The emerging pandemic of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes in the Indian subcontinent
Biryani used to be food of nawabs and Sultans. It was the food of occasional festivals. It was never the food of everyday life. Some 12,000 years ago India was very different. The subcontinent was transitioning from a hunter-gather society to an agrarian, neolithic culture. Many parts of the country that are now desert were thriving agricultural areas where barley and eventually wheat were grown. These grains fed newly formed urban civilizations. In the area around Hyderabad different types of millet native to India was grown, as were pulses and lentils, then later barley. In Baluchistan, wheat was grown over 8,000 years ago. Shortly afterwards wheat and barley became the main staple of the Punjab and Pashtun regions. Rice was not grown. In the Arab world we find a similar trend. The boom in rice consumption mirrors the boom in oil production. Previous to this, only small amounts of rice were grown in parts of Mesopotamia in the seventh century. It was not widely available, nor available to the rest of the Arab world, and the records we have suggest it was used occasionally only as a dessert.
Today we think of the Punjab as a major producer of basmati rice, and indeed the region grows 11 million tons of basmati every single year. This is a very recent trend. Just fifty years ago rice cultivation was restricted to the North West part of the Punjab, and only 0.69 million tonnes were grown. Rice simply wasn’t eaten very often. Go back several hundred years and we find much less rice being grown and eaten. Biryani was a festival dish, to be eaten a few times a year. There wasn’t much rice to be had. Moreover, fifty years ago the type of basmati being grown was different to the basmati now available.
The old type basmati was extremely low yield and only harvested at certain times of the year. This meant rice was not readily available. In an effort to increase yield, scientists in India and the Punjab attempted to “improve” rice from the 1970s onwards. Here, the cultivation of rice begins to take a similar trajectory to modern wheat: the original grains were altered. The first alteration was to modify rice such that high doses of nitrogenous fertilizers could be sprayed over the crop. In this, Indian scientists made the same mistake as their Chinese counterparts, who saturated the Chinese pear-growing regions with nitrogenous fertilizers in an effort to increase yield. The net result of that misadventure was to make the soil barren and to kill off every single honey bee in the region. In turn, this meant the pear trees could no longer be pollenated and Chinese pears could not grow. The solution was bizarre: Chinese laborers were coated in chicken feathers, which were then coated in pollen, who then ran about among the pear trees in an attempt to pollenate the trees.
Indian and Pakistani scientists have now moved a step beyond this in attempts to make rice resistant to herbicides. Transgenic rice has been developed whereby the human gene CYP2B6 is inserted into rice. This gene detoxifies herbicides allowing the paddy field to be pummeled to death with synthetic chemicals. The long-term effect of this transgenic technology is at best unknown. While the added gene prevents the chemicals from killing the rice crop it does not stop pesticide residue from accruing. These residues remain and will be eaten by humans. Rice and foodstuff in general from Pakistan is absolutely hammered with pesticides and DDT. In a review study, Pakistani scientists, who are usually more concerned at increasing yield than with the health problems of pesticides, concluded that there is a severe risk to human health by eating contaminated cereal crops. Rice from Bangladesh is contaminated with arsenic due to the water in the paddy fields. Rice from China is saturated with cadmium, which damages kidneys, and mercury, which damages the brain. Rice being sold in Europe was covered with unsafe levels of aflatoxin, a carcinogen that stunts growth and damages the liver. The good news is that organic rice has been tested and found to be free of all these pesticides.
Unfortunately, scientists did not stop at gene insertion. The story of modern rice takes a similar course to modern wheat. Wheat used to exist in just two ancient forms, namely, Einkon and Kamut. The modern offspring of these ancient varieties of wheat have been rendered illegitimate by the development of new strains, irradiation, and the subsequent addition of extra chromosomes. Similarly, since the 1970s Indo-Pak scientists have now developed thirty new types of rice. All of them are dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties with different nutrient profiles. Seven of these thirty varieties are new versions of the revered basmati rice. Given that a huge amount of basmati being grown and sold is the scientifically enhanced dwarf strain, it is extremely hard to be sure that the basmati people now eat on a daily basis is anywhere near the same as the tall, traditional basmati eaten occasionally at festivals a few hundred years ago. In developing these varieties of rice the emphasis has been on aroma, taste, ease of cooking, and yield. Notably absent has been “nutrition” and “health.” The nutritional value of modern rice is further reduced when one considers that rice was traditionally milled by hand-pounding, much as wheat was. Modern milling methods are frighteningly effective but lead to nutrient depletion.
Besides cancer, stunted growth, liver and kidney damage from overuse of pesticides, there are other significant health problems when some populations overeat rice. We know that a high consumption of white rice causes diabetes. This is due to two reasons. The first is that rice raises blood sugar and provokes insulin production much more than barley, millet, or even wholegrain wheat. Secondly, blood sugar rises according to the dose of rice: the more rice a person eats the higher their blood sugar and the more insulin they produce. Just about everybody knows how easy it is to overeat biryani. In addition, people are walking less, taking less exercise, and sitting down for longer periods of time. If you add frequent biryani to infrequent exercise there is only one outcome, namely, blubber. This is what is increasingly being seen in India and Pakistan. There is a huge rise in obesity and diabetes. One study reported the rise of diabetes in India is now a pandemic. But if India is experiencing a pandemic then many rice-loving Arab countries are becoming a lost cause. Rates of diabetes and obesity in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Gulf States are the highest in the world. Higher than the United States, Canada, and England.
