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There are many debates surrounding food. Right from vegetarian vs non-vegetarian, to vegan vs Jain, organic vs processed, and carbs vs protein…the categorizations and comparisons are endless. But, there is another distinction that is now coming to the limelight – and that is how we eat our food: with fingers or forks? Which is the best way to eat?

Modern culture seems to be tilting towards eating with cutlery. Even in India, where it is the norm to eat with hands, youngsters are changing their habits to incorporate Western culture and lifestyles. The strange argument that it is more hygienic, overlooks the centuries-old practice of our ancestors eating with their hands.

I, often, used to think that a fork looks like a hand without the opposable thumb advantage! Why would you give up that unique home-grown advantage for an outside piece of metal?

Blast from the past: An incident I remember

I remember an incident when I was a child in London. Our Indian-origin English landlord happened to step into our house while we were eating. He balked at us, exclaiming incredulously, “You’re eating with your hands!” At the time, it seemed unremarkable to me because that was how we were used to eating all our young lives. Eating with hands or spoons was not a point of decision-making or choice. This debate never arose in our homes or minds. Hands it was – hands down!​​

We have come a long way since those times. Today, there is a growing understanding that eating with fingers has several benefits over the most-washed and steamed cutlery. Naturally, we all have our predispositions, comfort levels and cultural outlooks, but what does science have to say about this?

Scientific reason behind eating with hands

1. Hands are an extension of the five elements

According to ancient texts of India, and Ayurveda, our five fingers are like the five elements:

  • The thumb represents Agni (fire),
  • The index finger Varun (air),
  • The middle finger Akash (sky/space),
  • The ring finger Prithvi (Earth), and
  • The little finger Jal (water).

Hands are the center of tactile sensations, processed by the brain. So, when you eat with your fingers, you stimulate these five elements and prepare yourself for the intake of food, and the subsequent process of digestion.

2. It aids and eases digestion

Our hands are the first level of digestion. When we mash food with them, we enable easier digestion: in the mouth and then, in the stomach. The touching of fingers also activates the pranas (energy) in them, and this prana is transferred to the food with the naadis (pulse) in our finger tips.

When we eat with our hands, they form a mudra. With the help of different mudras or postures with the hands, Ayurveda teaches us important ancient curative mechanisms. The mudra helps cleanse food of negative vibes and energy, making it fit for consumption. So, eating with fingers has the added benefit of easier digestion. These advantages are lost with a spoon.

3. Tearing food becomes easier

This is not only true of Indian food such as dosas and rotis but also Western ones such as bread, and pancakes as well. The positioning of the fingers and their flexibility make it easier to tear food into small pieces that can be consumed. Compared to rigid cutlery, hands can mold, re-shape, cut, soften, and roll food, making it suitable for chewing and digestion.

4. You avoid overeating

With increased sensory organs at work, you are more conscious of the amount and type of food that you intake. This ensures that you eat only as much as your appetite (and not your greed) demands. Along with smaller portions, eating with your fingers also helps you eat slower. This allows you to make a more informed judgment about how much you really need to become full. And hence, avoids overeating.

5. It is more hygienic

Simplistic as it sounds, you wash cutlery once whereas you wash your hands multiple times a day. Plus you know where your hands have been! And you are more aware of any soap remnants stuck to your hand than to your cutlery.

So, how can a washed and used piece of cutlery be cleaner than your very own personal fore limb?

Who said this?

Since nobody has used my hand to eat before, it is more hygienic than any spoon or fork you use.”

It was Dr. S Radhakrishnan, India’s esteemed and erudite second President to the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had suggested to the Indian Head of State that he eat with a spoon for reasons of hygiene.

6. Adds an extra sensory organ that helps you appreciate your food more

It is because you are now offering yourself the sense of touch, in addition to the sense of sight and smell to enable you to relish your meals. Your eyes search for dirt or particles that don’t belong in your food. Your nose keeps at bay foul smelling or rotten food. So, if one more sense organ, the skin helps you test your food before you put it into your system, it is good, isn’t it? It makes it safer for you to put the food in your mouth. How?

Ever put a boiling piece of vegetable into your mouth without knowing it? It probably happened because you were using a spoon! If you use your hands, you have a better idea of the temperature of your food and prepare yourself for it, so you don’t scald your tongue directly. Yes, your hands are likely to feel the heat first, but the skin on the palms is harder than that on your tongue, and you can always lightly feel it before picking it up.

Also, your brain is more prepared for the food you are about to consume. This helps you anticipate and savor the taste of the food you are about to eat with more enjoyment. The digestive system also releases juices that are appropriate to digest the food based on its texture!

There is something warm, intimate and homely about eating with your hands (which is the feeling that you should eat with) that cannot compare to the cold feel silverware, stainless steel or glass, as it were. Your hands are a part of you and your emotional connect with the food you eat makes it more palatable.

Some rules relating to eating with hands

1. Washing your hands thoroughly before and after eating is sacrosanct. Many hotels are equipped with wash basins to wash yourself before eating. They also offer a bowl of water with a lemon to help you clean the grease off your hands after you are done.

2. In many cultures, including Indian culture, it is the practice to eat only with the right hand. The left is not considered clean.

3. Only your fingers should touch the food and not your entire palm and hand.

4. Along with eating with hands, the Indian practice of sitting on the floor is also a healthy custom. The back and forth movement, while you sit on the floor and eat, activates digestive enzymes, and also prevents overeating.

I have heard of forks and knives being described as weapons! That seems to sum up the argument, doesn’t it? After all, food is not the enemy that needs to be attacked and gobbled with weapons. On the other hand, ancient wisdom tells us that the food we eat should be the only medicine our body needs, so it should be respected.

And, you don’t really want your food to smell and taste of the cutlery you are using, do you?

(With inputs from ‘Having food the right way’ by D K Hari and D K Hema Hari, founders, Bharat Gyan.)

For more information on India, you can follow the founders of Bharat Gyan on Twitter @bharatgyan