Next Story

In search of nutritional nirvana

When it comes to clean eating, are we paying for health or hype?

By Faiza Shah |
facebook whatsup linkded
PUBLISHED April 22, 2024

I love avocados. But I don’t think it’s because of their taste. I find them to be essentially tasteless to be honest. However, if anything is dubbed a superfood, I’m sold. That magnificent term makes me feel like I’m getting super powers by consuming it. Excellent term they landed on, the marketers for the food industry. The term has been bandied about since it was used during the First World War as a branding strategy by The United Fruit Company for its import of bananas to the US. Bananas are hardly extraordinary for Pakistan. Hence, for avocados I have stars in my eyes. When I think of eating healthy, I romanticize about this odd-shaped exotic fruit.

Packed with nutrients and healthy fats, rich in antioxidants, potassium and high in fiber, the creamy mint-green fruit is now comparatively more widely available in the local market. I haven’t eaten one in ages. The price tag said, I’m expensive because I’m just that healthy. Olive oil bottles sing out the same tune.

This is not an ode to avocados, this is an attempt to share with fellow Pakistanis what constitutes healthy eating.

With the influx of social media trends, even simple lifestyle choices have me confused. Forget about the influencers who come up with new makeup looks by the hour, you don’t know what the latest trend is. There are way too many workout videos and fitness experts saying do this, not that. There are countless nutritionists and dieticians with varying approaches to clean eating and complex advice on how to take care of our bodies. I was following an influencer whose healthy lifestyle entailed her moving from the US to Italy and eating quinoa and growing leaves in her European garden to consume. She sold a whole life plan while advising what to eat. I unfollowed her when onions hit 200 rupees per kilo in our local market. Can’t come back from that widening gap.

Hence, I return to the fruit that eludes my budget, the avocado, to make a point. Buying one in Karachi is like chasing dreams in Pakistan.

My favourite no-frills dip is guacamole and that is what began my love for avocado. Avocado salad was my go-to when it was affordable and available at a popular cafe back in the day. I found it more cost effective to order a whole salad than go buy a couple avocados to make a salad at home. I’d have to also boil an egg and sweet corn, toss in iceberg lettuce and other greens like iceberg lettuce and vegetables and fry up some croutons to top it off. Then buy extra virgin olive oil to make a dressing.

Eggs today come for around 260 rupees a dozen. An avocado is going for 1,200 rupees a piece.

So naturally, it’s eggs for breakfast for me and avocado on toast is my dream.

Affordability seems to be an obstacle in purchasing a healthy diet. We would all prefer that our food is free of chemicals and toxins that come from pesticides sprayed on the crops. Yet reaching for organic produce is similar to buying imported items – expensive.

Some of us try again and again to be more mindful of what we consume on a daily basis. Cutting down processed food is easier said than done. Yet if you limit junk food or eating out, it will help. The same goes for keeping away from sugar. Train yourself to eat less dessert and cut out sugary drinks from your daily diet. However, buying ingredients for cooking in your home is the straight and narrow path many of us get stuck on which includes the debate of going organic for example or buying superior quality cooking oils.

A corporate professional, Haneen Rafi, echoed my own struggle with selecting ‘purer’ and healthier ingredients. “Things no longer taste the way they used to. And increasingly, it feels like the quality of food we used to consume since childhood has degraded tremendously. So, may be, switching to organic is the answer? But it hasn’t materialised yet, despite trying. Mostly, I ask myself, ‘Are these 700-rupees organic eggs really organic?’ If it hurts this much to part with your money, does it at least guarantee that these are the most organic eggs to have graced this world? I suspect not.”

It’s the egg-and-the-avocado theory all over again.

Food blogger, with a flair for fashion, Natasha Qizilbash (@if.natcancook) has turned many a kitchen klutz into novice cooks through her easy-to-follow recipes which she posts on Instagram and YouTube. The majority of her recipes make use of easily available ingredients despite the fact that she experiments with a range of cuisines. Qizilbash said, “Organic produce is far better than using produce that has been tainted with chemicals but we try and use whatever is available to us. If we live in a farmhouse and if we have a vegetable patch, of course it’s available to us. But if we have to go out in the market and look for organic produce, sadly, it’s not that easy to do in Pakistan.”

So Rafi and I are not alone in this struggle.

