Here's an astonishing number: one in six Japanese elderly are said to suffer from malnutrition.
You think immediately of poverty, starvation – but no, says Shukan Gendai (Feb 1-8), that’s not the point. The problem is compulsive, obsessive, excessive, unnecessary dieting – in the name of health. The solution? Simple: meat! sugar! calories! – all the things the “experts” and over-zealous health regimen promoters say are bad for you. Eat your fill, give your body what it wants – and live to a ripe, portly, happy old age.
Health ministry statistics the magazine cites show malnutrition affecting 16.4 percent of people aged 65 or over; 20 percent among people in their 80s. “With regard to nutrition,” says Dr Hiroshi Shibata, “the situation is worse than just after the war, when people really had to scrounge for food.”
“Japan has one of the lowest average biomass indexes (BMI) in the world,” adds Takashi Higashiguchi of Nagoya’s Fujita Health University – “lower than Africa, some data suggests.”
In the U.S. and Europe, the problem is obesity. The fat get fatter. The shrill advocacy of meat-avoidance, sugar-avoidance, calorie reduction, has merit there. It has merit, arguably, among young and middle-aged Japanese whose waistlines sag under the combined stress of calorie-rich western-style diets and physical inactivity. Metabo, the Japanese neologism from “metabolic syndrome,” sounds like a curse, and is often pronounced like one by doctors conducting mandatory health checks of company employees. The warnings they issue against it are reasonable for the young and middle-aged – not, Shukan Gendai stresses, for the elderly, who need all the calories they can ingest.
Somehow eating, among the health-conscious, came to seem almost sinful, a moral transgression. One felt guilty. The elderly are particularly affected. Having retired, they are not pressed like the typical harassed salaried worker into ill-considered fast food meals snatched between tasks. They have time to think, and they think too much – about the virtues of vegetables and beans, for instance. Vegetables and beans do have their virtues, but consumed to the exclusion of heartier nourishment, says health researcher Michio Ueda, they constitute an unbalanced diet. One result, he says, is “malnutrition on three meals a day.”
Sometimes it goes to greater extremes than that. Booming lately among ever-proliferating fads is the “mini-fast – eating one meal a day, for example, or partial fasting one or two days a week. “Keiko Kawata” (a pseudonym), at 73, congratulated herself on her approach to health in her old age. She’d dine early, at 5 in the afternoon, and then eat nothing until noon the next day. She was “giving her stomach a rest,” “strengthening her immune system.” If in the morning she had no energy and didn’t feel like doing anything, she didn’t do anything, not recognizing her listlessness as the danger signal it was.
One day she collapsed. Fortunately she had a daughter living with her, who called an ambulance. The doctor who saw her at the hospital gave her a stern talking-to regarding the body’s need for food.
What kind of food? What in fact constitutes a healthy diet? Disciplined eating, says Shukan Gendai, is mostly for the young. Past age 55, says Ueda, “dieting does more harm than good.” A little fat, in the senior phase of life – presupposing, of course, a certain amount of exercise – is an asset. Other things aside, it’s a cushion in the event of a fall, reducing the risk of breaking a bone and becoming bedridden. Inactivity has been linked to dementia.
Food, in short, is not a sin. And fat is not an enemy.© Japan Today