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.


Muralikrishna said...

Hey hey hey....now, why did Prasanna have to recommend this blog to me??? I am perfectly healthy, happy and fine! I really am. What? You don't believe me or you don't want me to be??? LOL.
Anyways, you guys have a ball...have the world by its balls.
See ya soon.

Biju said...

Interesting, hope Prasanna sent this to Mr. Banerjee also :)

Anonymous said...


You have let your implicit biases creep into this article.

The problem is not with Indians abroad alone but with all Indians who have new-found wealth. I anticipate that the biggest problems that will face the Indian society in the coming years will be the health-related. In fact, this is already happening: as I was travelling through Kerala recently, I noticed that there would be rows of shops lining roads that would typically have a jewellery store, a clothes/fabric shop, a diabetes cum cardio clinic, a bakery cum sweet shop, etc. You get the picture. This new found wealth plus the lack of a regimen of exercise plus relentless consumption and pollution is creating a perfect storm which will ensure job security for doctors, nutritionists, physio-therapists etc for years to come.


Ani said...

Dear commentator,
You have evinced a bias (quite explicit to me!) in your comment. If you had actually read the essay carefully, as you ought to before making adverse remarks, you wouldn't have suggested that I am referring only to Indians abroad. I have clearly mentioned a parallel trend in the (wealth and) health of Indians in India, especially urban professionals. You have gone on, in your comment, to summarise observations on over-consumption, physical inactivity and pollution, that already appear in the essay. The focus is certainly on Indian expatriates as I believe they are more vulnerable by virtue not only of their generally comfortable economic status, but also of peer influences. But the shoe is fully available for Indians in India to fit into if they will.
Good health to you!

Anonymous said...

1. What do you expect, when you begin an article with the words, "Indulgence in over-consumption is more expensive for Indians abroad" with no reference to the domestic species?

2. Re-read your musings, to wit, "
Consider the Indian professional (even in India, but particularly abroad)" which betrays this bias further.

In fact, I would argue that the domestic species is more at risk because of the lack of health education and awareness back as well as the lack of an exercise regimen and/or facilities back home. Yoga, pranayama and the daily constitutional notwithstanding, I don't there is a social or cultural basis for aerobic exercise in India.