The Telegraph
Monday , January 17 , 2011
Since 1st March, 1999
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Less is more

Overeating and overindulgence in anything is detrimental. No wonder it is classified as one of the deadly sins. It is easy to go overboard, with so many festivals one after the other — Ganesh Chaturthi, Dusshera, Diwali, Ramzan, Bakrid, Christmas and New Year. It has been like a continuous eating and drinking festival for the last four months.

Gaining weight is easy. All you need to do is eat 3,500 calories more than required, and bingo — you are heavier by more than 2 kg. The average calorific requirement for a 5’8’’, 70-kg man is 2,000 calories. This assumes that he has a sedentary job and does not actively exercise. He probably manages to maintain his weight without much effort, till the festive season rolls out.

Calories add on if the activity remains constant and the person decides to eat just “a little extra”, like an omelette (150 calories), a vadai (100 calories), a samosa (200 calories), some halwa (100gm — 322 calories), a paratha (300 calories) or peanuts or cashew nuts (100gm — 600 calories).

The weight creeps up gradually. Also, food transiently elevates the mood. Eventually the person finds he has gained 5-10kg without realising why or how.

This New Year, try to step up your level of physical activity. All it requires is an hour of brisk walking, jogging, swimming or half an hour of continuous stair climbing. This consumes around 300-350 calories, and, all other factors remaining constant, takes care of the “little extra” eating during festival time.

Alcohol is the other bane of celebrations. Although India is traditionally regarded as a temperate and controlled society, alcohol consumption is on the rise. Around 21 per cent of adult males and 5 per cent of women consume alcohol. The consumption is higher in the northeastern part of the country and lowest in the traditionally dry state of Gujarat.

The government and distilleries profit from the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Surrogate advertising promotes it as “the king of good times”. Mild and flavoured beverages are now being promoted to attract women and young first time consumers.

People drink socially to relax, forget their worries and cope with difficulties. At first, it is only with friends, on weekends or during celebrations. This sounds innocuous enough, but 20 per cent develops alcohol dependence of which 20 per cent go on to become problem drinkers.

Alcohol consumption gets out of hand when there is a strong uncontrollable urge to drink earlier and earlier in the day, accompanied by an inability to stop. The numbed conditioned brain does not emit warning signals saying “enough”. Stronger and larger drinks are required to achieve the same “kick”. Failure to consume alcohol results in sleeplessness, anxiety, nervousness, hallucinations, tremors and eventually convulsions. The patient ignores the side effects and thrives on the initial euphoria produced by the alcohol. The brain, heart, liver, pancreas and stomach are all eventually damaged.

Alcohol must be stopped abruptly. It cannot be reduced one drink at a time. Gradual reduction results in relapse and failure.

Help and support are available in specialised psychiatric detoxification centres. Also, there are Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) cells in major cities in India.

No one realises that drug overuse is actually rampant in India. There are one million (0.1 per cent of the population) heroin addicts officially registered but the number may actually be 5 million (0.5 per cent). The exact usage of “soft” drugs like marijuana (bhang) is not known as it is used traditionally by labourers.

Today the lines between different addictions are blurred. Hard and soft drug usage has permeated all strata of society. It often starts as casual recreational use just once or twice. Drugs are very addictive and the habit soon escalates. Oral or inhaled use eventually leads to intravenous use. Academic and professional performance drops. It can lead to infectious diseases like hepatitis B, C and AIDS and death from accidental overdose. It is a myth to think that you control your drug usage.

A large and unknown percentage of the population uses “medicines” to relieve sleeplessness, pain and to “feel good”. Cough mixtures available over the counter containing diphenhydramine (like Benedryl) or codeine are drunk in large quantities. Painkillers like dextropropoxyphene (Proxyvon) are either swallowed or injected. Sometimes these medications are mixed with caffeine-containing cola drinks. Others take sleeping tablets, like alpraxolam or diazepam (valium) regularly. Dependence and habituation set in, requiring higher doses to sleep. These medicines cause sleep disturbances, an inability to think clearly, poor decision making, tiredness and depression. An inability to obtain the medication may result in agitation.

Control in every aspect — food, medication and partying — is necessary for a long, healthy and disease free life. Endorphins that elevate the mood are released with exercise. To achieve a “high”, good mental acuity and concentration, exercise by running, jogging or swimming for an hour a day. Why resort to drugs and alcohol?

Dr Gita Mathai is a paediatrician with a family practice at Vellore. Questions on health issues may be emailed to her at

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