When you think of the South Asian or Asian Indian culture, you may think of nutritious vegetarian diets and stress-reduction techniques such as yoga and meditation. But as this population’s lifestyle deviates from its ancient health wisdom and practices, chronic health issues are on the rise.
Dr. Ronesh Sinha, a Palo Alto Medical Foundation internal medicine physician and Los Altos resident, is author of the book “The South Asian Health Solution: A Culturally Tailored Guide to Lose Fat, Increase Energy and Avoid Disease” (Primal Nutrition Inc., 2014). The book provides a wellness plan for people of South Asian ancestry living in the United States, India and around the world.
The following interview with Sinha explores the book and subject in more detail.
Q: Why did you write the book, and how is it important?
Sinha: Most people don’t realize that South Asians are at high risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity and related health conditions. They are some of the most sedentary, insulin-resistant people on the planet. I wrote the book to help this population restore healthful, traditional practices in a modern world.
Q: Is your book solely for South Asians, or would you recommend it for others?
Sinha: The book provides a comprehensive family-based approach to lifestyle changes from infancy to the senior years that can apply to anyone from any background.
Q: Where did you get the idea for your book, and how long have you been working on it?
Sinha: The seed for the book was planted more than a decade ago, when I started my medical practice in Silicon Valley. My clinic was next door to Oracle and I was seeing a large number of Asian Indian engineers in their 30s and early 40s with chronic health problems. So I started to ask myself why.
Q: What type of health problems were you seeing?
Sinha: Based on my medical training, I believed that chronic conditions like heart disease affected older people who smoked and ate red meat.
However, I recall seeing a 31-year-old vegetarian, nonsmoking South Asian software engineer who had his first heart attack. I thought it was an anomaly until I started seeing more of these patients. Then I realized that early-onset insulin resistance, characterized by diabetes, obesity and heart disease, was becoming the norm.
Q: Once you suspected this pattern, what did you do?
Sinha: I did more research and discovered that Asian Indians have one of the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease in the world, occurring at a much earlier age. I began targeting my medical practice toward these patients and launched education and wellness programs for corporate clients to help spread the word.
Q: What’s causing this health epidemic in South Asian people?
Sinha: The traditional Asian Indian diet was healthful with a nutrient-rich variety of plant-based foods, but this has changed drastically.
The Indian diet used to include healthful fats such as coconut oil and ghee, but now most households have eliminated these fats and instead consume excessive grains, vegetable oils and processed foods. Even practices like intermittent fasting, a common religious practice, have been abandoned due to persistent hunger from addictive processed foods and excess sugar and fructose.
Q: Has anything else changed in this culture, aside from diet, that’s causing health issues?
Sinha: Yes. The population spends more time in corporate offices and less time being active outdoors. As a result, many suffer vitamin D deficiency, reduced leg strength and hip mobility, and premature arthritis.
Q: Can you think of any other contributing factors?
Sinha: Yes, stress. South Asians often set high academic and professional standards for themselves and their children, which perpetuates problems like sleep deprivation and chronic stress. Tragically, very few of my Asian Indian patients engage regularly in the ancient practices of yoga and meditation.
Q: What are some of the healthful lifestyle changes in your book?
Sinha: I try to resurrect the culture’s healthful past habits and incorporate them into modern lifestyles, in some cases using high-tech solutions. I recommend apps and devices to help track nutrition, manage stress, restore leg strength and motivate readers to walk more steps.
Q: What key message would you like to get across about the lifestyle changes in your book?
Sinha: Readers can discover their own cultural paths to health, diet and lifestyle, even in a busy, high-tech world. Another focus of the book is that we’re seeing unprecedented obesity and chronic disease in young children. When it comes to health, the entire family needs to be engaged.
Q: How has your book been received to date?
Sinha: I’ve received great feedback from patients, physicians and Silicon Valley companies. Patients are saying it’s great to read a book that speaks directly to their culture and contains case studies and success stories to which they can relate. Physicians say they’re using the strategies to engage patients and are seeing dramatic health benefits.
Q: What’s next? Do you plan to write another book on the topic?
Sinha: Eventually I’d like to write a lifestyle plan with more recipes, but right now I’m taking a hiatus to spend time with my family and restore some lost sleep – a principle I promote in my book.
Dr. Ronesh Sinha teaches healthy living - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier