Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 March 2002
Issue No.578
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

photos: Randa Shaath

Reda Ali:

Every woman's best friend

The trick to well-being and longevity is to treat your body like a bank

Profile by Yasmine El-Rashidi

Most women believe they are a three-letter word. An adjective -- a describing word. It's not that part that they mind. What bothers them, is that they cannot seem to turn themselves into the four-letter word of their dreams. They cannot, in short, transform themselves from fat, to thin.

That's where Reda Ali comes in.

"I was always food conscious," Ali says, sitting in the juice-bar of Giza's Nile-anchored Gold's Gym sipping cappuccino sprinkled with chocolate. "I don't remember ever living a junky life in terms of eating. Never."

That should not be surprising to anyone who knows his family remotely well. His mother, in a sense, was odd by the standards of social norms.

"She used to give us our pocket-money and tell us to go to the store," Ali says, smiling, almost unintentionally, through his glimmering dark eyes. "Instead of telling us to go off and buy candy and chocolate like all the other kids were doing," he continues, "she would tell us to buy a cucumber and a tomato!" He laughs in fond recollection of her unique child--rearing ways. "She was ahead of her time in that sense."

Ahead of her time enough to ingrain the concept of good nutrition as a means to good health into her children, but not quite to propel Ali to choose nutrition as his professional path of choice.

But she was close.

"I started off in agriculture," the world-renowned Egyptian nutritionist says. "I graduated in 1959 as class valedictorian, and was immediately appointed as a mu'eed (adjunct). I was proud of my academic achievements, but I was even more proud of my extra-curricular involvement in a group we formed."

The "Usra" (family), was Ali's real college triumph.

"It was a group that focused on stage acting," he says, his hands, as always, moving with expressive swiftness through the air. "Out of the group came Adel Imam, Salah El-Saadani and others. I was their adviser. I didn't act at all, but I still have a relationship with them. I always will because I was a part of their acting roots."

His tie to the actors is as strong as his tie to his mother's snacks of choice. And just as nutrition made itself heard later in his life, so too did the arts -- in slightly altered form.

"The two passions in my life now," he says, "are nutrition -- educating people -- and my poetry."

And his family, of course, he adds hurriedly.

Ali currently resides in Connecticut with his wife, Sawsan -- an exhibiting artist in the US. His three children are scattered across the United States, with a herd of grandchildren too, to the family name.

"I came to the US a year after my college graduation. I was nominated by my college," he says matter-of-factly. "It was then that I decided I wanted to shift my field slightly. I was always conscious about what I ate, and I knew I wanted more of a medical/ clinical orientation in my classes, so I got my masters in medical and nutritional sciences from UC Davis."

Then he went on to Rutgers University and gained a PhD in nutrition.

Despite his mother's ways, it still seemed an odd choice for a man of his times, and his family and friends back home made sure that their opinions on the subject were heard.

"They thought it was a bad choice," he says of his chosen field of study. "They thought I was making a mistake. And now, when they see me eat they badger me, saying I don't eat enough!"

The problem, it seems, is that they fail to see food and eating beyond purely an act -- a mechanical act.

"I fully believe that we are what we eat," Ali says, a stern look quickly curtaining his face. "If I can influence that one way or another, I can influence not only the physical, but also the emotional and behavioural aspects of the person."

His work as a nutritionist encompasses psychology and physiology, and it falls, Ali stresses, under the category known as art.

"I look at it as an art," Ali says, his energy evident in the vibrancy of his voice. "Not a science. You have to have knowledge in various areas just as an artist needs knowledge in mixing colours to come up with a good painting," he explains. "A nutritionist needs to know not only about the science, but also the human behaviour, the human mind, and behavioural change. We need to understand the behaviour that makes you eat more than your norm."

It is not, in sum, as simple as it seems, for if you are what you eat, then nutrition equals you, and thereby, nutrition is the mirror of your life.

"Going further into my sub-specialty of infant nutrition, made me even more aware of what an enormous responsibility I have in undertaking this career," he says. "During infanthood, the only source of nutrition is what you put in the bottle."

A duty daunting in its mere implications. One, however, that Ali thrived on.

