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A greater focus on disease rather than on health?

December 27, 2007
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A reader by the name of Sekhar who lives in the United States sent me an interesting email recently, interesting enough for me to write about it here. The point he made was that there is more focus on disease rather than on health today. He writes that this is the wrong way to go about it:

The correct question to ask ourselves is:
What are the foods that give us good health? and not
What are the foods that cause disease?

He reasons that this focus on disease is because:

…everything here, including health and health care, works according to a design, a system…when I was recently in India,I saw that almost all the medical texts we use in India and most of the other countries are written by professors, researchers in the USA/UK. But what most people don’t realize is that these researchers are funded by the large pharmaceutical companies or corporations, and are forced to create experiments that justify the need, and the efficacy of their drugs…

Sekhar makes the point the companies which manufacture cholesterol lowering drugs fund studies and experiments to prove that cholesterol is harmful and that their drug is effective in lowering cholesterol. Therefore, doctors and hospitals are bound to recommend drugs from pharmacies that fund them.

The idea is to generate a market, a demand, and then cash on it. When that demand has been met, generate a new one, and so on…

Health Food Fads don’t work
Sekhar is not saying that there is no focus on healthy foods today…but he does see an over-emphasis on disease. As a result food fads (soy for example) are generated, and there is less of an emphasis on a natural diet. Anti-oxidants and soy were all used by industry to generate new products. At any given time industry is thinking up ways to find “some new miracle food”. If this was working and was benefiting people, then why is the USA (despite consumption of saturated fats and foods rich in cholesterol being at an all-time low) the most obese country in the world? Sekhar writes:

Here are a few questions worth asking ourselves.

  • Why is disease so prevalent today ? Has this always been the case ? If not, who or what are the civilizations that achieved excellent health? And what were the foundations behind their good health ?
  • How many people do you see everyday who have a perfect set of teeth ? Or, conversely, how many people do you know who have crowded teeth, buck teeth, cavities in their teeth etc? Is this normal?
  • People (in the U.S.) have been consuming less and less saturated fats and cholesterol rich foods, and yet cancer rates, heart-attacks, degenerative diseases like arthritis, rheumatism etc. are increasing. Why? Is this normal?
  • Do we need the ‘healthy’ products?
    There is a lot of hype today about going back a natural diet (whole grains, fruits, vegetables), but for some strange reason, people tend to drawn in to buy manufactured products, for which they can easily find substitutes at home. Anjali Mukherjee’s Health Total is a case in point. Her focus is on obesity, diabetes and other diseases and in turn she sells products which are the ‘right’ diet for these problems. Her products are made of whole grains and the fact is that such products (ready-made whole grain) are not widely available in India and are sold at a premium. For example most bakeries sell bread which calls itself ‘brown’ bread, misleading people into thinking that it is made of whole-wheat, but is actually made of maida (refined white flour). Even the so-called “healthy” products which talk about the goodness of “whole-wheat” are half maida! The actual percentage of whole wheat and maida in the products should be clearly displayed on the label.

    It is far better to fall back on good old chappatis if one has to improve one’s diet! Paying a 25-30 percent premium for whole grain products doesn’t make sense when we have our traditional diet. Indian rotis are made from whole wheat (although the fineness of the flour varies)

    Olive Oil is another big health fad being promoted today. While Olive Oil is healthy, it is not part of India’s natural diet and therefore very expensive. The other day at the American Dollar Shop I saw a reasonably priced product which advertised itself as a blend of Olive Oil and Soya Oil. Luckily it was an imported product and it had the composition of each type of oil on the label. Olive Oil was only 5 percent of the whole! I had put it in my shopping cart, thinking it was Olive but quickly put it back! Indian-made Soya Oil is much cheaper.

    In any case, I doubt whether all healthy peoples consume Olive Oil! The important thing is to find out what the natural diets of healthy people are. Sadly, we have come such a long way from our natural diets that we have to specially manufacture ‘healthy’ products. And once people acquire diseases they fall back on these fad diets/products in a desperate bid to help their bodies heal.

