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The Extremists

In the last ten years, we have gone from being health ignorant to health conscious to, now, health obsessive. Strict dieting, fanatical gymming, fear of ageing have become urban India's obsession with health.

health and fitness Updated: Jul 14, 2010 19:10 IST
Kushalrani Gulab
Kushalrani Gulab
Hindustan Times

From Archives of


for 5th Anniversary Special

During a night out with the girls, media professional Vandana Mathur announced that she felt sick. Not physically ill, no, she hastily clarified before her friends could call for the bill and haul her home. Just sick to death of the way people she knows are turning into what she called ‘health obsessives’.

“They go to parties and fuss about the food, won’t have more than one small drink and get self-righteous if anyone dares to smoke in their presence,” Mathur ranted. “They go on strict diets for the sake of their health whether a doctor has said a diet is necessary or not, and behave as though you’re a moral failure without selfcontrol if you eat, drink and party just as you like, even if you’re perfectly healthy. And their biggest topic of conversation is health. What foods to eat and how many grams of each. What kind of exercise to do, how often and how long. Whether whole wheat rotis are superior to multigrain bread when it comes to fibre. Next, they’ll want isabgol and karela juice mocktails. I can’t take them anymore.”

Mathur was exaggerating of course. But if you ignore the tone of voice and listen to the words, you realise she wasn’t exaggerating too much. In the last 10 years, many of us have gone from health ignorant to health conscious to, now, health obsessive. And while being aware of health issues is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s possible to take what you read or hear too seriously and focus so much on your health that you could, ironically, fall sick.

Fitlness really?Unhealthy Awareness

Before we explore the health obsession phenomenon, we’d like to get one thing clear. Health awareness or health consciousness alone does not make you a health obsessive; it’s how you act on it that shows which way the balance tips.

We’ve all been told, over and over again, that overdoing anything is bad. But usually, when we talk of overdoing things, we think in terms of things that are self-indulgent. We overdo high-fat and high-carb food, for instance, which in many cases leads to obesity and related problems. We overdo alcohol or cigarettes or parties – all things that many of us enjoy and would like to do more of rather than less of. Those are the kinds of things that people in the health industry warn us against and we keep being told, time and again, that we need to maintain some amount of self-discipline.

So when we think of overdoing things, we don’t think about the possibility of overdoing self-discipline. That seems like a contradiction in terms. But if you think about it, you do know at least one person who’s self-disciplined to the point of austerity – and not on the advice of a medical practitioner trying to sort out a particular problem. Just on his or her own beliefs, based on what he or she has read or heard about health concerns.

“There’s nothing wrong with selfdiscipline in itself. It’s meant to make you sharp and vital,” says consulting psychologist and counsellor Reema Shah. “But when that self-discipline goes to the point of penance and austerity; when you become so rigid about yourself that you refuse to do anything at all that’s not ‘allowed’ in your health plan, you are obsessive.”

The tragedy with being obsessed with your health, continues Shah, is that most often, you haven’t the faintest idea you’re overdoing things. That’s because it’s taken for granted that health consciousness is a good thing and that the ‘lifestyle changes’ that most experts in the health industry recommend if you want a long and healthy life are really as extreme as they appear to be.

Body Behaviour
What are the consequences of a health obsession? Mentally, obsessive behaviour can hurt you by upsetting the balance of your life. As Shah says, many of us tend to overestimate the strength of our minds and forget that minds too need some amount of pampering. “When you’re too rigid with yourself, your mind starts to rebel,” she explains. “And that leads to mood swings and anxiety disorders.”

Physically, as consulting physician Dr Altaf Patel says, you could actually do yourself more harm than good if you persist in taking the advice you read in the media, or even your own doctor’s advice, too far. “For instance, many people try to lower their cholesterol to a level that’s much below what their doctors have recommended because they have heard that cholesterol is bad. So logically, the thinking goes, the lower their cholesterol level, the healthier they’ll be and the longer they’ll live,” explains Dr Patel. “But what they don’t know is that the brain is made up of cholesterol. So lowering the body’s cholesterol level beyond a limit has effects on the body in much the same way that a high cholesterol level has effects on the body.”

It’s the same story with blood sugar, continues Dr Patel. And such mistakes created by ignorance don’t even begin to cover the number of disease possibilities that exist because of a genetic bias that medical science can do little about. If diabetes runs in your family, then, well, no matter how much effort you put into controlling your diet and exercise, you still have a high chance of getting diabetes.

“In any case,” says Dr Patel, “Beyond a point even medical science isn’t 100 per cent certain about anything. So what doctors advised you to do five years ago based on medical research may have been more drastic than was actually necessary. The thinking and treatment may have changed by now and may change again after a few years.”

Minding The Media
Tired though we are of hearing how we should blame the media for everything that we do these days, the truth is that the media is responsible for our current fascination with health. As 39-year-old lawyer Dhanraj Patil recalls, growing up in the’70s and ’80s, there was never much in the news about health. “I was an avid reader of newspapers even as a child, and I’d read every article on every page every day,” he says.

“There was never much coverage when it came to health. If my parents needed advice or were curious about something, they’d call our family doctor or look up the health encyclopedia we had at home. It was only in the early and mid-’90s that newspapers began carrying advice columns on health.”