"I enjoyed it," he says, shifting in his chair. "Tremendously."

Tremendously enough to take it one step further. After a year home in Cairo lecturing at the university, and a year in London for post-doctoral research, Ali returned to Rutgers as an assistant professor. There, he delved deeper into nutrition; clinical and intravenous.

"I was approached by Pharmacia at this point to head their Research & Development unit," Ali says. "The president of the company called me, and at first I said no. I like research, but I also liked teaching. I turned him down."

Compromise, as always, was the key word, and Ali ended up doing both.

He had never worked in an industry before, and he laughs as he confides that as soon as he started, he never turned back.

The industry bug had caught him off guard, and Ali continued his path down America's big- business lane. Five years with Pharmacia was followed by five years with General Foods, where the food-driven doctor was appointed to tackle the issue of every woman's id, ego and super-ego.

"Developing their nutritional and health programme," he says. "Where they develop lots of nutritional products for weight control and weight management and all that."

The gym's juice-bar is bustling on this Wednesday morning. With women. Some ears perk-up, but Ali is oblivious to the gapes and stares. He has fallen too deep into the specifics of the subject. Besides, his eldest daughter is a prominent journalist in the US. He is used to the media-hogging public. He continues.

"I was then approached by Bristol Meyers. And I retired with them -- about 15 years later."

It was in the labs of the US pharmaceuticals and nutritionals giant that Ali was part of a team whose target was Egypt. The infants of Egypt, to be exact.

"We developed products like Infomilk and Infolac, specially for the Egyptian market. They have done extremely well."

So too have the products he has developed for women.

Taking early retirement in 1994, Ali formed his own company, Nutritional Development International, for which he travelled around the world as an international nutritional consultant to businesses.

"If a company is developing a new programme," he explains, "they bring me in to study the proposal -- on all levels -- technical, medical, as an investment. I was the start-up component, the mover and shaker."

For a man who once refused to enter the industry, he has done quite well -- with a client list, at one point, boasting eight Fortune 500 companies. But he has opted, in recent years, to scale things down.

"I have concentrated more on developing products that I feel are necessary," he says. "They are doing very, very well. In South East Asia, in association with United Laboratories, one of the products is called Athena -- milk for women."

Women, he stresses, are his focus.

"I believe that if we can start women right on nutrition from the beginning, then we can guarantee that if a woman gets pregnant eventually, the baby is healthy," he says, his tone changing to that of stern severity. "I consider this to be the base of everything."

He is right. Women, in essence, are the foundation of society -- the pillars on which generations are created. They are also life's production factories -- producing, literally, life.

"If we have healthy women," he stresses, "everything else will fall in place."

The equation, he says, starts with calcium -- his area of main concern.

On the marble-top table beside him, a cigarette-carton size paper box is illustrated, appropriately, with the picture of a magazine-perfect woman.

"This is the product I developed," he says, picking up the box of effervescent Calciumade. "It contains all the nutrients required by women during child- bearing age."

His knowledge represents a treasure trove that every woman should explore. Before, even, they explore the methods behind his magic wand: weight loss.

"Calcium is critical," he says, "but you don't talk about it without talking about a balanced diet. They go hand-in-hand."

The trick, he says, is no trick at all.

"If you can balance your cheque book," he laughs, "then you can manage your weight."

Hmmmm, some people think, frowning.

"About calcium, though," he continues. "You have to start as early as possible. In order for the female to reach peak bone density -- which occurs at 18-20 -- she has to start as early as childhood."

A point, he says, that most people miss. What is worse, he continues, is the evolving culture and the advent of globalisation.

"Pop," as he calls it, is taking over kids' lives.

"The really sad thing that I find to be very disturbing, is that kids are consuming enormous amounts of soft drinks. It is something everyone needs to be aware of because it depletes the body of calcium, and calcification of the bone is delayed."

Given that the advantages of being 10 steps ahead also comes with equally powerful repercussions, Egypt, it seems, still has some time -- "pop" is popular, but not quite as rampant as in little America.

"In the United States they started to pay attention to this, but it's now too late for this generation."

