I have the greatest privilege of being associated with Native cultures of many continents.. thus satisfying my curiosity and desire to travel and the chance to help them with my medical expertise. these notes are from those travels. I am a professor at the University of Havana
On a recent visit to
Miami, my good friend and I shared a North Indian meal, of which Rogan Josh was
the star. This dish, which is of Persian Origin, brought to Indian by the Mogul
emperors, has become a staple of the Western Indian Restaurants mostly owned
and cooked by Bangladeshis. The Kashmiris when they cook this dish, they use a
less spicy pimiento rather than the strong chillies to the south. (Think of the
goan dish Beef Vindaloo)
Zaatar is a mainstay of
the Israeli condiment and I was introduced to that on a visit to Haifa many
years ago by my Israeli family, who sprinkled it on just about everything and I
must say, a mixture of olive oil and zaatar to dip your pita in was certainly
I am partial to a good
Massaman Curry and a few years ago a Laotian refugee and his family opened a
Thai Restaurant near one of the Indian Reservations, and I am always grateful
that I could have at least one good meal on each of my visits to the Midwestern
So the health aspects of
these condiments, the additional heath aspects I should say, since you have to
be eating good food or nutritionally cognizant, had always interested me. I can’t
imagine McDo selling a Massaman Curry Hamburger and a Zaatar French Fries!
A recent article
published in Nutrition Today was of interest. Some researchers, who had been
trying leech out the health benefits of herbs and spices, took six men, all of
them overweight between 35 and 60 and gave them a control meal and then in
their second experiment gave them a similar meal but heavily doused with herbs
They reasoned that a
high fat meat diet would increase Triglycerides and an increased risk for heart
disease, would they find a difference if that same meal was given with a
concoction of spices?
. If a high-antioxidant spice blend is incorporated
into the meal, triglyceride levels may be reduced by as much as 30 percent when
compared to eating an identical meal without the spice blend. The spiced meal
included garlic powder, rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, cloves, paprika, turmeric,
ginger and black pepper.
And their small study showed that the
Insulin levels do not rise as much, impressive enough and more impressive was
the 13% increase in anti oxidant activity after the spicy meal.
Cinnamon from the above list has had some
press, since it seems to help people with Diabetes, even though their effects
on non-diabetic persons are not clear. Garlic comes with mixed reviews, and
certainly others in the spicy melange above, especially turmeric, ginger have
had good press, following research showing their benefits.
Rogan Josh might have paprika, cloves and
turmeric and our beloved Zaatar in Israel is Oregano, I say this because I was
given some organic homegrown Zaatar from Algeria that was mainly Thyme.
So for Lunch, I prepared Basmati with
coconut oil, with hot sauce interspersed in it, with a good amount of Zaatar.
The chicken was prepared in Thai sauce that contained coconut and paprika
It tasted delicious, and for the coming one
month, with the exception of five days in the midwestern food desert, I will
have plenty of antioxidant raising, spicy, herb filled meals.
I was about to qualify
as an Endocrinologist from the University of Miami when I decided to spend one
month with an American Indian tribe. I went there with an open mind, and within
a few days I realized that what I had learned in Medical School was geared
towards the individuals but not toward people living as a community. That is
when I decided to go back to University in London to do some postgraduate
studies in Anthropology.
When I tell people I am
an Anthropologist, they have visions of Indiana Jones or slick Armani clad
Malpractice lawyers. Medical Anthropology teaches you to divert your gaze away
from the laboratory tests to the patient and the social circumstances of the
patient, looking at the tree and not just at the branch.
I thank my Meskwakia
Indian teacher, Pat “Dr Brown” for making an Anthropologist out of me.
Before she would let me
see a patient, she would give a genealogy of that patient, thus I learned about
the interconnectedness of that community, what they value as a community more
than the individual values and more importantly how the health of the
individual would affect the health of the community as a whole. Once a jovial
Indian was sitting in front of me, dressed in a torn t-shirt and jeans with a
baseball hat. Dr B warned me, the man sitting in front of you is the spiritual
leader of the Eagle Clan, and he has more knowledge and wisdom than you would
ever have, so treat him with respect. It was she who taught me to RESPECT each
and every patient of mine ever since.
I am happy to have
studied Anthropology in London rather than the USA because the Medical
Anthropology here highlights many of the conflicts in the American society. The
Anthropologists in the USA are without power whereas the Doctors along with
their Pharma cronies wield an enormous amount of power to change the habits of
other doctors and patients. Thus the American Medical Anthropologists are far
more theoretical and when you read some of their erudite articles, it
elaborately describes nothing practical. The British Anthropologists who were
my teachers, namely Adam Kuper, Ronnie Frankenberg and Cecil Helman were not
only erudite but also very practical in their approaches. They admired the
American capacity for analysis knowing fully well that American society has
different priorities: Anthropologists can only do what they are allowed to do,
by the powers to be.
