It's been said that Kerala is "God's own country". Indeed it is - lush and green surroundings, beautiful beaches, picturesque sunsets, and vibrant, deep-hearted people. It was a place I never wanted to leave. The air was clean, the weather was ideal for my dosha, and streets were busy but peaceful. But the highlight of my trip, I was certain, was going to be the three Keralan meals a day of south Indian rice, sambar, coconut chutney, and a variety of fresh picked vegetables, presented neatly on a banana leaf.
But what I actually encountered with food was totally different. Health Tip: Just because you're eating an Indian diet doesn't mean you're any healthier than the fast-food eating American.
I worked as a medical intern at a local hospital in Kannur, a small city in the north part of the state. There I saw and treated nearly 150 patients in 3 weeks at the hospital and at the two free medical camps we organized, open to the public. I was expecting to see cases related to bacterial infection, virus, traffic accidents, and old age. I never thought that one after another, people would describe symptoms of the exact same diseases that are so common here: hypertension, high cholesterol, arthritis, knee joint pain, gastric issues and diabetes. A LOT of diabetes. Surprisingly, Kerala leads the country in the numbers of type II diabetes cases.
Huh? That made no sense to me. I looked around - in the city of Kannur, I didn't spot a single KFC or Pizza Hut (Delhi has them all over the place). Pastry shops were few and far between. People ate mostly at home. Fruits and vegetables were abundant and fresh. Yes, I'm sure there's the occasional dosa and vada - but how could the residents of this small city be so sick....as sick as Americans? These patients were not even obese. At 70 they had the skin of a 45-year-old. Men had strong bodies. Women appeared vibrant and energetic, though many had plump bellies.
One of our patients was a 17 year old girl from a well-to-do family. She was overweight by 30 pounds. The parents had come seeking treatment for weight loss. As we were doing the examination, the doctor whispered to me that the girl had been a patient for the last 4 years. I learned that she had been taking insulin shots since the age of 13. That day, diabetes was not the family's concern. It was her weight... a possible interference for her future marriage.
What was the cause of this.
I found the answer myself while living there, in search of real food. It was difficult to find unrefined, unprocessed, or unfried food anywhere. I thought it was just at my hotel. The breakfast buffet was long, but not a single dish could be considered even close to healthy. When I asked for a simple upma to be made for me, they gave me a look of confusion and said "Are you allergic to ALL these items?" So I had fruit for breakfast every day. I tried different restaurants for dinner - the menus had 5-6 pages of dishes that were chinese, north indian, south indian, even italian....but not a single item suitable for a person on a real-food diet, better known as "patient diet" (diet for the sick). Fried food, white flour food, overcooked vegetables coated in salt, meat dishes, and more fried food. But that was restaurant food...understood.
So I artfully implied to my colleague one day that I was having difficulty finding proper food. I was invited to their home for dinner. Out came a sumptuous meal of idlis, vadas, super salty sambar, and chutney that could put a house on fire, followed by tea that had an equal amount of sugar as liquid, and mithai no less sweet. But I was a guest...certainly they prepared a special meal for me. I inquired and they answered affirmatively. Their typical meal, they replied, was meat curry or fish curry and rice. Maybe some sambar or other dish. For lunch and dinner. Vegetables were consumed only in the side salad of radish, tomato and onion. Fruit was the lemon they squeezed on the salad. Dishes were extremely salty, spicy and/or sweet. Snacks were frequent, and always fried or refined.
When I talked about this with my teacher, a prominent and well-known Ayurvedic physician in the town, she said she doesn't even have to ask her patients if they have diabetes - it's safe to assume they do if they're over the age 50. Same with hypertension. "Everyone has hypertension and diabetes here...it's normal. Not a big deal. People themselves expect to get it," she said. She stated the same problems with food in Kerala as we have here - rice is refined and contaminated, wheat is genetically modified, there are additives, preservatives and pesticides added to almost everything, people eat salt and sugar in unlimited quantities, and the community has not made health a priority.
Even though people there have not adopted the fast-food lifestyle and are still cooking at home, they are cooking with the wrong kinds of food... or actually, not enough of the right foods. The one thing Keralites do have going for them is the strong presence of Ayurveda and physicians trained in natural medicine. It's my hope that Keralites turn to them sooner rather than later, to learn and adopt healthier diets, and save their future from irreversible disease.
(Yoga, however, is becoming increasing popular, and reportedly helping to increase health awareness. Join Chinmayam and learn yoga.) (Wink.)