It may be too late for a generation to max up on their calcium intake and maximise on their peak bone density, but there is certainly still time for the entire population of the world, in theory, to lose that extra weight.

"Most weight watchers," he begins, "focus on one or two nutrients rather than focusing on the total."

The fad diets, he means. High protein, low carb; high carb, low fat; low calorie, low fat; cabbage soup, chemical, and grapefruit diets. Or, of course, every girl's thought-to-be best-friend: the low- everything diet -- starvation.

"It's simply a matter of knowing how much to put in, relative to how much you take out," he says, as if it's ABC. "The energy from carbs is not bad, the energy from fat is not bad, and the energy from protein is not bad. It's the balance," he repeats. "And you need them all if you want to lose."

Ali is well aware of the psychology of weight loss. The need to eat and eat, and binge, in response to the dreaded four-letter word; diet.

"While a consultant at a clinic in the States, a woman came to me saying that she was a compulsive eater," he says. "When her children got her mad, when her husband got her mad, she would go to the fridge and eat and eat and eat," he continues. "And as she spoke to me, I looked at her and asked 'where is the fridge?' She paused for a second, then started again talking about her kids, and her husband, and how they did this, and that, and how they drove her crazy. I asked her again, and asked if she had a basement. She was annoyed at my interruption, but she finally said that yes, she had a basement."

'My mother used to give us our pocket-money and tell us to go to the store. Instead of telling us to buy candy and chocolate like all the other kids were doing, she would tell us to buy a cucumber and a tomato!'
It was dark, and she did not like going down there -- in the slightest.

That, Ali enthused, was the answer.

"I told her, 'I want you to move the fridge to the basement and come back and see me in a few weeks'," he smiles. "She did -- and she started losing weight fast. Very fast."

An epiphany, it seems. But not really, he says.

"It's a behavioural thing. You have to understand the behaviour that is making you eat more than your norm, and then try to change that behaviour."

He understands how to pinpoint that psyche- driven act which propels deviance from the norm, and he understands, too, the lifestyle budding in Egypt -- addiction to junk food.

"If you open my son up," he laughs. "You'll find that his insides look like a pizza."

His son is not one to focus on 'the total', and he does not seem to care about his father's peculiar ways. For those that make up the world's obsessed contingency, however, there is much to be said for Ali's perspective -- the scientific element of it, it must be reassured.

Aside from his balance appeal, Ali has another concept he heeds on.

"In a healthy individual, the body can defend against a reduction in food intake," he shares. "But it cannot defend against a deficiency in calories as a result of exercise. So you have to compliment a diet with exercise. That way, you ensure that the ins and outs of the checkbook are totally attended to. And if you want to reduce your caloric intake, do so, but do it across the board. "

He jumps up.

"Excuse me, excuse me," he urges, moving in skip-walk manner towards the narrow steps leading up to the gym's workout area. "Your son is going to fall down. Please get him down. It's very dangerous, he can fall backwards," he huffs, the concern echoing in the quiver of his voice.

The parents get up, startled, and remove their two or three-year-old boy from near the top of the seeming sky-scraper stairway in proportion to the son.

Ali returns, and resumes -- unapologetic about the abrupt interlude.

"My medical instinct," he mumbles. "To lose weight, and keep it off, you have to do it in a systematic way, with a focus on health. It takes longer, yes, but it's permanent."

Permanent because it is about lifestyle.

The lifestyle of Egyptians today is very different from that of the past, Ali recalls. "They have their heaviest meal at night -- 90 per cent of their total daily intake!" He is Americanised in that sense, and he is shocked at the gluttonous Egyptian ways.

"It won't work that way. It won't work at all."

The method to making things work is delivered in a series of definite statements. They are laden, it seems, with a slew of clichés. But they are methods, of course, which have proven, time and again, to hold true.

Breakfast is the most important meal -- comprising at least 30 per cent of the day's total calories. Balanced, of course. Thirty per cent at lunch, and forty per cent at dinner. Dinner, of course, being at a Western six, seven, or eight p.m.

