health is wealth: Clean and healthy eating

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This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on Feb 22 - 28, 2016.


More Malaysians are suffering from major health problems in their younger years. This is said to be a result of not cultivating healthy eating habits and lifestyles in their pursuit of life goals such as career progression. 

According to the Malaysian Society of Hypertension, the younger generation is getting affected by high blood pressure mainly due to poor eating habits and unhealthy lifestyles. This is a worrying trend as hypertension is the main contributor to heart attacks and strokes. 

Indra Balaratnam, consultant dietitian at Indra Balaratnam Nutrition — The Food Expert Clinic and past president of the Malaysian Dietitians’ Association, says the younger generation tends to feel invincible and does not see the need to be health conscious. 

“Nutrition is one of the elements of the whole wellness spectrum. However, this generation has the tendency to make do with whatever meals they can get for the day instead of making sure that they get enough [nutritional value],” she points out.

“If you look at the Ministry of Health’s statistics, one of the fastest rising chronic diseases among the younger generation is high blood pressure, which is a disease not associated with their age in the past. Now, more and more of them are showing signs of pre-hypertension.”

To mitigate such health issues, we need to take control of our eating habits to improve our nutritional intake. Indra says we can start with the basics — making sure that we do not skip meals and controlling our portion intake. When possible, she adds, Malaysians should avoid getting takeaway meals with fixed portions. Instead, we should gravitate towards meals like economy rice where we can determine our own portions.

“Restaurants and food stalls tend to serve food in large portions. When the portion is given to you, you have a tendency to finish it, whether you are hungry or not. Over a period of time, you get used to eating large portions, so you won’t be full when you eat smaller ones,” says Indra.

“Usually, the food ratio itself is also not advisable. For example, when you order fried dishes, the portion of carbohydrates — which is rice or noodles — is very big. But the vegetables and protein are very minimal. Instead, the advisable portion is a half plate of vegetables, quarter plate of carbs and quarter of protein.”

Quesilla Ho, a nutritionist at La Juiceria, which provides cold-pressed juices and cleanse programmes, says some in-depth knowledge about food groups is an added advantage when it comes to healthy eating. 

“The main reason people need the help of a nutritionist is that they are not able to identify food groups. When you are able to identify a food group, that’s when you are actually able to achieve healthy eating, control your consumption and adjust your daily diet,” says Ho, who is a registered member of Nutrition Society Australia and Nutrition Society Malaysia.

As long as people are able to identify food groups, she adds, they will be conscious of their nutrition intake and have an idea of how much calories are in their food, in addition to being aware of the factors that change food calories. 

“Let’s say they have three options when cooking chicken — to grill, poach or deep-fry. In terms of calorie content, they will definitely know that poached chicken will have the lowest calorie content, which is up to 150 to 200 calories lower than deep-fried chicken. So, if you have the knowledge, you will be able to adjust your cooking style,” she points out.


Gluten-free diets may not be suitable for some people

Every year, new diet fads or trends emerge. Some of the more popular ones have been the paleo diet, raw food diet and Weight Watchers diet. The gluten-free diet is one of the latest trends. 

Those who adhere to the gluten-free diet exclude protein gluten from their meals. Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). For those who have gluten intolerance, the diet helps them to improve cholesterol levels, promote digestive health and increase energy levels.

The gluten-free diet has a huge following in Western countries. While it has been mainly used by people who suffer from celiac disease, a growing number of those who do not have the disease are also taking up the diet, claiming that it can be beneficial to them as well. 

Celiac disease is an immune disorder in which people cannot tolerate gluten because it damages the inner lining of their small intestine and prevents it from absorbing nutrients.

But despite the hype, Ho says there is no need for non-sufferers of celiac disease to adhere to the diet. “The gluten-free diet is used to treat people with celiac disease, and not for rest of us. Gluten is present in many of the foods we consume, even in condiments such as soy sauce,” she points out. 

“It is very hard to go gluten-free. If you taste gluten-free bread, for example, you will know what I mean; it just doesn’t taste good. I don’t understand why this is a trend, but it is.” 

By consuming gluten-free products when you don’t need to, you are limiting the food options available to you, she adds. Gluten-free products are also generally more expensive.