In America, there is a
need for more Medically Qualified Anthropologists. The best known medical
anthropologist in the country, Paul Farmer, is a specialist in Infectious
Diseases and his anthropological text books have already become widely read.
The new tool acquired in
London at the halls of knowledge there, strengthened my curious mind to ask questions,
I was not satisfied with
the biomedical explanations of a disease (as defined by the doctors) but wanted
to know the social implications and aetiologies of that Illness (as defined by
Fortunate enough to work
with the Native American Indians, I could observe many things that went against
the teachings of the “experts” and also the machinations and manipulations of
numbers and laboratory tests for those who stand to gain the most.
Some examples are given
here and the reasons for my questioning
Blood Pressure 130/80 mm
Hg is considered normal, but by whom? Where, when and how did they arrive at
Among the CUNA Indians
who inhabit the San Blas Archipelago off the coast of Republic of Panama, no
one has a blood pressure of 130/80, their median blood pressure is about 110/60
Also, their Blood
Pressure does not rise as they get older, as we were taught in medical school
to be a normal phenomenon in humans.
Despite the torrential
increase in Diabetes Educators and Obesity researchers and Lifestyle coaches,
the endemic of Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes has reached typhoon force!
I have to be thankful to
my teacher, the late Dr Eric Reiss at the University of Miami about my critical
thinking about Cholesterol.
He was conducting the
usual Endocrinology teaching rounds and a proud student was presenting an older
Black lady lying in her bed, with visible signs of Hyperlipidemia (collection
of fats in the blood), with xanthelesmas (yellow collections of fat around the
eyes). The student answered all the medical questions very cleverly and was
beaming with self satisfaction when the ever observant Dr Riess asked him: why
does this lady have a band aid on her breast? Is it covering some wound? The
jaw dropped, the student looked in consternation, I don't know, I didn't ask
her. Then Dr Riess when kindly asks the lady why the lady has the band aid on
her breast. She said: I live in the poorer section of the town where the black
people live and it is infested with rats and it is a rat bite.
She was being discharged
that day from hospital and he continued: Is anyone picking you up? No, Sir. Do
you have bus fare to get
home? No, Sir. He gives her the 75 cents necessary for the bus fare
He turned around to all
of us and said: Knowing all about the Cholesterol metabolism would not make you
a better Doctor, but knowing about her living conditions and finding her
transport to get home would.
Soon after there has
been an explosion about Cholesterol but mainly about the treatment of elevated
bad cholesterol and decreased good cholesterol.
Two thirds of Americans
are either overweight or obese and coincidentally enough 200 million
prescriptions were written for Statins (ant cholesterol medication) a few years
ago. No one is certain how many people in America are taking Statin medications
but it could well be 30 million adults.
How did this happen?
Look at this Forbes article:
Taking Statins To The Next Level
wants to get millions more people taking cholesterol-lowering drugs. Will it be
enough to revive the drugmaker?
An anthropologist would
immediately see the connection.
It is not the health of
It is not the
recommendation of independent enquiry panel.
But it is the coveted
aim of the drug manufacturer.
As I mentioned above,
Cuna Indians had lower levels of Blood Pressure. But LOWER in that it is Lower
than the accepted levels, for them, that was the normal level of BP.
Lower Level or
acceptable levels can be manipulated. The upper levels of accepted CHOLESTEROL
has been coming down in the past few years. Now they are even talking of
treating the “normal” levels.
At no time are there
discussions about WHY is the cholesterol level going up or remaining high.
Working among the
American Indians was the way to work this out, I thought.
In a survey done between
1956-58, Total Serum Cholesterol was found to be lower among Five different
Native Indian populations than the Cleveland Clinic population and other non Indian
I was lucky to be able
to gain permission from the Alabama Coushatta Tribal health Director to examine
and obtain blood for Cholesterol studies and it showed that the tribal members
had lower cholesterols: Total, LDL AND HDL . HDL is usually referred to as Good
It became clearer and
clearer as I thought about it over the years and saw hundreds more patients and
visited them at home and saw what they ate as “food”, that the higher
cholesterol was an indication of the INFLAMMATION of the body caused by the non
food items in food. STATIN is an excellent medication against INFLAMMATION as
well as CHOLESTEROL but that does not mean that its effects are due to lowering
Indians love their meat
and as their cholesterol went up, the pundits began associating cholesterol
levels to their fat intake and advised that they should consume less meat,
which does not sit well with them.