    Is our natural Indian diet a wholesome one?
    Is our natural diet ideal enough to prevent various diseases? Is it a diet to make us strong, tall and healthy? Well, not all parts of India have the ideal diet and unfortunately detailed research into the different foods of different regions and it’s effect on health and disease is not available. But Sekhar did send me some amazing old research and it is about India! I will write about it next week in the second part of this article.

    (The first photo is linked to the original and the second is by me)

    Related Reading: Eleven reasons why Indians are not healthy
    Kids demand advertised products
    The chemicals we consume in our everyday food
    The so-called “atta” noodles
    Misleading advertising of “healthy” products
    India and Trans Fats
    Indians are comfortable with their weights

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    19 Comments leave one →
    1. December 27, 2007 10:18 am

      //Sekhar did send me some amazing old research and it is about India! I will write about it next week in the second part of this article.//

      atleast provide a link to that research

    2. December 27, 2007 10:52 am

      @ Ankur:

      I will surely provide the link when I write about it, because it is a whole e-book and I will be writing a kind of synopsis about the main features.
      But if I have aroused your curiosity, good! :D That was the idea! :)

    3. December 27, 2007 12:52 pm

      I don’t want to be too cynical, but Nita, the thought occurs to me that healthy eating will become the norm if and only if someone figures out how to make tons of money from people eating healthy. As of now, there seems to be far more money in providing people with less healthy or even unhealthy foods.

    4. December 27, 2007 1:39 pm

      Talking of health is meaningless unless you talk of what happens when you lose health and get a disease. Additionally, there are people with diseases like diabetes and heart diseases who have special need to focus on what foods to avoid.
      True, there are vested interests who manipulate research and the media for their own purposes. It may not necessarily be bad, though this does have its down side. Funded research automatically is looked at with a jaundiced eye, while studies where the authors have no conflicting interests are appreciated more.
      Olive oil, incidentally, has no proven benefits for the heart, the last time I checked.

    5. December 27, 2007 2:15 pm

      True eye opener. I wanted to go out for lunch today, but just read you article and dropped the idea. Rather called for the tiffin from home :)
      See your effects, Nita??

    6. December 27, 2007 2:28 pm

      Paul, I do think you are being realistic, not cynical. :)

      Rdoc, Thanks. True, once someone gets a disease, they better eat right or else….! About manipulation by vested interests, I think all of this is unavoidable so really I too (like Paul) tend to feel that there is no point moralizing about it. We need to get smarter and figure out ways to deal with it.

      Minal, tiffin from home eh! Guess you are luckier than most! :) This is the greatest luxury for anyone working outside the home today! and btw, 95 percent of hotels serve stale food. Something or the other is stale, either the oil, the topping, the stock, or something else.
      And if my writing is having an effect, it feels great!

    7. wishtobeanon... permalink
      December 27, 2007 8:11 pm

      Hi Nita, great article! Waiting for the next one.
      I think its time our scientists start researching our food habits.
      I have always wondered about the roots of present day Indian food recipes. Unfortunately, we do not have any recorded text of ancient Indian recipes or do we?

    8. December 27, 2007 10:59 pm

      @ wishtobeanon…:

      well I am sure we have many ancient recipes, and after all what is ayurveda except for ancient recipes? But more than that, it’s the overall diet which I think was natural in those days. Pure stuff!

    9. December 27, 2007 11:15 pm

      People are being herded like cattle into a pen by the food industry. Like the media, the industry is full of negatives, occasionally throwing in a few positives. It’s an indirect form of brain washing. I don’t buy into it either medically or dietary. Anything can be bad when overly consumed. People need to eat a well balanced diet without all the preservatives and such. One reason diabetes has increased is because people take in a lot more sugar than they used to. People can and do become allergic to something if they’re over exposed to it. Several years ago there was a study on cancer in middle-aged Japanese men and caucasian Americans who smoked. I think the diet and lifestyle were big factors in the Japanese men’s very low rates.

      My mum tried several diets, including Atkins. As a long-term vegetarian who had done research, I voiced my concerns to deaf ears. 2 years later she had a gall stone removed, her stomach stapled, and was off the diet.

