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Occupational Hazards of a Health Writer

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Jun 29, 2015

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“Did you say you were a health writer?”

The lady’s tone is amazed, accusatory, as she stares at me in utter disbelief. I can’t help but cringe. As with most things in life, this inquiry couldn’t have come at a worse time. I am on my hands and knees, coaxing my 5-year-old to surrender an arm-sized candy bar that someone has given him. We enact this tug of war several times a day; he thinks he should wash his mouth out with chocolate after every meal, and well-meaning friends and relatives are more than happy to indulge his overly sweet tooth.

I sigh and straighten up, looking her in the eye. “Yes, I am,” I say with weary resignation. We are at a party, and the woman is an acquaintance. And to be honest, I really don’t blame her. So far today, my son has shown a penchant for chips and chocolate. He has practically inhaled several wafers and cream-filled cookies — hardly the stuff that the dieticians I interview every week recommend in glowing terms.

Over the years, I have learned that no one is judged as much as a mother who reports on health issues (though I’ll admit mothers of any stripe are fine bait for the critically inclined).  Call it professional profiling if you will. It’s as though everyone expects me to be ever-fit, reed thin and raising children who only chomp on celery and carrot sticks. Anything short of this is hypocrisy in the extreme.

“Do you follow your own health advice?” is a question I get asked a lot. I explain that it’s hardly my advice. That, like the readers of my articles, I too am assimilating thoughts from the countless experts who I interview, and – even as the new knowledge touches my life and I realize its wisdom – sometimes I find it challenging to put into effect.

Never has this fact been more apparent than in the food habits of my second born. My eldest child, a daughter, was born with the knack of fine balance. She never needed to be reprimanded for overeating nor told not to have more than one or two squares of chocolate for dessert. But as they say, lightning never strikes the same place twice, so it would seem unreasonable to assume that the same kind of personality would emerge a second time from the same womb!

I don’t like to restrict foods and I’m not a strict disciplinarian. I like giving my kids choices and hoping that they use their opportunities wisely—whether it comes down to their diets or their lives. However, all these good intentions can be put to the severest test when you find that your son has a hidden stash of chocolate in the unlikeliest of places—just in case his parents decide to be difficult. There are sugary treats tucked away in the nooks and crannies of my favorite armchair, M&M’s that pop out from behind the blinds of his room in a rather alarming way. And I once found a Kit Kat finger stuffed in our toaster, preventing the browning of my bread. There’s also good reason to suspect that his teddy may have been operated on and fitted with a sweeter, false belly. Because of this, fizzy drinks have been banned in my home, as has other junk food, but somehow, the universe conspires to bring the chocolate and cookies in.

“Please, please, pretty please can I have four chocolates?” is hardly the plea every mother wants to hear day after day. And if you’re a health reporter, it can be doubly damning. Last week, I wrote about how sugar causes obesity, type 2 diabetes and childhood cavities that plague your grown-up smile for years. And there is a more immediate cause for concern. After every sugary snack, my sister and I swear that our kids’ energy multiplies in direct proportion to consumption, until they are literally buzzing with joie de vivre and bouncing off the walls. My brother, a doctor, assures us that sugar isn’t responsible for that excessive energy, that the ‘sugar rush’ you hear about is merely a myth. He may have studied medicine for years, but this is one truth that mothers know and no one can quite convince us otherwise: Too much sugar turns your kids into whirling dervishes.

I complain at length to a dietician friend of mine, whose advice I’ve always found sensible and comforting. “Up his protein,” she says immediately. “That will help fill him up and control the craving. And introduce more veggies into his diet, even if you have to be sneaky about it.” Indian cuisine, especially its vegetarian cuisine, has plenty of protein-rich and whole-grain options. So thankfully, it isn’t something I need to research too much, and, since these are foods my son has always been used to, it’s not that painful a battle of wills, either. And to my surprise, it works. Instead of insisting on four chocolates for dessert, he’s ready to settle for two. This month, I’ve brought back the steaming vegetable soups he enjoyed before the sweet tooth struck—full of flavor and fresh herbs. And we’ve been cycling around our home as often as we can.

“Are you a health writer?” someone asks.

You bet I am.

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Written By Kamala Thiagarajan

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Reader’s Digest (Indian edition), National Geographic Traveller, American Health & Fitness, Firstpost.com and more. She has written articles on the subjects of health, fitness, gender issues, travel and lifestyle for a global audience and has been published in newspapers and magazines in over ten countries. Visit her virtual home at kamala-thiagarajan.com or follow her @Kamal_t

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