I remember a patient of
mine, weighing over 300 lbs. who used to come regularly to the clinic. On one
such visit it was noted that his Total Cholesterol was perched near the 300
mark (200 considered the upper level of the normal) and I expressed some
consternation, he said calmly: Don't worry, doctor, I will bring it down.
I was curious and sure
enough on his next visit the Total Cholesterol level had come down by over 100
What have you been dong
that is so different that the cholesterol levels came down?, I asked him.
Instead of buying eat
from the supermarket, my friends and I now butcher our own meat.
End of the Story.
Indians have lower
cholesterol but they still die of heart disease which was unknown to them until
The Cholesterol story
continues… will discuss HDL cholesterol and its importance or lack of importanc
in another blog…in numbers, we don't trust..
There are some childhood memories, for me,
the tropical torpor of the village of Kuala Belait, in Brunei, where wearing a
newly acquired jacket which made me sweat heavily, I would run after
butterflies. These memories do not arrive announced but their sudden arrival
does portend a sense of disequilibrium. I have firm ideas about thinking about
the past and the future. I hardly think of my school days or friends from those
Was that a protective mechanism?
Was it to forget incidents or geography or
people that you no longer wish to be associated with? Things becomes clear from
those times when I wish to extend my memory, and now I know that it has worked
out to be a good defence mechanism for the kind of vagabond life I have lead,
with chameleon like frequency all over the world.
There are people in your life, who came,
left a strong imprint and walked away to find destinies of their own. I am
lucky to have had many and they appear on my Gratitude List very often. One
such was an Australian friend of mine, LS. She once drew a graph of a
sinusoidal wave on a piece of paper. She then explained to me, most people lead
a life of ups and downs and it is the normal way. You have chosen to just ski
on top of the top of the waves, so that you can avoid the banality of everyday
ordinariness and also not experience the beauty that comes with the mundane art
of living. Did I make the waves of that sinusoidal wave come as closely as
possible that I can surf over them? And not fall into an abyss?
Let us take travel for instance. Even
before I became a Doctor, I read an obituary of a GP from England. I was not
interested in his work or care of his patients but one sentence struck me, at
that time, like a thunderbolt. Dr So and So took time to travel and had been an
amazing 95 countries around the world! Wow! What a traveller, I thought to
myself and secretly wanted to be a traveller, keeping 95 as my target. The
first 10 came very quickly, and then it began to slow down, after 40 countries,
unless you had moved to a new geographical region, visiting more countries
becomes difficult. Fortunately, I moved from Australia to Europe to America
back to Australia, thus covering a fair bit of the world. When Asia opened up,
and the travel there became easier, more places were visited. I am not a stamp
collector, to go somewhere and said I have been there, I want to know a country
intimately and try to visit them repeatedly, for example, I have been to
Argentina more than 15 times, but so have I to many others, including Myanmar.
Why do I mention this? Perhaps this was the
peak of the sinusoidal wave for me for a considerable part of my life.
Fortunately the interest in my profession never waned and was polished by
further postgraduate studies in Medical Anthropology. Now, after many years of
travel, I don't think I have had any two week stretch of time, that I have been
idle and not been on a train, bus or plane, usually the latter.
The sense of morose that arises, like
recently when I was marooned in Miami waiting for an Indian Visa, it almost
makes you feel you are wasting your life.
I began reading a great little book, aptly
titled, Casablanca: Movies and Memory by the well-known French Anthropologist,
He escapes into the movies for memory,
including the smell of theatres of the left bank of Paris growing up. I don't
exactly escape into travel, since I don't remember the places or have a sense
of déjà vu, but then again I am surfing the peaks of experiences and perhaps
looking for more peaks than troughs.
It is so important to have corresponding
friends. In the olden days of snail mail, one wrote long letters to friends and
waited eagerly for enticing, stimulating replies of equal length to arrive by
mail. I used to cherish those letters and walked around with an enhanced
feeling for days that followed.
For the past ten years, instead of friends,
I have acquired a country! Cuba where the stimulating exchange has no end, like
a sweet bakery in the sky. It coincided also with the availability of Internet
and email whereby the communications became superfast and one can spend hours
each day as I do, dedicated to thinking or creating in my mind various lives
that I can lead secretly.
In Miami, I am lucky to have many things
and amongst which is an erudite friend, in fact a colleague from Medical school
days. He quit medicine because the quotidian practice of it, directed by
heartless administrators acting on behalf of the pillars of capitalism, was
contrary to the ethics he was taught and believed in. We both have the luxury
of time to read and discuss, not only matters of medical interest but also
about very many other things we share an interest in.
