Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Caveat expatriate

Indulgence in over-consumption is more expensive for Indians abroad than for populations who’ve lived in said countries for ages, e.g., Indian immigrants are worse off healthwise than Americans in the USA, the British in Britain and so on. (Contact me for references to research on this.)
Why? Indians’ genetic gifts translate to a greater inclination to diabetes and heart disease, via an unfavourable biochemical profile (cholesterol etc.) in combination with the adoption of the convenience lifestyle of the developed world. This means that an Indian and an American starting out on a par and following a similar lifestyle – junk food, no exercise, poor sleep, stress, exposure to toxins – are unlikely to end up in the same health mess in time; the Indian will deteriorate further and faster.

Technological and economic development are accompanied by another variety of development that is less welcome – that of chronic diseases. We have evidence of this in the changing demographics of disease in India, especially urban (‘westernised’) India. Disease conditions once put off by youth, to be examined only after retirement, are their early- and mid-career companions these days. The youngish (20s-30s) population with high blood pressure and adverse blood lipid and blood sugar levels, is growing – in more ways than one. Labour-saving devices, inordinately long workdays, uncomfortable public transport, higher-calorie diets, and unavailability of places and conditions in which to exercise are unfortunate fall-outs of the economic progress that India is experiencing. Unfortunately, the Indian body isn’t yet savvy to the growth of the Indian wallet and the changed demands that it engenders.

Consider the Indian professional (even in India, but particularly abroad):
• a slowly, but steadily, burgeoning non-pregnant tummy
• blood pressure inching upwards
• triglycerides shooting through the roof, HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) plummeting, LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) soaring
• hyperacidity, even unto an ulcer
• allergies
• backaches, even sciatica
…the cluster of symptoms clustering around the person sometimes as early as in the late 20s. This, unchecked, goes on to official diabetes and heart disease in a few years. That infertility and autoimmune disease are on the rise hasn't escaped anyone's notice. And cancers are not unheard of either.

Some facilitators of this sorry state:

• higher calorie diets than required
• far more fat, especially trans-fats and saturated fats, than the body needs
• far less fibre than needed
• inadequate physical activity
• work and environmental stress
• substance abuse
• compulsive non-vegetarianism…
Till recently, most families that defined themselves as ‘non-vegetarian’ wouldn’t necessarily consume meat on a daily basis. Cost and constrained availability might have been some factors leading to this, as also the fact that the plethora of vegetarian foods available render it really stupid not to follow a largely vegetarian diet. The biggest change today is that vegetarianism for tradition is squashed. Think of the hordes of sausage-chompers today who come from pucca-vegetarian families. People move out and feel no pressure from home, but plenty of encouragement from contemporary society to eat meat – regularly. This by itself need not be bad, but there is no guarantee that the meat you get has been reared and processed in a healthy manner. And over-emphasis on meat may be accompanied by neglect of plant foods – spinach-dal may well get less custom when malai-chicken screams out to the diner.

Men seem to be worse off than women - not a particularly shocking observation. Women have a sliver of inbuilt biological advantage in their young adulthood, but what stands them in better stead, I believe, is their reluctance to let themselves go as easily as men do. Maybe this distinction comes from the pervading sexist requirement for women to be beautiful and responsible, both incompatible with a life of excess.

Some ways the world has changed:

• Population growth
• Polluted water, air and earth
• Toxins in food, water, cosmetics and synthetic materials all around us
• Greatly reduced connection with nature
• Little physical activity
• Reduced opportunity for rest and recreation

In addition to the largely irreversible changes in the world around us, are changes in the world within us. Damage accumulates. Metabolism inevitably slows beginning in the mid-20s. If you maintain the exact lifestyle in your 30s and 40s that you did in your early 20s, don’t expect to look and feel now exactly as you did then. Fat deposition gets a fillip, and muscle- and bone-loss advance, so you need to step up your exercise level even to stay in place. Unfortunately, people tend to ‘take it easy’ and ‘settle down’ (along with the cobwebs in their minds and the love-handles on their trunks) at about this stage in their lives. Also, don’t wait to burst out of your clothes before you acknowledge your fattening. Seemingly slender people are often ‘obese’ by body fat percentage standards. The simple weighing scale doesn’t give you the information that you need. Analyse your body fat percentage and act on it.

What to do?

Don’t take your body for granted. Don’t measure your aptitude for good health by your ancestors’ – your life has practically no resemblance to theirs. In fact, a good way to approach health would be to copy your ancestors' (grandparents or older) lifestyle with respect to food and physical activity.

