A few weeks after moving back to America, I struggled with my re-adjustment. When my energy levels fell and my bowel movements became irregular, I started to consider the recent changes in my lifestyle. My intake of sugars had gone up, and my step count had gone down. I used to get at least 5,000 steps without trying in a Tokyo suburb. In the Atlanta heat, all expeditions require getting into the red Prius. Here, in this semi-suburb, the ease of healthy lunch from Japanese convenience stores gave way to catered, oily late-night Indian meals. As I started driving everywhere and began eating whenever family gathered, my body started to revolt. I started having stomach pains and felt life energy draining from me.
Welcome to America
I am no stranger to the American-lifestyle trap. I had already once noticed that on my trips abroad, I automatically lost weight. In my upbringing, I also have cautionary notes on health and lifestyle. My father was obese and ate with reckless abandon. On both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure are ever-present. The combination of genetics and lifestyle has always loomed in my brain as a warning.
In one of our last conversations, I asked my aunt Mohabbat if she had been to Henderson Park (less than a mile from her house). I had visited the park several times to meander and think along its shaded trails. As it was near her home, I wondered if she had seen it. She said she was not in the habit of going out for walks, and it made sense. Where she grew up, it was not common for women to stroll the streets alone. In Pakistan, it could be downright dangerous for a woman to loaf in a park by herself. Here, in Tucker, low mobility and the lack of nutritional know-how are a poor combination for health.
I recall my childhood visits to extended family in other cities. It seemed that our mouths were always moving, and not only to talk. We overate meat-based meals and had milky tea with fried and refined sugar snacks. We would complement those meals by sitting on cushy sofas and watching long Bollywood movies on big TVs. For these aunts and uncles, this type of indulgence was the hallmark of “having made it” in the western world. The migration to America brought affluence and an increased propensity for health problems.
Cleanup On Produce Aisle
Over time, visiting the sick in hospitals, attending funerals, and confronting death have always brought me to reflect on life. In a convoluted way, seeing suffering makes me inspired to live healthier and re-examine my own choices. I grew up overweight and have been so most of my life (minus that summer I was broke and doing a pro-bono legal internship in Los Angeles). Though I carry around some extra pounds, I do not obsess about my weight. For me, body positivity comes first. Being comfortable in your skin and appreciating your unique shape, color, and features have no equal. I can be confident in my external appearance and aware that there are real health concerns with being borderline obese. Carrying around extra weight is a double-edged sword. With such a weight, it is hard to physically enjoy the world’s beauty outside your doorstep. Carrying additional pounds requires more physical effort to enjoy nature. The additional weight also adds pressure to the knees, joints, etc., and thereby increases the probability of stress-related damage. On top of that, if you are overweight and thin-skinned, there is psychological trauma from a society aggrandizing unhealthy thinness. I strike for a balance, then.
I considered the contrasts. A few months ago, I watched Japanese grandparents riding around on bicycles and buying groceries for a day or two at a time. All along Tokyo, people walk plenty and eat consciously. Here, I drive to Costco and stock up on groceries to feed surprise visitors. Without proselytizing to others, how could I at least get my own choices in order? With the 24-hour kitchen at my family’s home, in what ways could I bring health and discipline to my choices?
For my birthday in June, I joined the nearby gym. It may be the best adjustment helper so far. The benefits are multi-fold. I have a great place to decompress and indulge in a swim. Watching others workout around me piqued my curiosity and I have recently learned the kettle ball swing. Instead of feeling depleted after the gym, I find that the prospect of going to work out actually invigorates me. As I began working out regularly, I found my diet is also shaping up. While a lot of delicious processed foods are an arm’s length away, I am enjoying the greens that were hard to find in Japan (Hello arugula and kale!).
To step up the lifestyle improvement a notch, I started a new self-experimentation with intermittent fasting for the month of July. Instead of eating at any and all times of day, I am eating in an 8-hour window, approximately 11 am-7 pm. Even in short-lived experiments, I find a positive lesson. The discipline around eating is a good practice for me. So far, this means I avoid late-night snacking. As a byproduct, I tend to sleep better and have more vivid dreams. The challenges are real too! As an early riser, going 2-3 hours without breakfast is difficult. Anyone that knows me well has seen that hungry can easily turn into hangry!
While a textbook ideal weight is more than a few pounds away, I am a believer in small incremental changes. The balance for me includes cherishing the fruits and veggies I missed in Japan, getting myself in my Prius, and driving over to the gym to make sweat. My own alertness and awareness about health and diet are inspiring others around me to make positive changes too. This hopefully continues to go on as I keep an eye on health and share with others the benefits of my experience.