Have you ever gone hungry? Real hunger is fortunately a rare experience for most of us, however, statistics show that at least 300 million children in the world experience real hunger everyday and perhaps very rarely satisfy it. In fact, half the people in the world today are protein deficient. The dichotomy between 'east' and 'west' becomes obvious when we realize just how unevenly distributed the world's food resources are. This imbalance is reflected in the diseases of excess so prevalent in the west, and poor nutrition so common in the east.
Poor nutrition is basically of 2 types: (i) under nutrition - not enough food, and (ii) malnutrition - the wrong sort of food. Poor nutrition can be due to physical or mental factors. In the east it is mainly caused by food shortage and the high price of foodstuff in proportion to the average daily wage. Another cause is chronic amoebic dysentery, worms and other intestinal parasites, In the west it occurs because of an unbalanced diet containing too many highly processed foods or psychological factors. Other causes to be decided by a doctor are cancer of the stomach, persistent vomiting, and alcohol (which adds calories but leads to malnutrition).
Severe malnutrition in countries sapped by chronic food shortages due to war, flood and famine is a well known picture to most people. This problem, however, has farther implications in long term under nutrition, affecting millions of children for the test of their lives.
The brain requires a steady and adequate supply of nutrients, not only for maintenance but to ensure correct functioning. Food provides the building blocks without which the brain cannot build its complexly interconnected neuronal circuits and switches. According to J. Dobbing and J. Sands of the University of Manchester, England, brain growth has 2 phases: The first prenatal phage is the stage of initial growth and formation of cells for which nutrition; comes from the mother constantly. The second is postnatal and is called the 'brain growth spurt'. This is the most vulnerable period in development during which inadequate attention and lack of nutrition inflict lasting damage.*1 Their research shows that more than 80% of the growth spurt occurs after birth.
Any diet deficient in the correct balance of proteins, vitamins, minerals, etc. leads to malnutrition. Examples of malnutrition are kwashiorkor (protein deficiency caused by displacing the child from the breast when the next child is born), marasmus (protein plus calorie deficiency), night blindness (vitamin A deficiency), rickets (vitamin D deficiency), blood clotting disorders (vitamin K deficiency), scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), beri beri (vitamin B1 deficiency), pellagra (niacin deficiency).
The obvious cure of these conditions is to replace the deficiency. However, it is only in the last 50 years that doctors have realized that diseases might be due to lack of some essential factor. When this concept was recognized, a revolution took place in medical thought. The nutritional diseases which were rampant within the lifetime of some doctors still practicing have now vanished under the affluence of technology. For example, in Britain florid rickets is a clinical curiosity though many carry the scars of it. In southern USA pellagra affected tens of thousands of people before 1940 and is now scarcely heard of.
By supplying the correct amount of calories and nutrients these nutritional diseases are eradicated. The minimum calorie intake required by the UK Department of Health and Social Security is 3000 per day for a man and 2200 for a woman.
Malnutrition and weight loss are also common in gastrointestinal disease. This is generally due to a reduced food intake because of anorexia (loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting), but it can also be caused by poor absorption of nutrients or loss of protein from a diseased bowel as in dysentery or ulcerative colitis. Amoebic dysentery is a huge problem in many parts of the world leading to chronic disability. Even after successful drug therapy, reinfection is common. Therapy for these conditions must include drugs plus education in preparation of food, hygiene, sanitation and methods of increasing constitutional strength through yogic practices.
Fear, worry and other chronic tensions may manifest as loss of appetite and therefore underweight. When our mind is full of conflict, food doesn't taste good. Psychological tension and anxiety may also manifest as worry about being too thin. This worry in itself often causes further tension, loss of appetite, decreased food intake, making one even thinner. Worry about being too fat on the other hand, may lead to anorexia nervosa, an extreme condition in which fasting is carried to the point of starvation vet the deluded individual still fears that he or she is too fat.
Some people are not constitutionally meant to be large muscled or fat. People who are thin by nature are called ectomorhs; they are genetically programmed to have small bones and a slight build. They differ from the muscle bound mesomorph and the fat endomorph in that they do not put on weight easily. Being prone to excessive thinking and brooding, ectomorphs have a highly developed nervous system built for mental work, but a less developed muscular and digestive system. Any imbalance makes them thinner and physically debilitated so that they tend to look weaker than they really are.
For those who are constitutionally ectomorphic or who are suffering from psychological problems which keep them thin, a yogic sadhana can be devised which will have far more long term benefits than traditional body building exercises. The true ectomorph who seeks increased body size through various muscle building techniques may even sacrifice his mental strength for the extra muscle bulk gained in this way. Real strength lies in coordination of body and mind, in willpower and awareness, not just in large muscles which are associated with hard physical labour. Through yoga we learn to focus our energies and find that we are more than just our physical body.
Yogasanas are an excellent way to increase body strength and agility for they tone the muscles and teach us coordination. Pranayama awakens the energy and helps to fan the gastric fire at manipura chakra. Meditation increases mental strength through relaxation and concentration, thereby revealing the all powerful light of the spirit.
Here are some specific techniques which the underweight person may find very useful:
*1. R. Lewin, "Starved Brains", Psychology Today, Vol. 9, 1 Sept. 1975.