The ’90s, significantly, was when our country changed its economic policy and the new liberalised economy gave more people more money to spend. In the world of high finance, this led to, among other things, a media boom and a consumer-oriented economy. In the everyday world of the middle and upper classes, the sudden increase in wealth added a new word to the vocabulary – ‘lifestyle’. Both these worlds combined and suddenly a lot of us were thinking about issues we’d never contemplated much before. Such as the way we look.

“The media made the visual attractiveness of the body a major thing,” says sociologist Rahul Srivastav. “And with that came health consciousness.” In other words, as we learned more about the effects of diet and exercise we began to be aware that our bodies, once physical entities that only doctors understood, could be controlled by ourselves. So we began to exercise, to pay attention to what we ate, to do whatever we could to look good. Along the way, we were told all sorts of things by all sorts of people about what was good for us and what was not. Medical and biological terms and phrases that most of us had only heard in school biology classes became part of our everyday conversation. And a lot of us became very concerned about the way we were living our lives.

That’s why both Reema Shah and nutritionist and Brunch columnist Dr Shikha Sharma believe that health awareness is more of a lifestyle issue for people up to their 60s than a physical issue. “For the older generation, health was a survival issue. They only went to doctors when there was something physically wrong,” says Dr Sharma. “But now that we’ve gone beyond thinking of survival, we have other things on our minds. For instance, looking good and feeling good for longer than our parents ever dreamed of. That is possible these days.”

Most Susceptible
But while the media focus on looking good has a positive effect in that it’s got us to think a little more deeply about our health, it also has negative effects. That’s because unless we’ve actually studied medicine and the body, no matter how much we read on the subject, all we have is half-baked knowledge. Which means that health coverage in the media can easily be misunderstood and taken way over the top. Two groups of people are particularly susceptible to misunderstanding health coverage in the media: people aged between 12 and the mid-twenties who are convinced that there is only one way to look good and that is to be thin; and people 35 and above who find it difficult to come to terms with the ageing process and will do anything they can to stave it off. “People tend to treat the health coverage and health advice in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet as though it’s the 10 Commandments,” says Dr Sharma. “It is written, so it must be so. So they often don’t bother to analyse the information and see if it relates to or makes sense for them. They just follow it blindly.”

So diets for various ailments recommended by doctors and dieticians in the papers and magazines are taken up with enthusiasm but with little regard for how feasible they might be given individual lifestyles. Foods that are recommended because they are good sources of certain vitamins and minerals are treated as though they’re medication taken on prescription rather than just the foods we usually eat that happen to contain these vitamins and minerals. And the lifestyle changes in the areas of food, exercise, relaxation and socialising that many people in the health industry recommend are taken to extremes.

For instance, marketing executive Dev Verma has a friend who eats nothing but raw salads, steamed vegetables, clear soups and cereals like oatmeal and dalia. “It’s a lot like the diet I had to follow for a few months after I had jaundice,” shudders Verma. “But I had been ill and the doctor had advised such a diet for a specific time. My friend on the other hand didn’t go to a dietician but believes that this is the way to stay healthy. And he doesn’t socialise much because he’s afraid he’ll be tempted off his diet.”

In contrast, when Verma, concerned about the lifestyle changes he felt he should make, went to a dietician himself, he was told to set one day a week aside to eat whatever he wanted, regardless of whether it was rich food or not. No diet he’d read about had ever mentioned such a thing.

“But my dietician told me it was ridiculous to expect to stick to an austere diet without a break; that the point was to get me back to simple home cooked food on a regular basis and treat the pizzas, pastas and deepfried snacks as occasional treats just the way they used to be when I was a child,” says Verma. “That made sense and it works. I don’t feel guilty when I go for a party or to a pub with friends. Very little in my lifestyle has changed.”

If Verma’s dietician astonished him, it was freelance scriptwriter Anasuya Sen who astonished her gym instructors when she announced as she signed up that she wasn’t concerned about weightloss; she just wanted to stay fit. “I’m a few kilos overweight and rather lumpy in the way I look, but not so overweight that I need to worry about my health – or at least, that’s what my doctor says,” she says. “I joined the gym simply because I spend most of my time sitting in front of a computer and I want to give my body some work. My gym instructors found that hard to understand.”

Doesn’t Sen want to be thin? Not really. She just wants to stay in as good health as possible without changing her lifestyle too much. “If I lose weight, that’s a bonus, but I certainly feel fit and that’s the point of the exercise,” she says.

For Immortality? So how do we achieve a balance between health consciousness and health obsession? The answer lies in one word that we’ve heard so often that it fails to make an impression any more. The word is moderation. ‘Moderation’ is always the most logical answer to most issues – and the most difficult to follow because all of us have some kind of inner extremist. We don’t like sitting on the fence. If we decide to let things be, then we will let things be, whatever the consequences. And if we’re going to follow a health plan, then we will do all we can to maintain it, whatever the consequences.

The fact is, says Dr Altaf Patel, that a lot of people want to live forever – and healthily so, without the aches, pains and ailments that inevitably accompany ageing. And while no one really believes that youthful immortality can be achieved, health can become a huge and worrying concern.

“But beyond a point, a doctor can’t make you live forever and it’s our responsibility to tell you when you’re taking your health concerns too seriously,” he says. “The best thing to do is take the middle path and relax.”

From Archives of Brunch for 5th Anniversary Special

First Published: Jul 13, 2010 16:56 IST