The invisible illness
A new book takes a close look at the rising cases of obesity in the country, and finds answers in our relationship with food
Obesity is a low energy state. This description of obesity as an invisible illness marks the starting point of FAT: The Body, Food And Obesity (Speaking Tiger Books), which undertakes a scientific exploration of our relationship with food. Authored by paediatric surgeons Dr Ishrat Syed and Dr Kalpana Swaminathan, FAT simplifies how the body feels about what we eat, rather than how our body looks, which is often the starting point of many appearance-driven health and beauty movements today. There are sobering numbers driving this inquiry: In 1975, India had 0.4 million obese men and 0.8 million obese women. In 2016, these figures inflated to 9.8 million men and 20 million women, leading to greater health complications like hypertension, diabetes and osteoporosis.
Travelling as far back as 1500 BC, when Sushruta, a physician in ancient India, identified the abdomen as the body’s preferred fat depot, to recent medical findings, the two combine modern research and ancient knowledge to explore the drivers of obesity in India. The answers lead to fascinating insights about how our bodies function. For instance, when the brain is under stress, it releases a hormone called corticotrophin releasing factor, or CRF, which craves high-energy foods (think cheat-day foods). While this correlation is well known, the doctors link metabolic syndrome to anhedonia, or a blunted sense of pleasure, which can result in overeating.
Other interesting takeaways point to the side effects and faulty claims of fat substitutes, why metabolic syndrome is linked to abdominal obesity, and an analysis of the composition of body fat, or the adipose tissue, lyrically described as “a textile created from oil". A chapter titled “Measuring The Body" offers alternatives to the Western BMI standard—while a BMI of over 29 qualifies as obesity internationally, Dr Syed and Dr Swaminathan place this number at 25 for Indians, adapted to Indian bodies.
The two doctors have previously collaborated under the name Kalpish Ratna, including for the detailed The Secret Life Of Zika Virus, published last year. Their latest book breaks down the science of food and fat with everyday analogies and anecdotes from departmental stores and Hot Chips outlets. While there are occasional descriptions that make one squeamish (like the way sari wearers’ “midriffs rise like idli dough"), the book will force you to reconsider the choices you make off menus and grocery aisles.