Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eating for Good Health, by Lim Hin Fui, PhD

I recorded this book upon request for Malaysian Association for the Blind. Dr. Lim is a social anthropologist working at FRIM (the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia). He immersed himself in the study of health foods when his father-in-law underwent surgery for prostate cancer. This book is part of his effort to share his experience and belief in the power of a healthy diet.

As I read aloud in the recording booth, I alternately nodded, cringed, and paused to blurt out, "Whoa, really?" I do enjoy those moments when a book reminds me that not everyone thinks and behaves as I do. Let's start with them.

I avoid going to doctors as long as I can, but I'm not a martyr. Before he finally capitulated and went to a clinic, Lim's father-in-law reached the point at which he awakened every hour during the night with a burning urgency to urinate and would then stand at the toilet struggling to pass a drop. The combination of urinary distress and sleep deprivation became a torment. His experience at the local Ipoh clinic is even more astonishing.
He was informed that it is normal for a man after 50 years of age to have urinary problems. When one is aging, such problems are normal. It was assumed that the bothersome urinary problem he was experiencing was simply a part of growing old. He was given medicines to improve his urinary system.
His family intervened and brought him to a hospital in Kuala Lumpur. There the doctor diagnosed and surgically removed his very palpable prostate tumour. This occurred in 1996. I wonder if the doctors in Ipoh today would do a prostate exam on a patient with these symptoms, rather than simply shrugging it off as old age and writing a prescription.

The surgeon in KL recommended a course of post-operative chemotherapy, but the patient was reluctant, in part because he'd heard of the side-effects and in part because of the cost.
My father-in-law told the doctor that he needed a few weeks to decide on the proposed western medicine [chemotherapy]. The treatment cost of RM400 a month was not a small amount and could be a burden to the family.
Lim plunged into research on the subject of food as medicine. The family decided to make a radical change in their diets, relying upon health foods to battle any remaining cancer cells. They shifted to a mostly organic vegan diet (no meat, eggs or dairy). Interestingly, they elected not to tell the doctor of their decision; they simply declined the chemotherapy. Again, I wonder if a Malaysian doctor today would look askance at patients who opt for alternative or complementary treatments, especially a transition to a healthy diet.  (Actually, when Lim finally disclosed their programme to the doctor, he was far more supportive than Lim had predicted.)

Malaysian awareness of the connection between food and health is growing, but Lim acknowledges that it lags behind that of the more developed countries. People have grown noticeably rounder in the 8 years I've been here; sugar and fat consumption are taking their toll. The Ministry of Health issues advisories as diabetes and hypertension figures soar. Yet, Lim says, Malaysians love "our nice foods" and see no reason to change eating habits when doctors give pills to control blood pressure and sugar. He mentions one Malaysian who hadn't quite caught on to the notion that food and health are interrelated.
While working part-time as a general worker in the USA, he drank 4-5 litres of soft drinks a day and took fast food during lunch and dinner breaks. He later went to the UK, where he ate a lot of chocolates and potato fries to fight the cold weather. [Back in Malaysia, he took five different medications multiple times a day to control his sugar and cholesterol levels, blood pressure, plus an anti-coagulant.] His kidneys showed signs of weakness.
Well, I should think they would! It astounds me that so many people pay closer attention to the quality of the fuel they pump into their cars than to the stuff they put into their bodies.

Now for the cringing bits. Lim fervently believes that their health food diet is responsible for the fact that his father-in-law is still living today. He may be right, but without knowing more about the precise nature and stage of the prostate cancer, it's hard to say. It's indisputable that people would be healthier in general if they followed his prescription. I get edgy, though, when Lim speaks of 'cancer' as if it's one disease and says that a healthy diet is an effective way to prevent or combat it. He states at the end of the book that health food is not a panacea and that people may want to seek doctors' advice for some things, but his own faith in his regimen seems nearly total.

Lim devotes one chapter to the subject of detoxification. Forgive me for being cynical, but at the end of the chapter, it seemed to me that after changing to the vegan diet, Lim's family has continued to suffer the same minor health issues as before, but instead of calling them 'disease' he now refers to them as 'signs of detoxification.' In the past, they would have gone to a clinic and gotten medication for their flu symptoms -- fever, cough, sneezing, etc. Now he cheerfully avers that these same symptoms are not flu but rather the body's way of expelling toxins. Instead of medication, they rest, drink plenty of fluids, or in the mother-in-law's case, Lim suggests to her that going out and sweating in the garden might help. People who eat junk food have flu (bad); vegans have detoxification symptoms (good).

As I said, I don't rush off to a doctor or take medication if I can avoid it. I'm a fan of rest and fluids when I'm feverish, too. As I read Lim's description of his father-in-law's "detox process", though, I was stunned at Lim's confidence that his new health food scheme precludes illness. When suffering from radiating chest pains, the older man worried about possible recurrence of the cancer. I would have immediately feared heart failure. Lim steadfastly chalks it up to detoxification. He talks his relative out of going to the doctor for three months! 
In October 2006 he had chest pain again and the chest showed signs of swelling. The pain started on the left central portion of the chest, moved to the right and then to the left. This caused alarm. He was worried that the tumour was coming back and spreading. I told him to be patient as it was likely to be another detox process again. Since he is on health food since 1996, he has managed to regain health. There is no reason for the tumour to return when potassium rich foods are taken... This chest pain, a challenge indeed, lasted about 3 months.
Now to the nods, and they are vigorous nods. I wholeheartedly agree with Lim's advocacy of organic growing methods as being better not only for the health of the consumer but also for the health of the planet and its soil. I equally embrace his view that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and plant proteins is generally much better for the health than one loaded with fats, salts, and sugars. Three cheers to him for pushing brown rice, as opposed to the polished white rice so many Malaysians favour! I share his hope that this book will encourage more people to consider the impact of what they eat.

Sad to say, most of my blind friends find it hard to cook at home. Shopping for ingredients can be difficult for them. They are on limited budgets. Many of them eat most meals at low-cost food stalls, and this food falls far outside Lim's prescription. I would be happy if at least a few of them listened to this book and found a way to a healthier diet.

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