      People are no longer as connected with their bodies and feed it one thing when it wants another. If I don’t get a high intake of carbs I become Mr. Hyde. My mom’s body doesn’t metabolize carbs well. A lot of people quench their thirst with soda, which defeats the purpose.

      Interesting post, thanks.

    10. December 27, 2007 11:58 pm

      Mish Lee, thanks. These fad diets and foods are most scary and I agree that moderation is the key. Moderate eating of all natural foods and none of the artificial. I have also heard of people living on soda instead of water. I find that really the worst thing that can happen to any society! And it’s started to happen here too.
      Your mom’s story is indeed sad and I hope she is better now.
      Thanks for sharing.

    11. Sahil permalink
      December 28, 2007 12:08 am

      Your article reminds me of the tremendous “perception gap” between India and Developed countries, as far as usage of prescription medicines is concerned. Even today in Indian homes, we have traditional medicinal knowledge that we are use for self-treatment and it works for us in most cases – at least there are no side-effects. Examples

      1. Turmeric is used as an antiseptic for wounds and cuts.
      2. Adrak waali Chai for common cold and cough
      3. Tulsi leaves for mild fever
      4. Sandalwood paste for skin problems

      In contrast if you’re in a Developed country like the USA -the government has brainwashed you into believing that only doctors can solve problems no matter how trivial it is. So before administering your child a cold drop or dispirin tablets, you run the risk of not consulting a doctor – and if his condition becomes worse after your dosage and then you show a doctor – the doctor is in a position to file a legal case against the parent!

      I’m glad Indians are still able to preserve their sanity on a variety of issues! This being one!

    12. December 28, 2007 12:26 am

      Nita: Thanks. That happened a few years ago and yes, she’s better. She lost the weight she wanted to, but paid the price.

      Sahil: I use natural home remedies as much as possible. A friend’s reactions to prescribed antibiotics were worse than the bronchitis. I shared with her some natural options and then wrote this post.
      In brief- natural remedies have been used for ages, people over medicate because of paranoia, we have immune systems for a reason, and each body is different.

    13. December 30, 2007 8:07 am

      I would like to make just a few points regarding this interesting post. The rising incidence of obesity and rheumatism etc all have to be balanced against the fact that more people are living longer. When you remove certain diseases other ones become more prominent. So a rise in a disease can actually suggest an overall healthier population.

      Secondly, I don’t think there is much merit in considering the “natural” diet. What is natural, is to eat what is available and as much as you can. Our ancestors did not choose healthy foods; they ate what they could get their hands on, whether it be grains or meat or fat or fruit. Traditions tend to reflect what we had available rather than any sort of choices.

      Finally, I agree that we should be looking for the positive but the problem has always been that it is easier to research the negative.

    14. Amit permalink
      December 30, 2007 10:33 am

      The rising incidence of obesity and rheumatism etc all have to be balanced against the fact that more people are living longer.

      I doubt that obesity is caused because of people living longer (it’s very common among kids too), but yes, some other diseases are probably because of the reason you state, and also because of better diagnosis.

      Secondly, I don’t think there is much merit in considering the “natural” diet. What is natural, is to eat what is available and as much as you can.

      I think what people mean by “natural” is whole grains, fruits + vegetables, and a minimum of processed food that contains preservatives, chemicals, nutrients removed (e.g. maida, white sugar) and/or comes in a bag/box/can. At least that’s how I interpret it, and there is much merit in eating a balanced diet consisting of fresh, natural foods, as defined above. :)

      well I am sure we have many ancient recipes, and after all what is ayurveda except for ancient recipes?

