With a little aid from science, a pinch from the vedas, experts help you find that beloved pathway to having your cake and eating it too, literally.
“Life is too short, eat your dessert first”. It was in the year 2000 that the czar of the pastry world, Chef Jacques Torres, uttered these famous words.
It was at the launch of his dream project, a state-of-the-art chocolate store and factory named Jacques Torres Chocolate. He might have used these words to encourage people to fall in love with his chocolate and desserts, but little did the bean-to-bar pioneer know that not only had he just made an amazing pitch for the patisserie world, but in doing so, had reiterated a famous learning from the Vedas. The world of nutritionists and psychologists would fuss over these ancient scientific finds for the next decade and more.
Fast forward to 2019, and the American Psychological Association in its Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, published If I Indulge First, I Will Eat Less Overall: The Unexpected Interaction Effect of Indulgence and Presentation Order on Consumption. Their findings urged people to have sweet first as part of best practices for healthy eating.
It’s a fact that many of our ancient texts including the popular Charak Samhita and Madhuparka have stressed upon. The latter, in fact, promulgated the practice of welcoming guests with something sweet, which could be honey or something that would have a good amount of ghee that could relieve the “agni” in the stomach (an ancient referral to hunger). Thus started the practice of offering sweets – either a laddoo or a sweet drink – before the meal, across many cultures in India.
It’s a tradition that is also reflected in our thalis that follow the diktat of Sushruta Samhita, one of our ancient scientific tomes on which the Ayurvedic rules of wellness and food habits are based. According to this version of Samhita, a balanced meal should have a sweet at the outset, something sour and salty in the middle, followed by pungent, bitter and astringent eats and supported by foods that are an instant source of energy (carbohydrates in modern parlance).
The idea behind the order, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, in which our thalis are set, is not just to work our digestive system but to help it work effectively.
“The combination of sweet, bitter and salty ensures stage-by-stage digestion and segmenting of nutrients to build our immunity. It is to help the body differentiate between the processing of nutrients and the energy required to keep one energetic, which is where the sweets come into play. As most are high-calorie indulgences with generous quantities of fat, sugar and starch, eating them first ensures the body processes these first instead of storing it for future use, a default mechanism that swings into action if you eat the sweet at the end. This process in Ayurveda is called the calming of the kapha dosa, which is also responsible for the emotional state of the body,” adds Bhassin.
It is a fact that is corroborated by Ksemakutuhalam, a Vedic cookbook from the 2nd century CE that calls for a pleasant atmosphere and a good mood as essential for proper digestion – and sweets, says Bhassin, play a crucial part in enabling this.
It is a concept that Vedic culinary expert and former ITC Hotels’ corporate chef Manjit Gill agrees with too. “The thing about eating sweets in the beginning is that it sets a pleasant tone for the food ahead. The ghee in it also helps lubricate the digestive tract, thereby evoking the feeling of satiation from our meals rather than just flavours. Sweets also activate digestive juices, so you are bound to feel satiated and light when you finish eating. Having dessert, usually the highest calorie intake, at the end of the meal, forces the body into restarting after the process is complete,” says the curator of the wellness science-based dining space Royal Vega in ITC Grand Chola, Chennai.
Eating dessert, especially Indian sweets first, says psychologist Itishree Mishra, “also has a pleasant, calming effect on the mind thanks to the fat content and, of course, the use of cardamom. Together, they have this placebo effect which we often verbalise as ‘feeling happy’. Consequently, the next food choices you make will be healthier, as proven through a study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology which used four different food places and people to do the same”.
However, consultant nutritionist Niti Desai says, “There is one caveat to the rule, and that is our tendency to overindulge, a common occurrence and happens to even some of the most disciplined eaters. The trick to achieve the ‘dessert first wonderment’ is portioning and choosing the right kind of dessert to eat. Indian sweets, especially laddoos, kheer, chikkie, moa and such, are effective, given their complex composition that gives you nutrients along with high calories. Not so much the two-dimensional chocolate cakes, crème brulee and multi-layered desserts. Choosing one that uses different kinds of texture and a complex carbohydrate is a good option when you are looking for indulgence as they can fill you up and stop you from overstuffing your plate.”
As for portioning, adds the seasoned medical therapist, “Try having a salad first and then your favourite dessert. And opt for the smallest plate for this.”