A 2010 GNH survey found that around 21,000 people are obese in Bhutan with 100,000 being overweight. There is also Ministry of Health data to show the rapid rise in lifestyle diseases like diabetes, hypertension and even cancer.
It is also significant to note that the percentage of people obese and overweight is double in urban areas as compared to rural Bhutan.
Looking at the above numbers coupled with the growing number of people settling in urban areas, lifestyle diseases will pose an ever growing national and individual health problem. It will also have huge economic and social costs on the nation.
It is, therefore, important to recognize and tackle the two main causes behind these preventable health problems.
The first and biggest enemy is the diet of most Bhutanese people. The traditional Bhutanese diet of red meat, cheese and chilli is healthy if had in moderation but can be a liability if overdone and not mixed with other more green food groups. It is important to remember that in the past most households consumed less amounts of meat and cheese and moreover they were produced domestically. Also, in the past these food items were a necessity given the tough physical life endured by villagers unlike the sedentary lifestyle of today.
The most popular food item which is red meat increases chances of getting stomach cancer and other cancers if consumed in large quantities over a period of time. What makes meat in Bhutan worse is that it is imported from dubious slaughter houses across the border.
However, a much bigger threat that has emerged in the last few decades is junk food packaged in colorful packages and available in every nook and cranny of the country. In urban areas there are many youngsters who virtually survive on junk food be it koka, potato chips or soft drinks.
Detailed and credible scientific research has shown a direct correlation between junk food and a host of lifestyle diseases. This disease is not only restricted to gaining weight. Junk food due to its highly processed nature increases your chances of getting much more serious diseases like cancer. For example the preservatives used in canned meat like nitrites are a known cause of cancer and other diseases. The high calorie count and unhealthy fat from junk food also takes a heavy toll on your heart and other vital organs.
Junk food that we eat is essentially natural food which is fried, salted, sweetened, fattened and pumped with preservatives and chemicals to the point that we are actually consuming chemical solutions that are not good for our body.
It is a must that every Bhutanese household change their dietary pattern to include more fruits and vegetables in their diet.
The other major health threat is the lack of exercise. Most people maintain some level of physical activity until college after which they fall into a professional routine with no time for exercise.
Exercise does not necessarily mean hitting the gym to build a superhuman physique or break marathon records but it can be as simple as taking a 30 to 45 minute walk a day.
Regular exercise apart from the obvious benefits of weight loss also considerably lessens chances of getting lifestyle diseases. It strengthens the immune system, gives reserves of new energy, makes the mind sharper and contributes to both physical and mental well being.
Most people start enthusiastically on ambitious exercise regimes and then soon give up. It is important to adopt a regime that is suited to one’s own needs and is also sustainable. For those who hate running one could try other exercises like bicycling or even just walking.
Most health experts recommend a mix of cardio (walking, jogging) and strength training. Strength training, which can either be done using weights or even free hand like pushups, pull ups, etc, are important especially for people who are crossing their mid thirties to maintain their bones and muscles in good shape.
The Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education in partnership with other relevant organizations should actively promote healthy diet and exercise that will not only benefit the national health but also our society and economy.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”