CHENNAI: With awareness about traditional food grains going up everyday, millets have become common in the menu of people living in urban areas, who encounter non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart ailments.
Organic stores that have mushroomed across the State, particularly in cities like Chennai, Coimbatore and Madurai, without fail showcase different varieties of millets and demand is rising. Apart from these stores, NGOs are conducting traditional food markets and food melas very often, promoting the use of millets. They highlight the high nutrient value of the millets and how all kinds of dishes made with rice can also be cooked using millets.
However, interaction with those closely engaged in organic farming and with knowledge about how tribals and those living in hill areas use millets, have a different view. The gist of their advice is: “Yes, millets are highly nutritious and have numerous health benefits. But for the single reason that millets are highly nutritious, it is not advised for one and all for daily consumption.”
B Kalanidhi of Semmai Semmai Vazhviyal Naduvam, an organisation working for reviving the traditional way of living of Tamils, and practitioner of traditional medicines, gives a different picture. “There is a general notion that millets can keep diabetes and heart attacks at bay. Millets are like any other foodgrain, but some varieties are meant for those who are engaged in heavy physical work. For example, kuthiraivali (banyard millet) can be taken on a daily basis by those living in hill areas, those who need to climb trees and people engaged in strenuous agricultural work. If this highly nutritious millet is consumed in large quantities by those in urban areas who have less physical work, it would aggravate the diseases they have instead of curing it. But they can consume it in lesser quantities occasionally — say once in a week,” he explains.
Similarly, another variety of rice being promoted in urban areas now is moongilarisi (bamboo rice). Highly nutritious, it has been consumed by tribals and those who live in hill areas. But because of the increased demand for it in urban areas, many tribals have started selling it for a good price and have switched to rice received in ration shops. “This is, in a way, altering the lifestyle of tribals. Also, it is not suitable for daily consumption by those with sedentary lifestyles. Contrary to this, because of the clamour being created, people are eating it irrespective of the high price,” he points out.
Food of the poor
Regarding the fact that a few decades ago, millets were staple food for a large section of the society in Tamil Nadu, Kalanidhi points out: “Again, look at the people who had consumed it on a daily basis in the past. Only those who exerted themselves physically had consumed it and not those engaged less-demanding work.”
G Perumal of Pennagaram in Dharmapuri district, a millet farmer for many years, too shares similar views. “Millets are heat-generating foodgrains. So, during summer season, they should be taken along with buttermilk or fenugreek (vendhayam) and during winter, they should be taken with jaggery. Children can consume powdered millets and jaggery. Or a few millets can be fortified further by sprouting, dried and powdered and can be given with jaggery. Cholam and Kambu can be avoided in summer. They create digestive problems.” He also cautions against eating millets during nighttime at any cost.
Ananthoo of Safe Food Alliance is of the view that millets are nutritious and healthy, but consuming one type of millet throughout the week would not improve health. Recalling that millets were considered a poor man’s food in the past, he said once polished rice was introduced, millets were neglected. As usage of polished rice spread among ‘affordable people’, incidences of diseases like diabetes too rose. Now the affordable people have turned their attention towards millets. “The irony is that even millets are now available as polished foodgrains. It would not serve the purpose.,” he points out.
Meenakshi Bajaj, a dietitian at the Tamil Nadu Government Multi-Super Speciality Hospital, says shifting from one’s regular diet to something new should be done in a phased manner so that the digestive system, which is unique for every individual, will get used to the new foodgrain. “One has to understand that millets have some goitrogenic properties (anti-nutritional properties). So millets need to be roasted, fermented or sprouted before use.
This will ensure that goitrogenic properties are limited and millets are bio-available. Many fail to understand this and advocate consumption of millets without processing it. Secondly, your gastro-intestinal tract is accustomed to some type of digestion. Say for example, a person used to eat rice three times daily and becomes diabetic. If I advise to him to suddenly turn to wheat, it would change his digestive system from one extreme to another, which his system cannot handle overnight. If the transition is slow, the system will accept it.
“People with sedentary lifestyles should take it in moderation. A labourer, on the other hand, requires vitamin B to metabolise the carbohydrates in the meals he takes, and B vitamins are bountiful in millets. This vital vitamin is washed away in polished foodgrains,” she added. When asked if restrictions are necessary, M Preetha Nila, BAMS.,MSc., (Psychology), an ayurvedic physician from Theni, says, “Decades ago, people in different regions of Tamil Nadu consumed only what they got in their region.
Now, even fruits from abroad is available for consumption. According to Ayurveda, the primary cause of any disease, from ordinary cold to major ailments, is indigestion (agnimandhya). Nowadays, the common mistake people commit is eating without feeling hungry and overeating. If sufficient exercise is not given to the body, then the problem manifests in the form of disease. The intake of millets has to be seen in this context. It is better if we take millets in lesser quantity than rice because the former is nutritious than the rice available to us now. Moreover, millets alone won’t give a balanced diet. It should be taken along with fruits and vegetables.”