Guard yourself against NCDs after festive season | Sunday Observer

Guard yourself against NCDs after festive season

The dawn of the National New Year has come and gone but the season’s festivities are still continuing, regardless, with many districts holding their own unique events such as, sports, tug of war, bun and eating contests, onchili padum , climbing the greasy pole and beauty contests. Judging from news reports, they will continue to be held on a large scale for probably the next month, or so.

While all these events are aimed at entertaining the public, little thought is given to their health implications, whether it be injuries caused from sports, over eating , or eating the wrong foods and drinking the wrong beverages.

The leap in Non Communicable Diseases ( NCDs ) in the country is largely the result of this nutritional gap. Either due to, a lack of understanding, information or the tendency to relax normally adhered to rules on diet, most festive makers at this time around conveniently ignore the word ‘Nutrition’ to enjoy the abundance of kavum, kokis, aggala , asmi, watalappan , payasam, cakes, and fizzy sugary drinks served on avurudu tables.

Such indulgence on the part of diabetics and non diabetics could be dangerous , and New Year merry makers have been advised to exercise self control on what they eat and drink ( including alcohol) even if it is only for a limited period, to make it easier for them to get back to their normal healthy pre festive diets.

Giving this advice is a Consultant Community Nutritionist from the Nutrition Unit of the Family Health Bureau, Ministry of Health & Indigenous Medicine, Dr Anoma Basnayake, who shared some valuable information on the kind of food we should and shouldn’t eat during a festive season, ( note that Vesak is also coming up ) what we should look into by way of preparation, ingredients, utensils, environmental cleanliness, food safety, before sitting down to a festive family meal, and their health implications, as well as what she considers as a ‘healthy lunch plate’.

Excerpts from her interview with the Sunday Observer….

Q. The National New Year is a time when most people tend to relax on their usual diets and eat foods that contain added sugars. In what kind of traditional foods do you find the most amount of sugar?

A. Traditional sweet meats such as, oil cakes (Kavum), green gram cakes (mung Kavum), laddu, kesari, vatalappan, aggala, asmi, etc and drinks such as, cordials, payasam, fizzy drinks and ice coffee which are consumed during New Year time has considerable amounts of added sugar.

Moreover, most of the sweet meats are deep fried and may contain trans fatty acids produced by overheated oils.

High levels of added sugar as well as trans fatty acids in partially hydrogenated fats such as margarines contain in cakes, which are used in abundance throughout the New Year season.

Q. Does the same apply to sugary drinks?

A. As I said before, most of the ready to drink beverages, fruit juices, cordials and even milk contain added sugars.

Q. The term added sugar has become very common these days. But, we still have very little information on what ingredients to look for on a food pack that warns us against these added sugars. Where can you get this information? Why are ‘added’ sugars bad for our health? Who are most at risk?

A. Traffic light colour code system to indicate added sugar levels in beverages is one of the steps taken, and food pack labelling with ingredients also warns people on the quality of the food. Obese or overweight persons, diabetic patients and those at risk of Diabetes Mellitus and other Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) are at risk. Empty calories in sweets which provide lots of calories but few nutrients, may over stimulate the pancreas from the absorption of high sugar and simple carbohydrate foods, causing too much insulin in the blood.

This may lead to diabetes mellitus, overweight, obesity, inflammatory conditions, such as asthma, arthritis, psoriasis, eczema, migraines, yeast infections and hormonal imbalances. So it would be wise to control your sugary food consumption.

Q. Lots of adolescents too avoid too many sweet based foods citing pimples etc. Your comments?

A. Relationship between acne and food, especially, consumption of too much sugary food is scientifically not proven, even though there are some researches that showed positive evidence, a recent meta analysis doubt about the quality of those researches. So they ultimately said “We reviewed the updated arguments, facts, and relevant data on this ancient debate, but we warn the truth-seekers among you that the jury is still out.”

Q. For non diabetic persons is sugar to be avoided completely from their diet? If not, why? How much sugar does a normal non diabetic require on a daily basis?

A. Carbohydrate in our diet is converted to sugars and provide us adequate amount of energy.

Therefore, added sugar as a source of energy can be avoided even for normal persons.

