By Raffique Shah
October 31, 2019
Last week, as I listened to Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh complain for the umpteenth time about the high percentage of citizens who are literally eating and drinking themselves to chronic, costly lifestyle diseases and early deaths, I thought I needed to return to the topic I focused on in my previous column—food production and consumption.
Minister Deyalsingh, who, like his predecessor Fuad Khan, has led his ministry by example—both men trimmed their weights and improved their fitness while in office—has the moral authority to chastise people who by their reckless lifestyles become victims of crippling afflictions that have multiple negative effects on themselves, their families, their jobs and on the wider society. He correctly said if people would exercise discretion in what they consume, and lead active lives, government may be able to reduce by billions of dollars what is currently spent on the health services.
None of these assumptions suggest that if we all eat wisely and exercise we are guaranteed disease-free lives. As someone who maintained a decent level of fitness well into my mid-60s and who ate moderately, I was stricken with Parkinson’s at age 66. Alzheimer’s disease, likewise, does not discriminate by ethnicity or lifestyle when it creeps up on mostly older persons. And most strains of deadly cancer strike out blindly at their hapless victims, the rules of good lifestyles rendered irrelevant as it invades the bodies and organs of its victims, be they newborn babies, youths in their prime, health- and fitness-enthusiasts of any age or gender, and most of all, geriatrics.
Still, these seemingly incomprehensible afflictions, while widespread in their reach and deadly when they strike, pale by comparison with the massive numbers of persons, locally and globally, who suffer with what are commonly called lifestyle diseases. The most common in this category are hypertension and diabetes, which spawn a mass of other conditions that affect the heart, kidneys, eyes, brain, and so on.
Mostly, these are preventable diseases. They are also reversible. They are caused by a combination of factors—eating the wrong foods, living sedentary lives in which physical exercise is alien, smoking cigarettes and the heavy consumption of sugary drinks and alcoholic beverages. I do not pretend to be any expert on the link between certain foods and chronic lifestyle diseases, or the benefits of physical exercise in staving off such diseases. But I have been around long enough to have seen many people eat, drink and smoke themselves to death, quite literally, others turn around their health challenges by adjusting their diets and exercise regimes, and yet others enjoy full, healthy lives well into their 80s.
I mentioned in my column last week that we import almost all of our staples—the foods that constitute the dominant portions of our daily diets. These include approximately 100,000 tonnes of wheat, most of which is milled and processed into white flour, a small percentage of which we re-export, presumably to some Caribbean countries. I also cited the importation of 15,000 tonnes of edible oil, mostly soya and canola, often used in frying foods: Trinis will fry anything, even water! I did not mention that with the demise of our own sugar industry, we import approximately 70,000 tonnes of sugar, with half going to consumers and half used by manufacturers (soft drinks, confectionery, etc). And I omitted some 35,000 tonnes of rice.
Now, the first three products are the deadliest in so far as being responsible for the diabetes epidemic that has gripped this country. Extensive research has established that when consumed in any form, processed wheat foods quickly metabolize into sugars, hence spike blood sugar levels. When the consumption of such foods is “washed down” with sugar-sweetened drinks, or followed by traditional sugar-laden desserts, the potential for adversely impacting one’s health is enormous.
What do our daily meals comprise? Bread or roti at least once daily, sometimes twice or three times, in the forms of pasta, macaroni and an array of wheat-derived products. Rice takes second place. Our meals are routinely laced with different forms of edible oils which are said to be harmful to our bodies, especially the arteries and heart. And, of course, most people do not feel satisfied until they have added some sugar-laden dessert to their meals: I know, I have what we euphemistically call “a sweet tooth”, which is really an excuse for “pigging out”.
So, to return to where I left off last week, most of us are eating our way to diabetes, hypertension and related diseases, and cry out “unholy murder!” when we are diagnosed with grave diseases that could be crippling, costly, burdensome on our public health system.
Take this Divali weekend as an example of how we casually wreck our health and lives. Because of the way this Hindu religious festival has evolved, it is observed, if only by its foods and delicacies, by the wider population. Tens of thousands of tonnes of flour-based products, many of them sweetened in sugar-laced syrups, and almost all of them fried in recycled oil, will be consumed.
Non-Hindus queue up for roti and delicacies such “saheena” and “jalaybi” (sinfully sweet sour-flour dough deep fried in oil), and these are only the appetizers. Think about Christmas, celebrated by all, which we plunge into before the last “deya” is extinguished or “barfi” savoured”. Think black cake, ham, seasonal fares by the tonnes…flour, sugar, oil and other fats…
Look, we can dismiss these concerns about our health by accepting that we each live but only once, so why not enjoy it fully, eat, drink, make merry. As my favourite doctor says, in the end, something will take us out. I should add that he’s a health freak. Me? I have long subscribed to the reality that death is inevitable, so I don’t fear it.
But dying is a different proposition. What we eat, how we live, may well determine the misery we endure before being allowed to make our exits.