Exercise: Insinuate movement into your daily life if you ‘don’t have the time to exercise’. Exercise is a multi-pronged salubrious strategy – build muscle and bone, lose excess fat, improve posture and balance, achieve better blood sugar and blood lipid control (increase HDl, reduce LDL etc.) and stave off diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, minimize stress, sleep better, think better, and of course, look better.
Very few of us Indians have a positive, enthusiastic stance towards physical activity. Most of us who kept up our levels of activity beyond teenage have heard offhand remarks or even earnest queries about why we need to exercise when we aren’t ‘fat’. Difficult as it may be, we need to break out of that philosophy and work for fitness, not just to banish visible rolls of fat.

Eat: Stock up on fibre. Choose fats wisely and conservatively. Rather than spending all your talent on churning out meat dishes chock-full of saturated fat, flavouring agents and added colours, turn your genius to sprouts, vegetables, fruit and whole-grains.

Sleep: Even a week of poor sleep leads to hormonal changes that age you by years.

Be merry: Use your intelligence, not strong chemicals, to this end.

Avoid toxins: Stick to natural fibres for wear and use. Let plants rather than chemicals clear air. Closely examine every single thing you use – food, cleaners, cosmetics, stationery, decor. Don't treat yourself as a hazardous waste disposal bin. Shun disposables – they are, without exception, toxic (this includes disposable diapers, tampons, styrofoam, many plastics, plywood, many glues, most dry-cleaned garments, many inks...the list is too long for me to know, let alone repeat). White is not necessarily clean. In fact, having been bleached, it is usually worse than its non-white counterpart.

Monitor your health: Examine your family history. Check yourself at intervals for the development of disease-conditions that you are susceptible to. If everyone in your family exits the earth after a heart-attack at 50, it is ridiculous for you to avoid blood tests and hog fats between cigarette-puffs or tequila-shots like there’s no tomorrow (or then, you may be right, there will be no tomorrow if you progress like that). That said, don’t ignore conditions that do not feature in your family history – you may be the pioneer in your family. Try and be one of health.

Bald facts

– main baal baal bach gayee

Why would someone shave her head – her perfectly, okay imperfectly, hirsute head? Disease? Heroic treatment? Preparation for brain surgery? In return for a favour from God? Because a loved one died (although to my knowledge, it’s males who shave at this)? A protest against some atrocity?... These are the stimuli for voluntary baldness that spring to people’s minds, especially Indians’ minds. Glamour? Please! What’s glamorous about a shaven head followed by a stubble and a golliwogesque look for a while afterwards? It is extremely difficult to visualise a healthy bald woman not trying to make a statement.

I shaved my head simply to go through, and savour if possible, the experience in my adult life. And I’m doing just that.

Shaving my head has been a fairly eye-opening experience. The value of hair became sharply clear to me just seconds after the depilatory expedition concluded. My head felt so cold that I had to wrap it up in a knitted cap, even indoors. I am able to examine my scalp at a hitherto impossible level of detail now, and note, right away, that the shape of my head is very different from that of other frequently bald persons such as my brother.

Nobody has reacted neutrally to my shaven head yet. Once the initial hesitation, generated by the unpleasant conjectures ibid., passes – eliminated by assurances from me or someone else with the facts – people begin applauding me for the move. Some go so far as to compliment my appearance, and certainly my ‘guts’ or ‘daring’ to embark on such an undertaking. Many go on to eulogise my spouse for his broadmindedness, declaring that their own would’ve booted them out and only hair regrowth could’ve ensured reunion. And he, far from being a passive proponent, actively aided and abetted me - he was the one who executed the hair-trimming and not-so-close shave. I followed up with the close shave!

I don’t feel embarrassed. I don’t feel very different, except when I look in a mirror, of course. My weight hasn’t decreased. My head doesn’t feel lighter, and neither does my heart! Washing practices have changed – I’ve put away my shower-cap for the future. I have used separate towels for my hair and body for all my adult life; I’m down to one now. Hair accessories are hibernating.

I realise, with an inward chuckle, how used I am to my hair, when my hands involuntarily reach up to move my hair off my neck and onto my pillow, and when on rising, I find my fingers ascending to comb through it. The current softish stubble (like ‘firm velvet’) is not a bad substitute for the nondescript strands that it has replaced. I run my palms over it, like a gunda, now and then!