Instead, Ho recommends juicing, or consuming large amounts of vegetable and fruit juices. She says this approach is a very convenient alternative for those who do not consume enough vegetables and fruits in their daily diet.

Diets rich in vegetables and fruits can be very beneficial to the body, and it has been scientifically proven that they reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Ho says that by turning them into juices, the nutrients can be absorbed into the body much more quickly.

La Juiceria offers a “juice cleansing” programme where participants drink six bottles of juice per day in sequence as meal replacements. There is also a very strict dietary restriction — they can only consume fresh fruits or vegetables to satisfy their hunger, and have to eliminate all caffeinated drinks and alcohol. 

“Usually, the objective of people who want to try juice cleansing is weight loss. But we remind them that this is not a weight loss regiment even though it does help. The main purpose of the juice cleanse is to help the kidney, liver and gall bladder detoxify. It is to get rid of the toxins that come from unhealthy, processed and polluted food and chemicals that you consume or use daily,” says Ho. 

But what about the fact that there is a lot of sugar in fruit juices? By consuming large amounts of juice, won’t they be putting a huge amount of sugar in their bodies, which can lead to things like obesity? Ho says that at La Juiceria, they ensure that there are more vegetables than fruits in a bottle of juice so that the sugar content remains low.

Indra, meanwhile, recommends that Malaysians to try the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). The DASH diet encourages its followers to reduce their sodium intake and eat a variety of foods rich in nutrients that help lower blood pressure such as potassium, calcium and magnesium. 

There are two versions of this diet — the standard DASH diet, where followers can consume up to 2,300mg of sodium per day, and the low sodium DASH diet, where followers only consume up to 1,500mg of sodium per day. 

“DASH emphasises the intake of vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy foods, in addition to moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry and nuts. It is a scientifically proven, very sensible diet that can help combat hypertension,” says Indra. 


Superfoods are not a class above the rest

Over the last couple of years, one of the buzzwords in nutrition has been superfoods, or foods that are said to be very rich in nutrients and are especially beneficial for health and well-being. The acai berry, quinoa, kale and spinach are considered to be superfoods.

However, Indra says the word “superfood” can be potentially misleading. “The term doesn’t actually exist in nutrition. Like when you want to say something is better than good, then you just add the word super. So when food is food and you want to say that it is better than the other foods, you call it superfood. In reality, superfood is just a marketing term. 

“In nutrition, every food has its own nutritional content and they all contribute to the entire spectrum of where we get our essential nutrients. That’s why in nutrition, you often hear dietitians tell their patients to eat a variety of foods and in moderation. There is no one food that you need to cut down, but you need to take in what is more nutritious than not.”

A type of food that Indra recommends Malaysians to include in their diet are pulses — the group of 12 crops from the legume family that includes dry beans, dry peas, chickpeas and lentils. The UN has even declared 2016 as the year of pulses as they are high in protein, fibre and various vitamins, provide amino acids, and are hearty crops. 

“Pulses are certainly some of the most overlooked foods. They have been around for a long time. If you look at Malaysian cuisines, beans are common ingredients in many dishes. The nutrition level of beans is very high,” says Indra. 

“I always advise people to consume more pulses and legumes in their diet because they are a good substitute for meat. So, if you want to cut down on unsaturated fat or fat from meat, then the vegetable protein from pulses and legumes is a better alternative.”

While starting a diet or a healthy eating lifestyle might be exciting and easy to do, the test is in sticking to it long term. “Keeping a diet or maintaining a healthy eating culture is undeniably very challenging. There are lots of factors that come in, such as the mental challenge — the smell and sight of food — and also your peers and the environment,” says Ho.

To help make diets and healthy living more sustainable, she suggests forming a group or support system. “If you are able to get others to join you, it will be much easier to sustain the diet. You may not be so prone to the temptation to steer away or quit the diet that you are on.”

Indra says ultimately, the idea of eating healthy is to have balanced meals. Malaysians are lucky that there is a variety of cuisines available in the country, she adds.

“The bottom line is that we need to change our perceptions. For everything that you are trying to cut down on, you look for new alternatives. This will allow you to open up your taste buds to new, healthier options for your own good.”