Long years ago, in what now seems like a previous lifetime, I used to drive every morning to work, and listening to the radio was an enjoyable distraction from the crazy traffic and a way to keep up with the latest music. Now I work from home and along with driving, listening to the radio has become a rare occurrence! But this morning I was in my car driving after a long time, and switched on the radio. Every single advertisement had something to do with illness – ads for medicines conveniently delivered at home, ads for new super speciality hospitals opening up, ads which tell you not to ignore stomach pain as it might turn into cancer, ads for health insurance which will cover not only the cost of your treatment abroad but also fly you and a companion there by business class! Just listening to the ads is enough to make you sick.
Clearly ill health is big business. But the question is why do we have such an epidemic of illness around us and a whole lot of confusion and fear surrounding food and health? Why do we think of remedial measures only when we are dangerously close to the precipice and about to lose our good health? Instead of running around shopping for the best insurance, why don’t we make an investment in our health? Not through pills or fad diets, but through the choices we make on a daily and hourly basis.
I guess we all know that food and exercise are keys to good health. Why then does it seem like such hard work to be healthy? We drag ourselves reluctantly out of bed and masochistically force ourselves to hit the gym, where we torture ourselves while inhaling other people’s sweat. And as for food, doesn’t healthy equal boring? When confronted with a pizza enticingly dripping with cheese, who wants to think of that blocked artery ten years on? It’s simpler, isn’t it, to buy health insurance and push those uncomfortable thoughts out of our heads?
Those who’ve known me in the last 4-5 years, know me as a person who always eats healthy and exercises regularly. I wasn’t always like this, though! Until a few years back I was a typical corporate type engineer in a sedentary job with little exercise, spending almost all my waking hours in an air-conditioned office sitting in front of a computer (or in a car getting to work), eating unhealthy food, addicted to tea/coffee, taking conference calls at night, sleeping late and waking up tired. Lower back pain was a constant companion! It was only the passion for birding which kept me sane and took me outdoors – every weekend and every vacation was spent birding.
After I got out of my corporate job and switched careers, I’ve been consciously focusing on my health and fitness to get where I am today. It has been a continuous journey and I am still learning. I am no expert, but what I have learnt is that it isn’t about that 1 pizza or that 1 workout missed, instead it’s about being conscious of your choices and learning to listen to what your body is telling you. It’s about getting back the instincts that we seem to have lost in our attention to the weighing scale, nutrition labels and calorie counting. Here are the top 5 investments I’ve made in my health, in increasing order of importance:
5. Information: Michael Pollan’s award-winning book “Cooked” started me on the journey of reading about food and I soon moved on to a number of documentaries exploring the connection between food and health, food and the environment, most notable among them being “Forks over Knives”, “What the Health”, “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead”, “Fed Up” and “Cowspiracy”. These and many more are available on Netflix and make you think and rethink your choices.
4. Lifestyle: After moving out of a corporate job, I opted for a significantly different lifestyle and now work from home. My stress levels have dropped dramatically and quality of life has improved, since I no longer spend hours stuck in traffic. I’ve started enjoying making my own meals and trying out creative recipes when I’m bored at work. The window next to my desk looks into the canopy of a gorgeous eucalyptus tree, and the birds on it infuse entertainment into my day. Even with a busy lifestyle, sometimes all it takes is a shift of perspective and a conscious effort to devote a little bit of time in one’s daily routine to making wellness a priority.
3. Exercise: With any kind of exercise, enjoyment is key! If it’s a chore, it won’t help you in your fitness journey. Do what you enjoy – whether it’s long walks, playing badminton, dancing or yoga – but do it regularly. My current addiction is Ashtanga Yoga, in which the rhythmic movement coupled with the focus on breathing takes me into a meditative state and helps me get through anything that life may throw at me. What’s important to note is that it’s never too late to start! Never a fan of gyms, I started exercising at home (with Tony Horton’s Power90 and P90X series) only after I turned 40, and was amazed at how quickly I dropped excess weight and developed muscles I never had in my twenties!
2. What to eat: I was brought up as a carnivore, but six years back I turned vegetarian, and more recently vegan, for ethical and environmental reasons, and have since found that adopting a whole food, plant-based diet is in fact one of the best things we can do for our health. Before you go out and binge on french fries and Pepsi, I should point out that this means more of fruits and vegetables, and to paraphrase Michael Pollan “avoiding any food that has a TV commercial”. If you’re addicted to your dahi and cheese, let me assure you equally tasty alternatives exist that are infinitely better for health (both ours and our planet’s). Sharan’s website is my go to place for vegan recipes and alternatives. Adopting a vegan whole foods diet, even temporarily, is actually a great option for those trying to lose weight, as it forces you to opt for healthier options especially when eating out, and most desserts are automatically out of bounds! Worried about protein? You may be surprised to know that our protein requirements are actually much lower than what we think we need.
1. How to eat: going vegan can tell you what to eat, but actually the how and when can be equally important! Research has shown that agricultural produce today is less nutritious than it was 50 years ago, due to global warming, and most of us (and especially those who are overweight) may not be getting the mix of nutrients that we need, even if we are primarily eating vegetarian or vegan food! Raw and steamed food, and lots of fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts are key to providing the spectrum of vitamins and minerals that we need on a daily basis. A 3-day workshop I attended by The Health Awareness Center (THAC) provided an eye-opening wealth of information on the link between nutrition and health (they conduct regular workshops in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore). Eating according to natural laws can get our body to function at its optimum potential, besides avoiding minor ailments and boosting our immunity for the long term. For me, an immediate short-term benefit was that I could go on an all-out mango binge without any of the negative effects (heat boils, stomach upsets) that used to come after mango gluttony. The realisation that mangoes (and indeed any fruit) should never be eaten as dessert but always on an empty stomach was only one part of the understanding of how our body acts upon food of various kinds. Remember the movie Piku? Psst: the answer is fruit and plenty of it, first thing in the morning!
Eating the right kind of food actually can enable us to reduce and even eliminate cravings, and junk food no longer holds any temptation. Learning to recognize the signs that our bodies give us can help us remain healthy while avoiding medications. Amazingly, most lifestyle diseases can be easily reversed with diet, and Dr. Nandita Shah of Sharan runs a 21-day residential programme which has had tremendous success helping people get off their medications for good. I have a first-hand experience of the power of diet as my mother was able to get off her cholesterol medication in a month by simply replacing her dairy curd (the one animal product she had been unable to remove from her diet) with home-made peanut curd!
However, it is most often my engineer, physicist and mathematician friends who react with scepticism when I tell them that the best way to get over a cold/cough is to switch to a fruit and raw vegetable diet. I suppose it is hard for those of us who have put our faith in technology, to wrap our heads around the idea that the body can actually heal itself. It is instructive then to remember that old Chinese proverb – “He that takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the time of his doctor”. Don’t believe me or the Chinese proverb, though. Try it yourself next time you feel a fever coming on. You have nothing to lose but that paracetamol.
This article was published in IIT Bombay’s Alumni magazine Fundamatics in July 2018.