Divya Sathyaraj has a famous last name – daughter of a very well-known South Indian actor. And with a younger brother who is also a Tamil movie actor, she’s grown up with dinner table conversations around healthy eating and staying fit. It is perhaps no wonder then that she is steadily making a name for herself as a nutritionist. She counts among her clients the wife of A. R. Rahman, Sairaa Rahman. We sat down to talk about food and nutrition, and in particular, her views on South Indian food as healthy and whether it lends itself to those working to lose weight.
Natasha Ali (NA): Divya, what inspired you to get into this line? I know you were a psychotherapist in an earlier avatar.
Divya Sathyaraj (DS): Well, I am a foodie, and also very committed to exercising and being healthy. My parents were liberal and did not believe in making either my brother or myself do stuff, including eat, what we hated, but instead, inculcated in us the nutritive value of good food, eating right and the importance of being active. From being a fussy eater and too skinny, I found myself turning into a foodie, but one who always remembered her parents’ tales of what foods were healthy and nutritious. I never, not even as a girl or teenager, binged on sweets or cakes, or soft drinks, even though my peers often did. Don’t get me wrong! I was no angel, I loved my puffs and chaats at the movies and so on, but I never got into carbonated drinks or craved sweets. I would say that my interest in nutrition began in my teens itself, and from there, it grew into a passion! In my time doing counseling and working as a psychotherapist, I realised that helping people and improving lives was something I felt strongly about. And given my love for food and my firm belief that one doesn’t have to starve oneself to lose weight or live a healthy lifestyle, I decided to put my words to test and became a nutritionist.
NA: So, what is Divya’s philosophy on dieting? What do you recommend to clients?
DS: It is an undeniable fact that there are a million diets out there, from GM to South Beach to bikini body in 10 days. But you do not need to be on some crazy diet to achieve weight loss; crash diets and very restrictive ones are just a recipe for misery. As a therapist, I strongly believe that I should never make a client eat what he or she hates or make them give up what they love. I don’t believe in ‘going on a diet’. I have patients coming to me and saying, ‘I need to go on a diet to lose weight before Christmas’. The first thing people notice when you walk in to a party is if you have gained or lost weight; I think this obsession is present across the globe. The fact of the matter is that it’s not about dieting for a month to lose weight or ready for a particular date. Healthy eating and living is a journey and I believe you have to eat healthy all your life to achieve the balance. And this obviously does not mean you starve or stick to a boring diet as I feel no one can sustain that behavior long-term!
NA: I have heard you talk about the healing power of food, and about Vitamin therapy. Tell me more…
DS: I believe food can heal and I have always believed that a balanced diet is important to build a strong immune system for an active and stress free life. There is an elaborate healing mechanism within the body, but it can perform its functions only when it is supplied with all the nutritional factors. I also think that people tend to over medicate and rely on drugs a lot. Vitamin therapy has a distinct advantage over drug therapy, for the various vitamins provide the body with essential nutrients, and a lot of these vitamins can be harnessed from natural sources. For those that either don’t form a part of one’s natural eating habits, or are not in sufficient quantity, taking vitamin supplements helps.
NA: Divya, I know you are not a cook, but do you have any recipe, or concoction perhaps, that you would like to share with our readers, that you use yourself and believe has helped you?
DS: You’re right, cooking is not my thing! But I read a lot and research a lot, and of course, I try to rely on natural sources as much as possible. So, here is something I started having when I noticed hair fall, and which I recommend to friends (guys in particular have this lament!) as well. I have buttermilk with curry leaves and 2 amlas every day. Amlas or gooseberries are a great source of Vitamin C; they help to control Diabetes and they prevent hair fall. I also have Tulsi water very evening, instead of tea or coffee because I am prone to catching cold and Tulsi is great for the sinus. For my protein intake, I have B protein with milk. I admit I am not a big fan of soy as a source of protein.
NA: What’s your take on South Indian food for dieting or healthy eating?
DS: If a person loves dosas and idlis, I believe they should never have to give it up. A South Indian diet is a great combination of carbohydrates and protein. As someone who practices in Chennai, and who is a born and bred South Indian, I love my South Indian food, and obviously, have tons of clients who also follow this staple diet. I always ask my clients to substitute regular dosa with green gram dosa, a much healthier option. Green gram has Iron, Folic acid and plenty of Vitamin B. Green gram is also great for skin and hair. If you love idlis, ragi idlis are a great option rather than rava or rice flour ones. Ragi is great for bone health, reduces cholesterol, controls Diabetes and is rich in Iron and Calcium. Sambar is, of course, made from dal and veggies and the way it’s made in most South Indian homes, it has minimal oil or unnecessary calories.
NA: Do you consider rice to be a four-letter word? Many diets warn you off it completely. Every South Indian wedding is a rice-led feast, course after course of steaming rice, served with rasam, sambar, curds!
DS: You know, I think it is all about moderation. If you eat in the right quantities, rice is okay. The problem comes in when we overindulge; heaping huge ladles of rice on our plates, like they do at weddings, is a definite no-no on a daily basis! I will admit, I love Biryani. I don’t indulge in rice all that much, but I could not and really, would not, give up my Biryani fix. Everything in the right portion and without going overboard, and it’s just fine.
NA: Thank you Divya, for taking the time to talk to me for CaLDRON Magazine, and I have to say, even though we’ve known each other for a very long time, I feel like I learned so much today, and what’s more, I’m inspired!