The ocean of milk that yielded the elixir of immortality also produced the halahala. While food can be medicine, it can also be a scourge to the human body. Bad eating practices can make the body and mind vulnerable to a wide range of diseases - as a tamil song goes - eating one meal makes you a yogi (saint), two makes you a bhogi (connoisseur), three meals make you a rogi (diseased) and four meals make you a drogi (wastrel).
The most common diseases caused by unhealthy eating habits are grouped under the term "Metabolic syndrome". It includes conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, high blood pressure and a few types of cancer. Of these, diabetes is the most serious food-related disease in India. India is considered the diabetes capital of the world with over 70 million diabetics expected by 2025. This is due to the genetic predisposition of Indians to the disease, made worse by a meal that is loaded with simple carbohydrates and fat.
Image adapted from : http://www.ipama-age.org/Eng/20090521/9.jpg
To understand why bad food habits cause diabetes, it is important to know what really IS diabetes. When you ingest food rich in carbohydrate (rice, wheat, sugar, etc.), it is digested to produce simpler chemicals such as glucose which is absorbed into the blood. The presence of glucose in the blood triggers the release of a hormone called insulin. Insulin helps the cells of the body to absorb glucose from the blood, to release energy. Any excess glucose that is left over is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver. Now, when you are down on energy, and have not eaten for a long time, the glycogen is converted back to glucose and insulin helps the cells absorb this glucose to keep the body going until you eat again.
Diabetes happens when there is insufficient insulin activity. It may happen because the pancreas does not produce sufficient insulin (type 1 diabetes); or it may happen because the cells are damaged and do not absorb glucose under the influence of insulin (type 2 diabetes). Thus excess glucose accumulates in the bloodstream, resulting in a range of symptoms that characterises diabetes.
How do you know you have diabetes? Some common symptoms include frequent urination, thirst, weight loss, weakness and tiredness, tingling of the feet and palms, vision problems, flaky skin and wounds that wouldn't heal. If your parents or close relatives have had diabetes, you are at a high risk of getting it yourself.
Diabetes cannot be cured, but can be kept under control by careful lifestyle choices. If left untreated, diabetes can result in a variety of serious complications such as blindness, kidney failure, heart attack, high blood pressure and feet problems such as gangarene.
How do you keep the monster in leash?
1. Careful diet: this is important even if you don't have diabetes - better safe than sorry. Carbohydrates are very important for the body, but what kind of carbohydrate you eat makes a difference. Simple carbohydrates like table sugar, corn syrup, fructose, fruit juices (especially those in cartons), sweetened chocolates, cakes, white bread, snacks made with maida, and most junk food (pasta made with maida, pizza made with maida etc.), polished rice, polished wheat are catastrophic if you are diabetic.
Complex carbohydrates are found in vegetables like spinach, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, ladies finger, cabbage, cucumber and brinjal, whole barley, brown rice, wheat and oat bran, brown wheat, fruits such as apples, plums, and oranges, and dal. These not only provide you energy, but do not cause sudden increase in blood glucose levels, thus keeping you safe.
There are also many myths and beliefs in diabetes food. Ayurveda prescribes bitter vegetables like bitterguard and water-rich tubers like radish for diabetes. These have not been substantiated by double blind scientific tests, but they do not have any adverse side effects, and so, no harm trying. Honey and jaggery are as bad as white sugar and so should be avoided at all costs. There are sugar substitutes that are available in pharmacies. Although these have been produced through scientific research, it is best to minimise their use, as they are "unnatural" food items and we do not yet know the long-term effects of using such sugar-free substitutes. [Image source]
There is another danger of diabetes - if you are on medication, your blood glucose levels may drop to dangerous lows, leading to very little energy supply to the brain cells. This may cause black outs, coma or in extreme cases, death. So, if you are on medication, it is best to carry a small piece of candy or kalkandu in your bag, so that if you feel faint or dizzy, you can pop one in and stabilize your blood sugar.
Diabetes food pyramid [image source]
2. Medication: There are two types of medication prescribed. If you are the type 1 diabetic, you would need daily or periodic insulin injections. If you are mildly diabetic or of type 2, oral pills are prescribed. These diabetes medicines are associated with side effects and must NOT be consumed WITHOUT doctor’s advice. Self medication is dangerous with diabetes.
3 Physical.Exercise: Physical activity is very important in taming the demon. Exercise helps cells consume excess glucose and also improves your body's ability to use of insulin. Exercise also maintains blood pressure and cholesterol levels within range and reduces physical and mental stress, thus aiding good functioning of all the hormones in the body. Depending upon your physical condition and preference, aerobics, strength training and flexibility training may be chosen to control diabetes.
What goes into your mouth decides how your body behaves. It is easy to succumb to the temptations of the tongue and ignore the needs of the body. Given the Indian predisposition to metabolic syndrome, and our own cultural lifestyle that focuses on food for the body as much as the soul, it is best to be aware of possible adverse outcomes and consume carefully.