By Mr. K.C. Raghu
To most people health is an ‘absence of disease’. But of course, it goes far beyond that. Funnily enough, though it’s easy to define disease, health almost defies definition. Renowned poet and activist Wendell Berry defines health as unconscious wholesomeness, while to the World Health Organization (WHO) health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well being.
So what brings on disease and is also the dominant cause of death?
According to a recent report of The India State level Disease burden initiative, almost 80% of diseases are non-communicable and directly connected with diet. Heart health, diabetes, hypertension, and bone health have diet and nutrition as the main underlying causes. Lipid disorder, high sugar, high salt is the other name for cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and hypertension. Such is the cause and correlation between food and disease. In other words, a majority of diseases stem from metabolic disorders, which means your body is either not getting sufficient fuel from the nutrients in your food, or is getting too much.
Thus it is food and its nutrient components, either the lack or excess thereof that leads to a whole host of health issues. Clearly, food form and its resultant function are causative factors.
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Since the major cause of ill health lies in what we eat, keeping a canny eye at what goes into your system is the best way to stay healthy. It’s really not too difficult. A few basic thumb rules are all you need to follow:
Avoid Excessively Refined And Purified Food
Rice, for example, is a time tested cereal for at least 15 thousand years. But its refinement and devitalization by extraction of most of its nutrients through polishing leads to easy digestion and flooding of sugar into our blood, culminating in blood sugar disorders. Refining whole wheat strips it of its natural layers of bran and germ, reducing its nutritional value simply to improve its appearance and prolong shelf life. What’s more, the dietary fibre we lose while refining is beneficial to the functionality of the digestive system. Another paradox, is refined oils, given the chemicals used to purify and bleach them to make them market-ready. We are endowed with a 32 feet long alimentary canal for slow and steady digestion of food and nutrients through a complex process of digestion and metabolism. Don’t insult it by ingesting overly refined fats and cereals, which have already lost much of their goodness through excessive purification.
Ensure Food Safety, Choose Organic
Good nutrients through wholesome food can prevent diseases and promote health. Unfortunately, today food safety is constantly ignored. The presence of toxic residues of pesticides, antibiotics, and additives in the form of colors, artificial flavors and preservatives is rampant. Nutrients that are supposed to nourish us are helping diseases flourish. Reduce food miles. The further off your food travels to reach your plate the higher the likelihood of the presence of additives and preservatives to store food and enhance its freshness. Antibiotics, especially in meat and animal produce, are another huge menace that threatens food security today. Once ingested by our bodies, antibiotics increase our immunity and make it harder to treat in case of infections, as normal medicines become less effective. The moral of the story is to go organic as far as possible. Choose fresh, seasonal food sourced as far as possible from local farmers and producers.
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Diversify Your Diet
One advantage of choosing to consume seasonal food is a colorful plate. A very important dietary consideration, because diversity is the bedrock of good nutrition. In the good old days, the hunter-gatherer used to consume whatever was available in his environment, which meant a healthy mix of local, seasonal produce and a wide spectrum of meats, fruits, and vegetables. Today we know that this diverse diet nourishes the trillions of microbes in our bodies, especially the all-important gut bacteria, that keeps us slim, fit and healthy. A limited diet on the other hand perforce ends up excluding many food groups, making your gut microbes suffer and leading to obesity. Picking a wide variety of food also gives your body access to a wider spectrum of nutrients. Tip: to make your meals more interesting, you can also cook food in various ways to retain those nutrients. As the legendary food scientist Dr. Gopalan used to say, we need to reckon the health value of food much more than calculable nutritive value.
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Don’t Fall For Fad Diets
Fad diets are the enemy of diversity. Most of them require you to cut out certain food groups and sometimes eat an excessive amount of other food groups. Surprisingly, most fad diets make no mention of exercise, an essential element in any healthy lifestyle. Whether its low-carb, high protein, no grains or green smoothies, a fad diet is restricting and often, a temporary solution. Unless of course, you use it to help you clean up your act and cultivate more long lasting and healthy eating habits. Because, eventually it’s your overall dietary pattern that is important, not some ephemeral fad.
Today the science of epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene expression, clearly shows how a nutrient-rich diet, a healthy lifestyle, and ecosystem can help overcome the disease state and better yet, can switch off a bad gene and switch on a good gene. This means that even diseases considered genetic or inherited can be reversed through diet and nutrition.
In the final analysis, eating a healthy diet doesn’t really have to be overly complicated. Simply replace processed food with wholesome, natural, local and seasonal food whenever possible. Eat moderately, and on time. Instead of cutting out foods, eat as a large variety as you possibly can. Drink lots of water. And voila! You have cultivated a lifetime of healthy dietary habits.
So go ahead and eat your way to great health and a long life!