Thursday, July 09, 2009

Personal Paradigm Shift

Spending 11 weeks this summer in India, where the heat is 109 degrees and walking 4 days per week, administering surveys door-to-door, negatively affects my daily routine of Tai Chi. It is simply too hot to move. I have been doing some Chi Gung at night before bed. But I still feel like I am missing my daily one-hour routine of Tai Chi. I have felt jealous of my friends back in the US who aren’t missing a beat in their own practice. Then I had an epiphany that led to my own personal paradigm shift.

My choice of going into health research as opposed to acupuncture or some other health care delivery was just the beginning of incorporating my research into my life. Scientific research is a systematic method of adding knowledge about the world around us by collecting data, lots of data. My research here in India is trying to ascertain how people’s dietary habits impact their physiology. What I am finding thus far is that small, simple choices in an individual’s and a culture’s diet can negatively impact their life span. In short, people’s cultures are killing them slowly.

My research in India takes me door-to-door asking people in their homes about their lifestyle choices. Everyday I meet people who are overweight, with high blood pressure, not exercising, making poor dietary choices and of the age where their first MI (myocardial infarction, or heart attack) is not far off. So many of them think that they are healthy and that they are eating just fine. They truly are in a state of denial. The stats tell another story: About 17.5 million people die from cardiovascular related deaths every year. That is 30% of all deaths in the world, which means that CVD kills more people than any other disease.

Although I haven’t been doing as much Tai Chi as I like, I am seeing first hand through a scientific lens that, overwhelmingly, lifespan is determined by the choices people make day in, day out, many of them based on cultural norms. The average life span in India is 64 years of age. The people I meet here are creating a pattern of behavior that will affect their child’s life span as well. Science has given me the tools to see this. By collecting data from hundreds of people I can infer whether a certain behavior is rampant or not. If you just follow a tradition or culture that is orally interpreted or passed down in books you might not notice what is actually happening on the ground. A state of denial is created because tradition is kind of like a rule book or a map following it confirms you are doing well. Unfortunately, many of the directions are flat out wrong or not appropriate to the present time frame. I am finding that the people of India follow their traditions and are very devout, much like people of other places, but unfortunately without that scientific lens they can’t see where the health outcome of their tradition leads. The Hindu religion states the eating of meat is forbidden, with beef strictly taboo. Although the attitude toward chicken is more casual, many people proudly don’t consume it for religious reasons. However, chicken is a more efficient protein, with less fat, than the daily consumption of whole milk (in tea and drunk plain), paneer (a type of cheese), and whole milk yogurt that makes up a big part of the Indian diet.

Even in my beloved Tai Chi there is very little information on dietary behaviors. There is some wisdom on the balancing of the 5 elements and their dietary correlates: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, and bitter. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give any measurements or of course the wise sages could not fore see the transition from a rural old world diet rich in whole grains to a modern diet full of processed refined grains heavy in salt and sugar. Consequently, Tai Chi instructors without training in western science do not pass on that kind of wisdom. The Tai Chi literature also says to avoid any type of cardio activity. Although there is some wisdom within those words when applied to elderly people but it is poor advice for middle-aged adults who are in need a cardiovascular exercise for their heart.

Absorb what is useful, discard the rest

It is difficult not to be influenced by cultural traditions. Tradition gives many of us meaning in life and even makes us aware of many positive activities as well. The Tai Chi literature is full of all kinds of awesome behaviors to follow, that is why I love it and read so much of it but there is a fundamental lack of precision. Following the scientific method gives me the insight of what is actually happening on the ground from the data collected. The choices I make of which many come from the Tai Chi literature are tempered and corrected by the large body of literature amassed by the western science paradigm. So I can as Bruce Lee has advised, “absorb what is useful, and discard the rest.”