Saturday, March 2, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Eat and let die!
Amar Chandel

IT does not require a sample survey or an exit poll to come to the inescapable conclusion that the favourite pastime of Homo sapiens in general and Indians in particular is you guessed it right eating! Heaving, puffing proofs of this harsh reality are everywhere. We eat when we are hungry, we eat even when we are not hungry; we dine when we are happy, we hog when we are sad or upset. In short, every time is eating time, come day, come night, come hail, come blight.

And unlike other living beings, we not only eat more than what we should, we eat what we shouldn't and we eat the way we should not. What a pleasure it is to pamper our taste buds. Nothing compares with the sensation of a succulent pizza melting in the mouth.


But this gastronomic nirvana comes bundled with a small hitch. The digestive system has to struggle hard to deal with the overload that we thrust upon it. What is so delicious for the tongue is a death warrant for the system. If only we could savour all that we wanted and it didn't have to go to our abdomen! However, according to the currently available medical science, that is not feasible and we have to account for every morsel that goes past the palate. Commit the excesses on the poor body long enough and we become the storehouse for a million diseases, plus obesity to boot.

Doctors are unanimous. If you are overweight, you are more likely to develop health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer, gout (joint pain caused by excess uric acid), and gallbladder disease. Being overweight can also cause problems such as sleep apnea (interrupted breathing during sleep) and osteoarthritis (wearing away of the joints). The more overweight you are, the more likely you are to have health problems.

The American Cancer Society points out that "about one-third of the 500,000 cancer deaths that occur in the USA each year are due to dietary factors." The American Dietetic Association reports that breast cancer is most prevalent in countries where women consume high-fat, animal-based diets.

Yet, the food epidemic has become so widespread that eating sensible food conducive to human system is called dieting. In fact, many call it fad eating. Anyone who bothers to tell you what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat and how to eat is considered a spoilsport. In short, well-balanced, mature people behave like mindless fish which see the bait but miss the hook.

North India is particularly caught in this obesity epidemic. Perhaps that has something to do with the mentality that developed over the centuries. All attacks on India were mounted via the Punjab and it was considered futile to think of the future. "Khada peeta lahe da; baaki Ahmad Shahe da" (what you eat and drink belongs to you, rest all is that of Ahmad Shah) was the common refrain. Well, Ahmad Shah Abdali is no longer there to attack India, but the food feast goes on. As Khushwant Singh once put it in his inimitable style, Punjabi women are among the prettiest in the world, but they remain that way only till they are married. After that they get transformed into battleships. What he has left unsaid is that men folk match them kilo for kilo.

Food addiction starts early and is made worse by lack of exercise and constant stress. Keeping up with friends makes every school or college student go in for junk food. A binge once in a while is OK, but hogging on junk food regularly makes one's body a junkyard. The decreasing frequency of family meals, the increase in convenience and fast foods, the popularity of TV viewing and computer usage (and video games) and the decrease in exercise and other calorie-burning activities has a lot to do with it.

Barely one out of four young persons participates in light to moderate activity (e.g., walking, bicycling, etc.) on a daily basis. Even fewer engage in vigorous physical activity, while the vast majority shuns exercise like the plague. The only exercise most get is while moving their hands from the plate to the mouth.

The obesity epidemic is already beyond controllable limits, yet not many are concerned about it. Most victims are convinced that they are not really fat, a bit plump maybe. Tyres and lovers' handles don't shock, because far too many people flaunt them. They pass off as signs of prosperity. A skinny person is taunted for looking famished. Second, nobody sees the co-relation between wrong food habits and several serious diseases.

Experts' warnings are a cry in the wilderness. Dean Ornish, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, says: "We often have a hard time believing that the simple choices we make each day what we eat, how we respond to stress, whether we smoke, how much we exercise, and how well our social relationships support us can make powerful differences in our health and well being, even in our survival."

The world famous authority on preventive medicine laments that we tend to think of advances in medicine only as a new drug, a new surgical technique, a laser, something high-tech and expensive, whereas a series of scientific studies have been conducted during the past 25 years demonstrating that the progression of even severe coronary heart disease can be stopped or reversed simply by making comprehensive changes in one's diet and lifestyle. These include adopting a low-fat, plant-based, whole foods diet, stress management techniques (including yoga and meditation), moderate exercise; smoking cessation and psychosocial group support.

Every authoritative health body in the world, from the American Heart Association to the World Health Organisation, is calling for reductions in saturated fat consumption. Why? Because high blood cholesterol level is the single greatest risk factor for heart disease and the single most important factor in raising blood cholesterol level is the consumption of saturated fat.

