‘Indian vegetarian diet is one of the unhealthiest forms of eating’

FREMONT, CA: “The South Asian Health Solution” is a book written by Dr Ronesh Sinha to address this unique challenge. Dr Sinha is an internal medicine physician for Palo Alto Medical Foundation and winner of the 2013 Silicon Valley Business Journal Health Care Hero award for his groundbreaking work with high risk South Asians. Dr Sinha runs a consult practice exclusively for high risk South Asians and delivers health education and wellness programs to prominent Silicon Valley companies and to the community.
Dr. Sinha shared his views on the topic and the book in an exclusive interview to India Post’s Ritu Maheshwari.

Dr Ronesh Sinha
Dr Ronesh Sinha

What inspired you to write the book?
I wrote the South Asian Health Solution after I started my medical practice a decade ago in Silicon Valley. I was overwhelmed by how many high risk Asian Indian patients I was seeing in my clinic. Many of them had been following standard US guidelines which for them were ineffective. Diabetes and early heart disease became so common that nearly everyone had a family member with one or more of these conditions. The resources available for South Asians were limited, so I developed a website for my medical group. Due to the great demand from high-tech companies and the community, I decided to share all of the key information on nutrition and health in this book.
This book is the essence of what I’ve learned from my South Asian medical consult practice and the wellness programs I’ve developed for major companies like Oracle. These have led to significant improvements in conditions like obesity, abnormal cholesterol and high blood sugar, without the use of medications. One major motivator has been my wife, a pediatrician who co-authored the children’s chapter of the book. Almost daily she tells me about young Indian children who have developed conditions we used to only think of in adults, like type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and fatty liver. In response, the book focuses on the entire family unit with dedicated chapters for children and seniors. Every generation is suffering from the ill effects of our modern lifestyle.

In your experience, what is the most important aspect of lifestyle that your book focuses on?
I place a lot of emphasis on nutrition and how it impacts insulin resistance, the underlying process leading to common conditions in Indians such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. People underestimate what a profound impact diet, especially excess carbohydrates, has on their health condition. It actually far outweighs the effects of exercise when it comes to losing weight or overcoming insulin resistance. I’ve also gained a full appreciation for the devastating effects of stress on both mind and body. I’ve seen specific markers for insulin resistance and inflammation correct themselves after individuals initiated a stress-reducing practice like meditation or yoga.

Many Indians think that their vegetarian diets shield them from dietary ill-effects. However, their diet may not be healthy. How can one create awareness about a balanced diet?

I was shocked to discover from my medical consult practice that the typical Indian vegetarian diet is one of the unhealthiest forms of eating on the planet, especially for South Asians, who are predominantly insulin resistant. My average vegetarian Indian only consumes 1-2 overcooked vegetable curries which have very few nutrients. They hardly consume any raw vegetables and as a result, I call them “grainatarians” rather than vegetarians since the staples in their diet are mostly rice, flatbreads and beans/lentils which in excess make insulin resistance much worse. In summary, the South Asian diet is filled with abundant, nutrient deficient carbohydrates.

How much and what type of exercise would you recommend for a typical sedentary office life style?
Walking more steps and interrupting prolonged periods of sitting are the foundation of exercise in today’s sedentary world. Studies show formal exercise sessions in the gym hardly counteract the adverse health effects of prolonged sitting, with diabetes and heart disease rates remaining high. I discuss the mechanism for this in detail in my book along with illustrated exercises and apps that help get readers active in the comfort of their own home and office.

You discuss impact of a protruding stomach on blood sugar and heart impact. This seems to be most difficult part of fat to control. Can lifestyle changes help?

The protruding South Asian belly has become a visible symbol for insulin resistance and heart disease risk present in most South Asians. It seems difficult to control if you follow outdated guidelines on nutrition. In most South Asians, excess belly fat is fueled by excess carbohydrates, not dietary fat, a central premise of my book and I show readers how a vegetarian or non-vegetarian can make culturally sensitive carb substitutions to reduce belly fat. Just a few of these substitutions routinely slim bellies more effectively than running countless miles or adding on more sit-ups.

Stress seems to be everywhere – at work or homes. For many families, social and family support structure is minimal or nonexistent. How can they begin to balance their lives while handling different roles?

Stress in our modern, high-tech world is a completely different animal than primitive stress. Primitive stress in the form of predators and adverse weather came episodically, allowing for periods of rest in between.
Today’s stress is continuous and unless we learn to disconnect from our devices and set boundaries, it can swallow us whole. Families need to support each other by prioritizing health. This might mean watching the kids so your spouse can go for a walk, dividing responsibilities in the kitchen, making sure kids go to bed at a decent hour, etc. The boundaries between home and work no longer exist, so unless we make deliberate efforts to schedule quality family time without electronics, family meals, time for physical activity and meditation, our health will suffer.

What are some of new advances in medical science that can help South Asians maintain their health and lead a balanced life?

The very technology that can be a barrier to good health can actually enhance health when used in the right way. Body monitoring devices are becoming increasingly refined in measuring various bits of personal data from sleep and nutrition to activity and heart rate. These tools can help South Asians be in better tune with their body and motivate them to continue with healthy lifestyle changes. I highlight several effective Apps and devices in my book that were game changers in allowing patients to reach their health goals.

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