Many people know that obesity and diabetes lead to heart disease. However, they also lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Around one third of Indians who have diabetes will get dementia. That’s a lot of people. Indians who have diabetes are much more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease, regardless of their genetic risk for the disease. Therefore, the consequences of eating too much biryani and rice are pesticide poisoning, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and heart disease, plus poor quality of life due to being too fat.
All of this evidence suggests that Punjabis, Hyderabadis, and Pakistanis, especially those who are overweight, or those suffering from diabetes, would be wise to limit their rice consumption to festivals, and even then look for the highest quality rice. In the meantime, carbohydrates from their traditional grains should be eaten such as barley, millet, coarse ground ancient wheat, amaranth (rajgira), and sorghum (chori or jawar). Add to these grains pulses, legumes, peas, and lentils, some meat, butter ghee, and nuts, lots of vegetables and a reasonable amount of fruit, and you have a diet approximating what your ancestors ate. On top of this walk, exercise, fast, and don’t overeat, and you will dramatically reduce the risk of getting fat and ill.
Omitted from the list of ancestral food is milk products. This is because dairy products, such as yoghurt and buttermilk, deserve a special mention. For one thing the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, honored milk and made special mention of it. We know that the people of the Indian subcontinent have been drinking milk, eating yoghurt, and using butter ghee and buttermilk from cows, sheep, goats, and buffalo for a very long time. Unless a person has a confirmed allergy dairy products should form part of a traditional diet. Moreover, some very recent studies from Germany and Cambridge University have found that the fat in milk has some unique properties.
Saturated fat has gone through something of a resurrection in recent years. Newspapers, magazines, books, and websites have proclaimed that saturated fat is back on the menu after serious studies showed that saturated fat did not cause heart disease, nor clog up arteries. These new studies on saturated fat combined many clinical studies comprising thousands of people into a meta-analysis. All the findings were merged with the conclusion that saturated fat was not harmful. What has not been reported is the findings of the German and Cambridge team who started to unpick the meta-analysis. They found that a number of studies in the meta-analysis were solely concerned with saturated fat from dairy products. They then removed from consideration the studies on dairy fats and crunched the numbers again. Once dairy products are removed the findings reverse: excess saturated fat causes heart disease. The beneficial fat in dairy products is able to skew a huge study and mask the harmful effects of excess saturated fat from meat. This doesn’t mean meat shouldn’t be eaten. It just means that people nowadays tend to overconsume saturated fat from meat.
The reason for this is that there is no such thing as just pure saturated fat. The fat has many different forms. There is myristic fat, palmitic fat, and steric fat. These are all known as even-numbered saturated fats due to the number of carbon atoms they have, and are called C:14, C:16, and C:18. There are many more types of even-numbered saturated fats. They are found in meat, and overeating these even-numbered fats does indeed lead to heart disease, atherosclerosis, and even diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is also odd-shaped fat such as margaric acid. These fats have names such as C:15 and C:17. They are found almost exclusively in dairy products. These odd-shaped saturated fats do remarkable things. They protect your arteries against atherosclerosis. They protect against heart disease and diabetes. They are also anti-carcinogenic, as they destroy cancerous cells. Importantly, odd-shaped fats protect against Alzheimer’s disease. This is because they make the membranes of cells flexible, and is the reason why patients with Alzheimer’s disease have lower blood levels of odd-shaped fats. For people from the Indian subcontinent, whose traditional diet included dairy products, this is an important finding. Eating milk products from any animal, alongside other ancient foods, will protect against diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease, the very illnesses that are currently threatening Indo-Pak society. The same is certainly true for the Arabs.
Finally, a word of warning. None of this means that rice or biryani is intrinsically bad. It’s just bad for those people who didn’t traditionally eat rice, and who now eat it frequently. Consider that the Chinese have been farming rice for 15,000 years, Bangladeshis have been eating rice for 8,000 years, and South Indians have farmed rice for over 3,000 years. In contrast, Punjabis have been eating rice regularly for less than 100 years. This is not enough time for their genetic inheritance to adapt, and they should keep biryani to festival times. It also doesn’t mean that meat, grains, ghee, and diary can be eaten in unlimited quantities just because your ancestors ate them in normative amounts. If you eat too much you will still get fat and ill.
Take Bangladesh as an example. Bangladeshis who stick to a low-meat, low-sugar but rice-, fish-, vegetable-, and fruit-heavy diet remain lithe, supple, and healthy into old age. Seeing a sixty-year-old Bangladeshi man shin up a tree with a machete in his lungi is not uncommon. It is likely they have high copy numbers of the AMY1 gene that enables them to metabolize rice. The health of the people of Bangladesh currently exceeds that of Indians and Pakistanis, despite the country being much poorer. Moreover, a conversation with any Bangladeshi from the rural hinterlands will reveal each village, even each family, has their own paddy field, growing their own rice, as well as their own fish pond laden with freshwater fish for eating. Unless the multinationals start selling seeds to these villages it is hoped that rice from the villages of Bangladesh will be spared from these scientist-improvers.