However, WHO recommendation for sugar consumption is six teaspoons (25g) / day and this includes hidden sugars in our diet (e.g. fruits etc) too.

Q. What about those already diagnosed as diabetics? Is there a cutoff point?

A. Actually, for those already diagnosed as diabetic should completely avoid added sugars even in the form of honey, treacle or jaggery.

Q. Apart from sugar, salt and oil are other ingredients we tend to overuse during a holiday season e.g potato chips, bites, patties, cutlets etc. What are the adverse effects of consuming these ingredients in our bodies 1) in non diabetics 2)diabetics? Non communicable diseases in general?

A. Potato chips, bites, patties, cutlets and many other short eats either deep fried or baked with margarines contain transfatty acids and most of the time are high in salts as they use Monosodium Glutamates (MSG) and other food additives. Especially, those concerned about healthy dietary habits should avoid these foods throughout the year and may take sweet meats and other food with high sugar content, salt and transfatty acids only during the festive season. As traditional food available only during this season, they can have them in moderation. However, the diabetes people, overweight or obese , and those at risk of NCDs must avoid these foods.

Q. What is an ideal diet? Are there certain types of foods that are healthier than others and provide us with the protein, iron and mineral and vitamins we need?

A. Food based dietary guidelines for Sri Lankans recommend that a healthy diet should contain a variety of foods in all six food groups (1. Grains and tubers 2. fruits 3. vegetables 4. fish/pulses/meat and eggs 5. milk and milk products 6. nuts and seeds), taken every day in recommended quantities.

Fruits and vegetables contain minerals and vitamins needed for us and proteins are mainly obtained from fish, pulses, meat or eggs.

Q. Many people still eat a lot of processed foods like cheese , sausages etc. During the New Year season too parents tend to serve their children with these foods including sweet beverages, even though they don’t usually serve them such foods, believing that it wouldn’t harm them if they eat them once in a while. Is that correct?

A. These food may cause to gain weight and some non communicable diseases, if eaten regularly. As I said earlier, this is a festive season and traditional foods are everywhere and we can’t recommend everyone to completely avoid these foods during this season. However, people knowing what they had for the previous meals can adjust their diet (e.g. vegetable salad for one meal with a piece of brown bread, if other meals contained unhealthy foods).

Q. Is it true that foods are healthier when cooked in certain ways e.g. baked, steamed, boiled?

A. Rather than using oils for deep frying or baking with margarines it is better if they bake with less healthy fat, steam or boil food. Vegetables can be taken raw as salads but you need to wash them thoroughly before preparing.

Q. Do you have any useful guidelines for readers on how to avoid eating the wrong foods during the season? ( Pl mention in detail)

A. Food based dietary guidelines for Sri Lankans developed by the Nutrition Division of the Ministry of Health, Nutrition & Indigenous Medicine provide all details of a healthy diet and food guide for the community, prepared in Sinhala and Tamil languages for community awareness.

Q. The Health Ministry has introduced preventive measures to reduce NCDs, recently. What are these interventions? Are there any specific interventions regarding advice on foods to avoid during the New Year and afterwards?

A. Ban on the use of MSG in ready to eat meals and food, colour coding system to identify the level of sugar contained in beverages, voluntary food labelling, tax on import of sugar, and adaption of WHO nutrient profiling model to make recommendations on marketing of foods and non alcoholic beverages to children are some of these interventions. Mandatory food labelling, colour coding system for sugar content are some other activities related to food and nutrition, which are in the pipeline.

Q. Since the New Year is followed by several holidays this year, such as, May Day etc which is bound to have some impact on merry makers, what is your advice to the public in general on making the smart choice regarding food intake?

A. Consider about your health and remember that ‘you are what you eat’. Try to have a healthy diet and make your celebrations with healthy food choices. Be happy and celebrate without mental and physical harassment, especially, avoid alcohol and smoking.

Q. Any gaps you see in our present health care services which need to be filled, especially, regarding information on eating the correct kind of food not just during the festive season but beyond, to ensure a life time of health.?

A. The Ministry of Health, Nutrition & Indigenous Medicine has taken many steps to inform the community on healthy diets and to change dietary behaviours. We need to give these messages to the public. Though, we made the media aware about these, we struggle to counteract the food advertisements. 

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