Weight loss can help improve the harmful effects of being overweight. However, many overweight people have difficulty reaching anywhere near their healthy body weight. Studies show that you can improve your health by losing as little as 5 to 10 kg.

The lack of communication between doctors and patients is a two-way process. Patients say that the real situation is not "fully explained" to them by the busy doctors. Doctors argue and rightly so that the patients just refuse to listen to them. A senior doctor lamented that whenever he told his well-heeled patients that all that was wrong with them was their lifestyle, they simply shifted to other specialists. So, why should he lose his practice and get a bad name to boot? Today, he only prescribes costly medicines and even more costly tests.

There is no substance in the charge against the doctors. Newspapers and magazines are full of health advice. Unfortunately, very few bother to read them, let alone follow them. Everyone thinks that keeping him or her in working order is the job of the doctor. Actually, it is the patient himself who is responsible. The doctor can only lend a helping hand.

For medicine to have the desired effect, one's body and its immune system should be in reasonably good shape. To ensure that, there are at least three commandments which one can break only at a tremendous cost to one's well-being. Here they are:

EXERCISE: A minimum of 20 minutes at aerobic heart rate, three times per week. Talk to your doctor and start slowly. More exercise is OK as long as it is sensible and balanced.

EAT HEALTHY: Balanced meals, more fruits, vegetables and fish, less red meat and far less junk food. Vitamin supplements are OK if guided by a nutritionist or a doctor.

EAT LESS: Conscious eating always produces a significant decrease in food consumption. This can be as much as 50 to 75 per cent in some compulsive eaters.

As you can see, these instructions are nothing new. Rather, these have been hammered home for centuries. It is just that their importance has never been fully appreciated. Every youth lectured on this topic thinks that his elders are being cantankerous. By the time one is mature enough to take heed, it is too late. As George Bernard Shaw said, "Youth is a wonderful thing; it is a shame to waste it on young people."

How far-reaching the effects of what you eat are, is being fully comprehended only now. A strong advocate of healthy eating is John Robbins. His earlier book, Diet for a New America had caused a sensation. The latest one, The Food Revolution, handles an even larger canvas telling you how your bad food habits destroy not only you but also the earth.

John was heir to the empire founded by his father Irv Robbins, which became the world's largest icecream company: Baskin-Robbins (31 Flavors), with thousands of stores worldwide and sales running into billions of dollars. But the only son walked out, hungering for connection with the natural world and life's deeper rhythms. He was learning to perceive the immense toll exacted by the standard North American diet and the benefits that might be gained by a shift in the healthier direction. He learnt that the same food choices that do so much to prevent disease were also the ones that took the least toll of environment.

His contention is that all of the planet's features and living organisms are interconnected. They work together in important and meaningful ways. The clouds, oceans, mountains, volcanoes, plants, bacteria and animals all play important roles in determining how our planet works. Unfortunately our eating habits are having a debilitating effect on everything.

The very food production systems that are providing us with the foods that medical science is finding are harming our health are also, it turns out, undermining the life support system of our imperiled planet. Rich, greasy, non-vegetarian food that we have come to prefer leads to excessive use of pesticides, insecticides, antibiotics and other chemicals; misuse of land, water and air resources (it takes 23 gallons of water to produce one pound of potatoes but 1,630 gallons of water to produce one pound of pork); untold cruelty to animals; outbreak of diseases like Mad Cow, and proliferation of unsafe, genetically engineered crops.

Robbins is particularly critical of the biotech industry and genetic engineering and quotes numerous expert reports to drive home the point that the new genetically engineered seeds produce crops largely intended as feed for meat animals, not to provide protein for people. "The genetic engineering revolution has nothing to do with feeding the world's hungry".

In 1999, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a book analysing American society and explained how things they do in their daily lives affect the environment. Focusing on global warming, the report concluded that the two most damaging things residents of the country do to the climate are "drive vehicles that get poor gas mileage and eat beef". It concluded that the damage to wildlife habitat from producing one pound of beef was 20 times greater than that from producing one pound of pasta.

This is even truer of the Third World. Here, the production of meat is monopolising the best local land, undermining the local food supply, and undercutting the efforts of the people to become food self-reliant. There are today millions of human beings in less-developed countries who are going hungry while their land, labour, and resources are being used to feed livestock so that wealthy people can eat meat.

So, next time you dig into your favourite dish, remember: the easier it is on your tongue, the harder it is going to be on your life. And wrong food choices not only destroy us but also our beautiful planet.