"Think of a car," he says. "You need to warm it up. It's the same with the body. If you need to take in 100 units, say, of calories per day -- to maintain -- if you take it all at once, you generate excess; of protein, of energy, of everything," he explains. "Your body can't deal with this, and so like a car it functions inefficiently. It overheats. The 'excess' everything, is stored as fat."

The theory goes that if you distribute the given intake at a constant speed, then you get so-called smooth operation.

"You need to divide your 100 units into nibblers," he says, of five to six "mini-meals."

"This society is a one-meal eater. That is why we are so overweight. Five, six, even seven balanced meals are ideal. As long as you remain within your pre-determined daily allowance or weight loss intake."

The pre-determined passport to contentment?

"It varies," he says, "according to height, body type, and other factors. But any diet that falls below 1,000 or 1,200 calories is definitely off."

That, he says, is about the minimum an average woman should be on to maintain her weight. And even then, it is quite low.

"Things have really changed since I was growing up," he reminisces. "I see the family matrix breaking slightly."

During his time, family meals were sacred -- a ritual he thoroughly enjoyed.

"Now people grab a bite and rush out of the house to beat traffic," he says, shaking his head and zoning out -- somewhere into the hallways of his mind that encompass the past. "It's having an enormous impact on well-being. I see toddlers walking around with cokes!"

Again, he is horrified.

"It's a crime!"

The answer, as always, is education -- a government-sponsored public education programme on the rights and wrongs of nutrition.

"Maybe they can start with the women," he contemplates aloud. "Because as I said, they are the foundation of the country. If you teach a woman the right way to eat, she will become a resource for her own children."

If the foundation is built within, it is in turn applied with little conscious thought. Nutrition as a means to a healthy lifestyle, and healthy weight, in short, becomes a matter foreign to the immediate conscious and concern. It becomes an ingrained issue. The norm.

"Focus on women's education. Focus on the primary target group; young schoolgirls," he says. "Because it will take a generation to see the impact of it."

Or in Egypt's case, given its slightly slackened step, maybe even slightly more. That, however, is not Ali's concern. It is the first pro-active step that brings the health guru the most anxiety.

"As a public health policy, the government owes it to the people. Once they do that, then the next generation will be in much better shape. But they need to start with the young children today. In my opinion, the current generation is lost."

In the nutritional sense, he has a point. In the cultural sense, he is right too.

"The role of nutritional health, and the family meal, is for-the-most-part absent from society today, so there is no panacea for sound nutritional and eating behaviour," he says. "It needs to be built into society. Into the culture."

Into the mindsets of every young boy and girl.

Sounds nice, but how do you mobilise an entire nation towards a cause? An unpolitical one at that.

"The government should give incentives to company's producing healthy products rather than junk," he suggests, bubbling with enthusiasm. His cappuccino remains untouched on the table beside him. He glances at it, and continues. "It needs to be a major undertaking. The First Lady is very interested in children, their well-being and education," he says, the pitch of his voice rising. "It would be ideal if she personally adopted this -- it needs a godfather, like any project does."

He pauses for a minute, re-adjusts himself in the cushioned wrought-iron chair, orders an orange juice and a bottle of water.

"In the US, nutrition is seen as preventative medicine. If you eat well, you get sick less, and in turn need less medication," he explains of his Egypt-applicable plan. "That affects the government budget."

Ali is the ideal example of a good US citizen. He is a nibbler. So is his wife. And his children -- for the most part.

"My grandson is a marathon runner," he says proudly. "He is strong, and despite peer pressure, he has learnt that what you put in your body now, will pay off later. Your body is like a bank, I tell him."

His family, for the most part, are in tune with their bodies, and their cues.

"When I've had enough, I automatically put my fork down -- even if there is food on it," he says. "Some people push themselves slightly away from the table. Or start talking more. You need to tune in to these things."

He is in-tune enough not only with himself, but also with the culture.

"I understand the political element of food," he says. "It's an offering."

Of peace, of friendship, and of brotherhood. A tough offering to turn down, but not the sole path to unsightly bulges. For as Ali repeats, time, and again, the solitary route to the dreaded three-letter adjective, is through the other three-letter demon known as "off."

Off-balance, that is.

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