Qizilbash explained that according to her, “Healthy eating doesn’t mean that one has to necessarily be on a diet.” For foodies, which generally Pakistanis are, this should be heartening to hear and easier to endorse. “Healthy eating means to incorporate all the good things in your diet and making sure that it also fulfills you,” she continued. “I feel like sometimes when people try to eat too healthy, they deprive their body of good stuff. So to me, healthy eating means eating a sustainable meal which doesn’t leave you wanting more.”

I couldn’t agree more. The key here I suppose is to maintain a balance in not just quality but also quantity. I don’t think Qizilbash is allowing us to have mounds of rice for lunch or bowlfuls of nihari for breakfast (the Lahori way to have nihari). Rather, if you can choose the right ingredients from the required food groups, your meal should sufficiently satisfy your hunger.

But is it possible to eat healthy and enjoy Pakistani dishes? Our basic entrée dishes are always cooked in oil. Other than sides like salad or boiled rice and roti, all sweet and savoury dishes of Pakistan require a lot of oil, be it bhindi or jalebi.

“I think that it’s easy for us to use healthy ingredients in Pakistani dishes. If you go back in time, our parents used to use mustard oil which is so healthy, coconut oil, desi ghee, etc.,” Qizilbash pointed out. “Olive oil is a neutral oil. It doesn’t add flavour to a dish but it doesn’t take away either. It is known to be a very good oil, so yeah I would use it.”

Based in Lahore, Qizilbash is currently on a visit to the US, so I asked her if she found Americans generally to be more health conscious specifically from the perspective of choosing their diet. “You’d be surprised,” she replied. “I think that people living abroad don’t eat very healthy food. People here have more access to organic produce than there is back home, yes, albeit, it’s more expensive across world. Yet, in the US, I feel a lack of healthy food in people’s diet around me. But this isn’t a generalized statement. I feel in all countries, in all cultures, there are certain people who eat healthy and there’s certain people who don’t.”

Living in Houston, US, Amna Khalique shared some reasons why this may be the case. When moving to the US from Karachi, Khalique looked forward to creating a healthier lifestyle, eating cleaner, cutting down meat consumption and maybe even going vegan - if the pangs of Pakistani foods like haleem allowed her. America would offer a more conducive environment for a healthy lifestyle she imagined, for the health culture was far more prevalent there at the time than in Karachi. However, since settling abroad, her young family has grown and there are various factors to juggle when trying to plan a meal for them.


“In theory, eating clean in the US should be easier with easy access to a variety of vegetables, grains, refined sugar-free options. However, on the flip side, processed food such as snacks, chips, etc., is a lot cheaper and more accessible especially if you’re on the go,” said Khalique, an accomplished and self-taught baker who runs a shop from her own home (@sugarplum_bakery), and finds herself busier than she imagined.

“Eating clean, and that includes opting for organic, simple ingredients, corn syrup-free items has to be a conscious choice,” she added. “Labels are very misleading and often times even the simplest items have a bunch of ingredients that shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

Khalique echoed Qizilbash’s view and said, “I feel eating clean has to be a lifestyle, whether you’re in Pakistan or elsewhere. Albiet, more often than not it’s the more expensive option.”

Fatima Niazi, a fitness and health enthusiast, and has recently come out a winner in her first-ever half marathon in Karachi for the corporate team category. She shared her diet regimen which sounded pretty hard core and impressive to me. “Healthy eating for me is stuff that is mostly, boiled, grilled, and things that don’t have sugar. Karahi, bhindi or anything desi is going to be [cooked] in olive oil so basically [any] healthy oil. I avoid white grain, so [I have] brown rice and brown roti. For me, eating clean is revolving every meal around that kind of stuff.”

Niazi is social so I wonder if she eats when she’s out with friends. To my surprise she even orders lunch regularly. But it comes from one specific place, The Healthy Craving which offers wholegrain foods, noodles and burgers too but not oily, not too spicy. “Chicken tikka would be the most basic Pakistani dish I order when eating out,” Niazi said. “It’s protein, available at big and small eateries, it’s not dirty. Or I order chaat without yoghurt,” she said.

She seems to enjoy a desi diet filled with healthy ingredients as Qizilbash pointed out. “I don’t look at organic stuff at all,” Niazi shared. “Organic vegetables die out very soon. I got mint leaves once and they were gone in one day so it’s really pointless. It makes things more difficult. So I haven’t gone towards organic yet.”