      Nita, Ayurveda is much more than ancient recipes. :)

    15. December 31, 2007 3:37 am

      Perhaps I was a little obtuse. I did not mean that longevity causes obesity but simply that a precondition for being fat is being alive and that surviving many of the things that used to kill us gives us the opportunity to gain weight.
      And I agree that unprocessed foods must in general be healthier but I have read a few books here and there where there is an attempt to recreate an ancestral diet, calling it natural, and that is what I was taking exception to. For instance, the Inuit in Canada subsisted on an almost entire meat and fish diet because that is all there was, hence it was their natural diet.
      Right now, in Canada, natural and organic appear to reflect marketing more than anything else so I remain a little sceptical about claims of naturalness. I think Sahil makes a very important point in saying that all bodies are different. There is no great diet that will suit everyone; even drinking plenty of water is not good for everyone. And as a few others here have mentioned, moderation remains the key.
      And let’s keep in mind that food is only one part of life. If you had to choose between pleasure and happiness in life (which affects all of those around you) and a perfect diet that would keep you in perfect health, which would you? Even unhealthy foods and behaviors serve their purpose.

    16. December 31, 2007 4:12 am

      Right now, in Canada, natural and organic appear to reflect marketing more than anything else so I remain a little sceptical about claims of naturalness.

      Well, the organic movement was there long before the recent jumping-on-the-bandwagon by agri-businesses and food-corps, which is probably what you’re talking about re: marketing. Michael Pollan talks about it a lot in his book “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” And yes, with the latest arrival of corporations, the standards for organic are sure to get diluted as bottom-line and growth become a greater factor than the principles for growing organic/natural foods in the first place.

      I think Sahil makes a very important point in saying that all bodies are different. There is no great diet that will suit everyone; even drinking plenty of water is not good for everyone. And as a few others here have mentioned, moderation remains the key.

      True. There will always be regional exceptions like the Inuits you mentioned.

      And let’s keep in mind that food is only one part of life. If you had to choose between pleasure and happiness in life (which affects all of those around you) and a perfect diet that would keep you in perfect health, which would you? Even unhealthy foods and behaviors serve their purpose.

      Why choose? I can have both healthy (not perfect) food and pleasure+happiness in life. I don’t see it as an either-or proposition. :)

    17. December 31, 2007 8:13 am

      Sahil, I too use natural remedies a lot…and yes in India it’s a very common thing. Either it’s that or Ayurveda or homeopathy…in fact soon I will be writing on these issues. When we were in China, we found that the tendency to use natural remedies is very common.
      aos, you say that all natural diets are not good. Ofcourse not! In fact if you note in my post at the end I had mentioned:


      Is our natural diet ideal enough to prevent various diseases? Is it a diet to make us strong, tall and healthy? Well, not all parts of India have the ideal diet…

      the fact is that all natural diets are not good. As I did not want to make a very long post I saved thta till the next time. And again what you say is right, the kind of diet required has to be suited to the climate and the people. No doubt about that.
      Amit, thanks. :)

    18. Jackie permalink
      January 6, 2008 7:05 am

      Great post, quick comment (besides the excellent ones above): yes, allopathic medicine is a godsend for many, but as one who grew up with traditional medicine, I can relate firsthand that there is room for traditional/nutrional/nonpharmacologic management and allopathic med., which IMHO is still pretty crude.
      People expect miracles anymore from their physicians, and they do a good job with trauma, certain surgeries and the like, but would get a failing grade for chronic disease. This is so complex, but what you say is that healthcare is framed as sickness and poorly geared towards prevention.
      As many of us expect long lifetimes now, we really need to be healthcare again instead of sickcare. Also, many chronic conditions are a direct result of soft living, which includes bad food.
      I grew up with the “food as medicine” philosophy, as well as healthy doses of playing (i.e. exercising) and minimal TV. Eating out was a treat. Mostly we ate momma’s food, which is pretty healthy. Coupled with dad’s disdain to seek medical care for every ache and gripe as many Westerners do now, we have pretty strong constitutions.
      Having said that, genetics and softer living has resulted in one family member with pre-diabetes, but it is at the stage where a serious commitment to lifestyle changes would vastly improve or possibly reverse/halt it for now.

    19. January 6, 2008 8:11 am

      Jackie, thanks. I think you are lucky to have grown up in such a family where food was considered as ‘medicine’. Actually my mom is like that and everything we ate she would tell us which part of our body it helped. we usually were treated with natural remedies and I thank my mom for showing me the right path. I find doing it for my kids too! food in our house is supreme. i believe you are what you eat.

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