You remove your shoes to enter Kenyatta University’s Human Performance Lab. Inside is Dr Gitahi Theuri, a PhD holder in applied applied human physiology, who trained in lifestyle diseases interventions using a root cause approach.
He’s surrounded by a battery of students in white lab coats. He’s looking to train physiologists and exercise scientists who will transform chronic disease management in the country.
He also advises Kenyans on healthy living, a craft he honed while at NCVC, a leading cardiology practice in Nairobi, where he once worked.
He has worked in the US and studied in the Netherlands and Denmark. He has published over 10 articles in research journals.
He is a regular guest presenter at international conferences on vitamin D metabolism in Europe and the Middle East and has had the privilege of presenting a paper at the famous Steno Diabetes Clinic in Denmark.
He tells JACKSON BIKO that most people simply call him Dr G.
How can we stay alive longer in this age of lifestyle diseases?
It’s a real challenge. But even with this complex-looking problem, the solution is in very simple things; it boils down to the food. How are we growing food? How are we preserving food? How are we handling stress, especially in urban centres? How do we plan our cities better? Because when we have congestion, the stress levels go up. These things all come together for a better solution.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about lifestyle?
(Sighs) Fads. There is probably a new diet being created everyday by someone around the world. There are all sorts of diets and we rush to try them out. We tend to look at health as looking slimmer or losing weight.
But what is it that has been lost? Is it fat, is it muscle? Because if it’s muscle, that’s a problem. Is it just water? In which case guess what? You really haven’t moved forward. Life is not about diets. Life is about something sustainable. How will your health be 10 years from now?
What’s your absolute last word on carbohydrates that seem to be taking quite a bit of knocking lately? Good or bad?
It’s about quantities. The human body’s capacity to metabolise carbohydrates is not that great. Mostly we abuse it. To put it simply, carbohydrates are broken down to a sugar. It doesn’t matter whether it’s brown or white, it will be broken down to a sugar. The issue is how long the breakdown process takes. Is it 10 minutes or is it 15? Optimal fasting blood sugar levels are about four or five grammes of sugar, barely a teaspoon.
And then you look at how much sugar can the muscles store, the liver and the blood, you’re barely looking at 500 grammes. Now if you look at the ugali that you’ll eat at lunch, it’s close to a kilo. (Laughter) So truth be told, we are overdoing the carbohydrates.
So what’s the rule of thumb?
You need to ask yourself, how do I spend my day? If someone spends a day at Wakulima Market as a porter, that’s a guy who earns his carbohydrates. The rest of us just sit in an office, we can’t justify the high intake.
We’re eating more carbohydrates than we would actually prescribe to a Kenyan marathon runner. None of us trains close to those guys.
Is there a direct relation between nutrition and cancer?
(Pause) Certainly there is. When we look at, for example, residues of chemicals, agro chemicals on foods, you’ll definitely see an uptake. We have more pollution in the air, there definitely are carcinogens. If you have processed foods used with things which are carcinogenic, you’ll likely see more cancers.
So yes, there’s a relationship. Again when you look at primitive communities, you’re hard-pressed to find those same cancers. Those same primitive communities, moving out to an urbanised lifestyle, then you begin to see an increase in chronic diseases and cancer.
Tell me about alcohol and the body’s capacity to process it, what are the acceptable quantities?
You shouldn’t have more than two units of alcohol. (Chuckles) And two units of alcohol would be two 300ml bottles of beer. If it’s whisky, two singles, two glasses of wine, two singles of whisky daily.
That’s like a double!
Yes. (Laughs) The liver degenerates very slowly and when you abuse it with alcohol, it actually gets fatty. And from a fatty liver, it progresses to what we call fibrosis so it loses that soft texture that it has, and becomes fibrotic…platic-ish and loses function.
Remember that the liver is a clearing house. After taking excess alcohol, the liver begins to signal that it’s not very happy.
So what have you learnt over time now?
That it really pays to invest in your health. And the earlier you do it, the better. But interesting enough, it’s never too late to start investing in your health.
Dividends always show. Individuals who I’ve met over the last two decades who are very prudent about their food quality, sleep, managing stress, managing alcohol, avoiding tobacco and also who have good relationships with family, friends, really have good health in older years. They spend much less on medical care because they are reaping the dividends of the investment that they started way earlier.
They tend to be physically active, very sharp and clear minded, as a consequence of just investing in their health.
What’s the easiest way to lose weight?
(Pause) I think the first thing is to find out why you have that excess weight. The assumption usually is food, but food may not necessarily be the reason. Figure out what the root cause is before jumping into diets, exercise and all these interventions. This question, unfortunately, doesn’t have one answer that fits all.
Last question; for a gentleman. What does a man have to do to make sure that his virility is sustained? How does he makes sure that at 65, he will still show up for active duty?
(Laughs loudly) First thing, cut down on alcohol. (Laughs) I know, but that’s the best nutritional advice. Alcohol intake raises your oestrogen levels, so you will be raising your female sex hormone at the expense of your testosterone.
Then you will have a fatty liver anyway. (Laughter) Blood pressure will also go up, then follows a beer-six pack gut, then followed by poor blood sugars and— in the long haul that’s will affect the blood vessels.
When the blood vessels to your penis are damaged, blood flow becomes a problem then you have a problem. So how do you maintain your libido? Ensure you get good quality sleep, eat prudently, stop smoking and then reduce stress—unfortunately is not easy to measure.