It is somewhat of an irony that in writing an article which aims to highlight the problems with the South Asian diet, my mind takes me back to an experience in Ramadan a number of years ago. I recall sitting in a mosque waiting to break my fast amongst a group of people dressed in the traditional South Asian white shalwar-kameez. The atmosphere was extremely intense; some were in a state of quiet contemplation whilst others were quietly sobbing to their Lord asking for forgiveness. The purity and simplicity of the gathering was spiritually uplifting and I remember feeling extremely overwhelmed by the experience. Once the time for breaking our fast approached, we were taken to another room in the mosque where we were met with an extremely lavish spread of home-made food with every variety of fritter, curry and halwa, available for consumption. There was further irony as we were all sat on the floor to eat so that we could mimic the ‘simple’ prophetic method of eating’.
It is fair to say that food is somewhat of an obsession amongst South Asian Muslims. The quality of the biryani is usually the defining criterion used to judge the success of South Asian social gatherings, and in many instances, the ability to produce a faultless curry can be the deciding factor in a man choosing a wife. Indeed, the thought of a spicy curry not featuring on the household menu has the potential to strike panic within a South Asian family. However, as second and third generation South Asian Muslims living in Britain, perhaps the time has come for us to evaluate whether the unhealthy obsession we have with our ‘traditional’ diet is having a negative impact on the health of our people and wider society.
Research indicates that South Asians living in Britain are four to six times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than the general population and they also have a 40% higher mortality rate from diabetic related illnesses than their white counterparts. They also have a significantly higher risk of developing complications arising from diabetes, such as kidney failure and foot ulcers. The issue of diabetic related kidney disease in particular is particularly troublesome due to the high demand it places on dialysis facilities in an NHS system with already limited resources. These issues highlight the significance of diabetes as a public health issue amongst South Asians in Britain.
Changes in lifestyle following migration have been hypothesised to be partly responsible for the increased risk of British South Asians developing diabetes. This has prompted an interest in examining their food and nutrient intake. On analysis, it becomes apparent that there has been some incorporation of ‘Western’ food items into breakfast and lunch; however the evening meal appears to be resistant to change. In particular, the evening dinner incorporates ‘special’ items such as clarified butter, Indian sweets and meat into the everyday menu as they become more affordable to people who have migrated to the West. Hence, the pre-migration diet, which consisted mainly of staples, pulses and vegetables, has evolved into one with a higher fat and calorific content. This dietary evolution, coupled with the continued use of cooking methods such as frying and deep fat frying, has been used to account for South Asians having a higher percentage of food energy derived from fat and saturated fat than the White population in Britain.
Evidence suggests that South Asians are well aware of the unhealthy nature of their diet. However, despite this, they are still resistant to modify the foods they eat and the traditional methods of cooking. One can understand how first generation South Asian migrants to this country might have difficulty completely modifying a diet that they are so accustomed to, and thus why they might find boiling and grilling as an especially ‘bland’ method of cooking. In addition, the consumption of rich foods is seen as a mark of success within the community, which provide ‘strength’ to the individual eating them which may further explain why elders continue eating such foods. However, what is more perplexing is how second and third generation British South Asians persist with such an unhealthy diet.
The subject of food has far greater significance than merely being a means of providing energy to an individual. Social and anthropological observations across cultures and time have demonstrated that ‘the identity and differentiation of the group is brought out in the practice of eating together or separately, as well as in the content of what is eaten.’
In essence, the consumption of a particular genre of food within a communal setting reinforces membership to a particular group, whilst refusing foods and eating different foods separately from others can lead to differentiation and loss of identity. As Professor Pat Caplan has contended, ‘food is never just ‘‘food’’ and its significance can never be purely nutritional…it is intimately bound with social relations, including those of power, inclusions and exclusion.’
Given the social and symbolic role which food plays in the life of British South Asians, they are confronted with a paradoxical situation; either they persist with a diet that presents significant risks to their health but helps them maintain their identity, or they could avoid South Asian foodstuffs and acts of hospitality and thereby risk being excluded from their communities. This is particularly important, given the fact that many South Asians in Britain live in ghettoised communities, and the prospect of being excluded from this will mean a loss of one’s entire social support network.
Whilst many public health workers focus on trying to help South Asians make slight modifications to their diet to help curb the prevalence of diabetes, perhaps the solution needs to be somewhat more holistic, especially amongst the British-born youth of South Asian origin. Obvious measures would include the encouragement of lowering the amount of fats which are used whilst cooking, decreasing portion sizes and also using alternative methods of cooking (such as steaming). Such measures would certainly be more in line with the Prophetic method of simplistic eating (as opposed to the oil laden curries and fritters). Moreover, as the debates on cultural identity are rife in the public domain, South Asians (especially second and third generations) should be encouraged to include more variety into their diet. Perhaps one of the most celebrated aspects of modern British culture is the multicultural nature of British gastronomy, ranging from European to Far Eastern-cuisine. Promoting South Asians to adopt such a diet may have the dual benefit of presenting a variety of healthier options from a range of cuisines, whilst simultaneously improving social cohesion through the potential of creating some similarities in identity through the eating habits of various communities.
 Lawton J et al. ‘We should change ourselves, but we can’t’: accounts of food and eating practices amongst British Pakistanis and Indians with type 2 diabetes.
Goody, J., 1982. Cuisine and class: a study in comparative sociology. Cambridge University Press
Caplan P. Food, Health and Identity (1997). P3. (Routledge)