For urban Indians, a balanced body is no longer enough
Around the world, the ways people care for their bodies are influenced by cultural beliefs. In India, the traditional medicine system of Ayurveda has played a major role in moulding Indian ideas about the body and its care.
At its core, Ayurveda holds that the mind and body represent a holistic system, constantly interacting, and health problems arise out of imbalances within this system. Treatments are based on an understanding of patients’ body types, called doshas. Central to this approach is the idea of balance – balanced energies, emotional states and functions – within the body to achieve good health. Careful attention is paid to the energy (or heat) of foods.
These beliefs are part of Indians’ residual cultural memory. It’s still common to hear Ayurvedic wisdom being doled out in simple ways like “Don’t eat too many mangoes; they have a lot of heat and could give you pimples”. Or, “Don't eat watermelons in the winter; they’re cooling and will give you a cold”.
But, there is an emerging belief that the idea of balance is impractical for those living in the teeming metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore. For one, work in these cities requires long hours and commutes that can take more than three hours each day. There just isn’t the time to prepare healthy food. Apart from that, there is the increased exposure to environmental aggressors – pollution, toxins, radiation and food safety scares. Furthermore, people are succumbing to new, hidden diseases caused by modern lifestyles. Vitamin D deficiency is epidemic all over the Indian subcontinent, with a prevalence of 70–100 per cent of the population. Every year, over 700,000 people are diagnosed with cancer. Around 15 per cent of the Indian population, both male and female, are infertile.
At the same time, as city life is damaging our health , there is also increased social pressure to appear physically fit. Driven by the urge to be visible on social media and aspire to celebrity beauty standards, there is an emerging idea that the body can be transformed and remoulded in terms of size, shape and stucture.
The body is being reconceptualised as a machine, rather than an Ayurvedic ecosystem. It needs to be prepped for performance, built to withstand health aggressors of the modern world and live up to social expectations. This fuels the need for more specialization, control and enhancement, which is more than what Ayurveda can provide.
Pharmaceutical and fast moving consumer goods companies are picking up on this discourse, leading to a boom in supplements and nutraceuticals. The Indian nutraceuticals industry is expected to grow at 20 per cent per year to USD 6.1 billion by 2019-2020. Among a health conscious, globally connected set in urban India, imported fitness techniques crossfit, zumba and pilates classes are popular. Like many other parts of the world, cold press juices, smoothies and vegan diets are increasingly popular. However, these trends often feel faddish.
One of the hallmarks of Indian culture is its tendency to absorb new influences rather than discard them completely. And, just as a brigade of new solutions have emerged, solutions that tap into residual, traditionally accepted ideas of health have also become popular. The popularity of power yoga with its promise of shape and tone is a case in point. Brands have started to repackage Ayurvedic knowledge in more potent forms, such as Organic India’s or Himalaya’s range of supplements for hormonal imbalances and diabetes control.
Across the foods and neutraceuticals categories, this presents an opportunity. Innovating in a way that harnesses Indians’ existing health ideas but meets the demands of modern urban living is a space that is ripe for innovation.
Health through the Culture Lens is a weekly series exploring important cultural currents in health and pharma
Image credit: GQindia
- Article by Sneha Kapoor