Consultant nutritionist and the general secretary of Pakistan Nutrition and Dietetic Society Fayza Khan said, “Organic just means food free of chemicals. It has become a fashion terminology. Homemade food is just as healthy as buying organic because you are not adding anything harmful in what you are cooking and it is being cooked in clean, hygienic conditions.”

She highlighted that access to clean and healthy food is a multidisciplinary action that requires enforcement of rules and regulations by the government and check and balances within the food industry and market.

“Healthy eating is safe and nutritious food which we can pick and choose from the resources available to us and consume as required per our age group, lifestyle and stage,” she said. “What is discussed on social media should not be followed as anyone can claim to be a nutritionist. There are no checks and balance, there is no regulation. Many influencers are just self-claimed nutritionists.”

She said qualified nutritionists will never insist that you choose a certain type of oil for cooking for example. We can create a balanced and healthy diet out of the resources available to us locally. “We have plant-based oils which are more beneficial. Unfortunately, we also have so many quality concerns and labeling concerns. There is no regulation imposed by the government of Pakistan that monitors labelling. Yes some companies claim that their labels are true to the contents they sell and some quality brands do deliver on this.”

Surprising to note that, as Khalique pointed out, labels in the US may be misleading, despite the existence of four agencies that carry out food regulation and inspection there. Reading labels is not even a habit that is visible among Pakistani shoppers and even if it was it may not help us choose food any more wisely. Khan highlights the problem in being deceived at every step when there is lack of regulation. “There are indeed some sources among plant-based oils which are high in saturated fat content but there are those like sunflower and canola which in its pure form is healthy. 90% of the oil available in the market has palm oil but the labels will wrongly claim it is pure sunflower or canola oil. A single oil which is not mixed and is in its pure form is reliable. But the quantity and quality of oil is equally important.”

Khan also touched upon the preferred milk to consume. “Milk has a lot of misconceptions,” she said. Definitely fresh milk is the best but when we buy fresh milk it is coming to us through some resources like doodhwalas. Most milk shops have a lot of quality concerns. They usually add water, which is the most minimal addition. But what about the livestock, is the animal administered with injections of oxytocin or fed toxic food? Since Pakistan does not have a high literacy rate, most dairy farmers will not be mindful of such things.” However, Khan said there are clean dairy farms where animals are given clean feed and having milk transported directly from such farms to you or the store you shop at is not harmful. Similarly, every tetra-pack milk brand is not free of chemicals either so it can also have poor quality.

Khan identifies some trends in the public which are harmful eating habits such as buying bakery items and sugary drinks. “Our beverages market, (which includes sugary drinks like sherbets and juices) has a huge spending budget. We need to reduce this consumption as a nation. Soft drinks, sherbet, juices should be strictly avoided,” she said.

“The main killers in processed food are trans fat. Unfortunately, these are used in all processed frozen products, like parathas and puff pastries. And in bakery items. You can go to any bakery and you will see a stream of customers as if they have some free distribution going on,” Khan remarked.

Trans fat not only affects heart health but cognitive brain functions and causes production of cancerous cells and inflammation in the organs. Our local street vendors fare should be encouraged, Khan said. The indigenous snacks and drinks like sweet potato, sattoo, lassi, bhutta (corn) are all beneficial and healthy but require food and safety regulations in order to be safe for consumption.


As we do not have control over the growing conditions of vegetables and fruit, nutritionist Khan recommended some tips to ensure what we buy from the market is properly washed before consumption. “Fruits and vegetables sprayed with pesticide should be soaked with vinegar and water mixture which can minimise the effects of toxins,” she said. “We advise our patients such tips on how to keep their food safe. Don’t buy fruit that looks like it’s going bad.” The best option and solution, Khan said, is home gardening. “It cannot yield a complete supply sure but it will still be a supplement.”

An enterprising friend had started her own organic farm on her balcony terrace some years ago. She kept chickens and a turkey, grew mushrooms and some herbs and vegetables. I ordered a couple dozen eggs because where else would I find a more trustworthy source of organic produce? I also wanted to help her sales and become a regular customer. I was admonished by my family for purchasing such expensive eggs, even though they were maybe 50 to 100 rupees more for a dozen. Now regular eggs cost more than what I paid for them back then.