — and you have to move away at some point. It’s so powerful; you just have to move away.

So going back to the point, if you cook your own food, you will have a better chance at appreciating it, and you can see the advantages. You’re already halfway full, by the way, once you finish cooking. You’ve already ‘fed’ yourself, right? So there’s very little chance of over-consuming. Your psychology around it changes. Food is then a source of joy, and not a threat.

TV: But that’s if you’ve got a healthy association with food in the first place. If you’ve already developed a neurosis, it’s quite difficult to start cooking.

DS: Listen, I went from the frying pan into the fire; I went from being an anorexic to joining a hardcore cooking school. So there was no transition. But now we’re talking about the depths of real, life-threatening eating disorders. I’m talking about just the average dysfunctional relationship….

TV: Okay, right. So think about what you’re doing when you’re just inhaling your food. You’re trying to distract yourself, cut off something.

DS: The problem is people don’t chew their food. Then they’re gonna say they can’t eat red meat anymore, they can’t eat mutton anymore, or that they can’t eat paneer. But, the point is, you have to chew the damn food…

TV: Because chewing requires you to pause, to hear your thoughts. But your inner thoughts are scary when they’re not helpful. So many people not only avoid food but conversely they also over-consume it in order to get away from whatever they’re feeling.

DS: But again, I would say that the family dinner, and the practice of sitting at the dining table and eating, is a structure that shouldn’t be lost. It really should not. I’m not saying that women created it, but there is a belief about ‘enforced domesticity’ in the post-feminist era, which has contributed to a change of eating habits, and that, in itself, has generated a slightly corrupt relationship with food.

TV: So you’re saying there’s been a lot of knock-on effect because our position in global society has changed. But you’re also pointing out that we need to do certain activities in order to psychologically experience the act of eating better. I will contest you on your earlier point, though, because I don’t think it’s only the woman’s job…

DS: I’m not saying it’s only the woman’s job today. It was traditionally the goal, like it or not. There was a certain culture around the dining table, a time for relaxation. It promoted an easy assimilation of food, and that respect for the manner of eating is gone today. Not all of it was without advantage.

TV: I agree that a respect for a manner of eating is gone. And it makes it easier to navigate through things when you talk about defined roles. But for me, it’s also about responsibility; it’s about what works for someone. For example, if it [cooking/feeding] does work, and that gives you joy, and if that’s where your pride is, there’s nothing wrong with it. If it doesn’t, there’s nothing wrong with that either. The bottom line is that if it’s important and it matters, then it’s something you should institute into your family.

DS: So that’s where I think there’s a sense of abandonment involved. A child will look for an outlet — and eating alone may not feel very happy. If the child has stopped eating at home, because you’re not promoting a culture of sitting down and having meals together through a healthy relationship with food, what do you expect?

TV: For a parent, it’s easy to miss, right? If you’re all eating at different timings, you wouldn’t even know if you’ve developed an unhealthy relationship with food…

DS: But you’re much more resilient than your child is by that stage, and you’re also doing it out of choice or obligation. For a child to evolve, grow and live, though, food is of primary importance. There has to be a certain tradition and discipline around it. If parents are going to fail to meet those obligations, then the consequences of it can be immensely harmful. When I talk about feminism, this is the process I’m thinking of. I’ve seen a lot of women — the ones who have the luxury of spending the time — become very, very casual about this. And then I have had people ask me whether I think their kid is going to be anorexic.

TV: I think it’s because anorexia is associated with size; it’s associated with fitting into a certain image — wanting to be perfect. Unfortunately, we focus on how, for instance, ‘my kids studied for 13 hours today and did really well on the exam’, and we celebrate the masochism involved in that achievement. It’s more about, ‘I did a 19-hour work week’, and thumping your chest about that. Today, there’s a lot of pride in overworking yourself, but no one talks about productivity.

DS: Yeah, but that’s why I object to this. Again, I’m coming back to why I brought up what I said earlier, because I know it’s a very difficult thing to digest. And it’s not because I happen to be a chef. I’m not a mother, incidentally. I’m 45. Obviously, most of my peer group consists of mothers; their children are anywhere between 10 and 17. But when I see their casual approach to food, I find that the child invariably ends up having a bit of a disordered relationship with it.