His email to me this morning triggered this
output from my brain.
I got this
cartoon from our weight watchers leader. It's sort of describes the condition
that I am in now in which I have in a de facto sense become on a maintenance
program. I do very well during the week but on the weekends I indulge too much
and then I like the stability of good quality home cooked food during the week.
It's an interesting question for the
anthropologist. I think it describes the lives of many people. If you can
figure out the answer please let me know…
What a great metaphor I thought.
Look at movies, Marc Auge would argue.
There are no mundane moments, it does not show anyone sitting down to eat an
ordinary meal and enquiring each other how their day went. It goes from
excitement to excitement, anger and frustration. In cheaper versions, Soap
Operas, one sees the faces to go with it, with its exaggeration of emotions.
Sound and voices add to the exaggeration, especially if the soap operas are in
Latin American Spanish or Brasilian!
The success of the magic of movies in
depraved places like India or the success of soap operas in a country like
Cuba, has to do with the fact that they know that they are not going to watch
mundane things on the screen to which they are subjected to each and every day
but magic awaits them on the silver screen (or HD TV that covers walls!)
I am not suggesting my friend lives a
mundane life but his eating behaviour is such a good metaphor for the lives of
people in Miami or elsewhere in the western world. In poorer or less educated
societies the story is very different. There are no minutes left to ponder over
the mundane moments of life, there is no memory but only oblivion.
Thinking about diets and weight loss, which
is a multibillion-dollar industry in America, here are some sensible
suggestions from a professor from Colorado who has been involved in this
research. Since I see exclusively American Indian patients, our advice is
culturally relevant and sensitive and also guised in symbols of their lives and
spirituality. So I wont include it here but quote the professor that is
relevant to most Americans and Europeans and Australians.
First, weight loss and weight
maintenance are two separate things. “We’ve learned that losing weight and
keeping it off are very different and, for each person, the best diet for
weight loss is not the same as the best diet for keeping it off,” Wyatt said.
If you want to lose weight and not
regain it, you must use different strategies during each phase. In both phases,
but especially during the keep-it-off phase, Wyatt recommends eating foods that
you like and that are compatible with your lifestyle.
“Physiology and metabolism may play a
role” in how you respond to a diet, “but the way you grew up and cultural
factors are just as important,” she said.
“The second biggest item we’ve learned
is that exercise is the most important thing for keeping it off once you’ve
lost weight. I tell my patients that in their initial weight-loss phase, diet
is doing the driving and exercise is in the back seat. After that, physical
exercise is in the front seat with diet in back,” Wyatt explained.
“We’ve also learned that while diet
and exercise are important, just as important is your mind set — that is, why
you want to lose weight, why you want this transformation. It’s a holistic
And finally, the most often neglected
piece of the puzzle is tailoring your diet plan. “Matching the diet you choose
to your activity level is important. If you are an athlete or have an active
lifestyle, you can choose a diet with more carbohydrates and calories, a lot
more sugar. But if you have a desk job or a sedentary lifestyle, you’re better
off with a low-carb, low-sugar diet,” Wyatt said.
In addition to the three recommended
diets already mentioned, the other diet plans that have been scientifically
shown to be effective include Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Meal-replacement
diets where you have a shake or a frozen entrée for one of your meals “have
some good data, as do the low-fat, plant-based diets,” Wyatt said, noting that
the latter also show good outcomes when it comes to heart disease.
“These are not exhaustive lists,” she
added, but simply examples of the varied weight-loss paths.
As for popular or trendy diets, you
“can argue about each one, but for a dieter to lose weight they must eat less,”
and most such diets do reduce calories consumed and will work for some people,
Wyatt said. That’s true for the Paleolithic diet, she pointed out, where “its
general principles are fairly solid.”
But she cautioned that one difficulty with
the Paleo, gluten-free and other diets of the day is that “people can’t adhere
to them” — and that’s the key for any long-term plan.
Thinking about Casablanca, one of the
earliest movie memories that have stuck along with Orfeo Negro (Brasil, Marcel
Camus, France), I will be arriving in Casablanca in six days time. Alors, not
to go to Rick’s Café but to await a Qatar Airways flight to New York arriving
there on the day the Traditional Kickapoo like to call the Occupation Day!Americans call it Thanksgiving. Yes, they did
get a Great Continent.
i remember watching Orfeo Negro on a saturday afternoon at a movie theatre in Brighton, Melbourne, inciting in me a lifelong passion for Brasil and its music and its people and its culture.