Let’s put it this way. Women have less time today because they’ve made other choices. That’s all I’m saying. In the post-feminist era, there is a complex of enforced domesticity associated with cooking and being in the kitchen. It’s been written about, you know, by Germaine Greer, etc.; the association of cooking and being in the kitchen. So there has been an antagonism towards it. Right? Let me just read this out to you [from the article ‘“I’m not a feminist… I love cooking!” Why food is a feminist issue’ by Natalie Jovanovski on feministcurrent.com]:

‘…Cooking, a task traditionally relegated to women through the role of the selfless nurturer, is perceived by feminists as an act that reflects women’s oppressed cultural status both inside and outside the home… Australian feminist Germaine Greer argues that the role of feeding is essentialized to women through our ability to breastfeed, and as a result, generalized to our relationships in the kitchen… [W]hile our bodies may have the capacity to feed and nurture others, our relationships with food are marred by the social conditions that hold us principally responsible for its preparation.’

So, you see there is nothing irrational in what has been written. And I’m not going to try and support my own argument. But I see it enough to have thought about it, and I said I want to touch upon this. Because where it’s hurting my sensibilities is when I see children being affected by it. Do whatever you want as an adult to yourself. But when I see it trickling down, that is where I find it becoming objectionable.

TV: I would agree that if someone is merely rebelling against some terminology or trying to adhere to what is acceptable within a certain mindset, then that is problematic. Instead, it’s about being your authentic self. I believe you can be a feminist and be feminine at the same time, and also follow a very traditional role as a wife too if that’s what makes you happy. When you talk about some feminists, that antagonism comes from a place of anger, over a feeling like they didn’t have a choice. So I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with all of it. I do think it’s the parents’ responsibility to focus on food and help change that relationship for our next generation, but unhealthy eating patterns can develop through either of the two parents. Other than the first couple of months after a child’s birth, when breast milk is required — and even then some women cannot breast-feed, or what if it happens to be a same sex couple? — I think the responsibility lies with both of them.

DS: But the role of the mother or the ‘feminine’ doesn’t necessarily have to be played by a woman in a homosexual relationship. What both men and women would agree on is that you can’t compromise on certain principles of life that are very fundamental, one of which is the nurturing of a child. It’s not about me but this particular point that I’ll make because it’s important to me. My own recovery, for instance, came about when I looked at my mother, and realised that I’m her child, and that I don’t have the right to do this to myself; I am a product of her. She’s nurtured and protected me, and I’m hurting that. My mother would then sit there and feed me, and I went back to being a baby. This helped. These gestures are so significant. So I speak from maybe a place of a lot of passion that has come from a personal experience.

But let’s get away from feminism for a moment. I never grew up in India, and a lot of my friends here tell me how, when they were children, they were overfed. So on the flip side, is there a culture of over-feeding?

TV: That’s what I mean about India having a complex relationship with food, because I think we also view it as a way of expressing love. But we don’t listen — we don’t listen to ourselves, we don’t listen to people around us. That’s something my gut instinct keeps telling me. We want to have our version of love displayed, and food is a way of doing it; we’re associating food with love, and acceptance of love with compliance. We need to really appreciate it when our children say ‘no’, instead of taking it as a form of defiance or a challenge of authority. If a child is actually exercising an opinion, you should view it positively. But because we view most things as absolutes, we think it’s absolute authority, or it’s either ‘black’ or ‘white’, or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This is something so deeply ingrained in us that we have either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ relationship with someone; we are either ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. We don’t know the balance between the two.

We are trying to achieve two things. We’re trying to achieve perfection while also trying to be in fashion, and food is a big component of that. So, again, these are contradictory messages. Drink the best wine, eat the right super-food and, at the same time, look a certain way, be a certain way. How do you tackle all that? It’s so much.

DS: Actually, then, you’re absolutely right. Because one of the biggest indicators of this is when you watch people eat. And that’s when you can tell whether they’re fine or not….

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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