Eat right to prevent health complications this festive season | Sunday Observer

Eat right to prevent health complications this festive season

In two days time, it will be Christmas with the New Year around the corner. As families prepare to gather around the festive Christmas table and housewives are out shopping for their favourite Christmas recipes, health officials have warned the young and old alike to avoid ingesting excessive amounts of the rich food served them, and therety prevent health complications, including, non communicable diseases (NCD).

What are these foods and how much should we allow ourselves to prevent health complications? The Sunday Observer raised these questions with Director, Non Communicable Diseases Unit of the Ministry of Health, Nutrition & Indigenous Medicine, Dr Thilak Siriwardana in a recent interview.


Q. The coming festive season is a time when most of us indulge in eating and ingesting unhealthy meals and drinks. What foods traditionally served during this period are likely to harm our bodies?

A. Foods do not harm our body unless they contain toxins, poisons, harmful ingredients or chemicals. Very rarely would a person experience food allergy which is something limited to that person.

Also, those that we call healthy foods, including water, may harm your body if taken in excess. Therefore, traditional foods do not do any harm if you take them in correct amounts and at correct times and at correct frequencies.

Q. Since healthy as well as unhealthy persons partake of these foods putting their self-imposed or doctor-imposed diets on hold temporarily, which of these foods could cause the most serious health impact on their bodies, physically? How?

A. Doctors don’t impose restrictions on diets unnecessarily. Self-imposed and doctor-imposed diet should have one or more reasons for that decision.

However, if you override the limits for consumption of the foods it may lead to serious health impacts. Any food could harm your health if taken in large amounts.

Q. What about fried rice served with baked potatoes, chicken, beef, eggs, papadam and sauces which most families have as lunch for Christmas?

A. Eating those foods as lunch on Christmas day don’t do any harm. But if a person consumes them for all three meals daily, during the festive season and/or continuously during other days it would make them unhealthy. You should be able to eat whatever you like if they are not poisonous to you, in correct amounts.

Q. Breakfast is as rich a meal as lunch with just a short break in between. What should be the ideal break between the two meals as well as dinner, to avoid overeating?

A. Breakfast is to Break the Fast. Have your breakfast to break the fasting period after the previous day’s dinner. Have a good sleep and wake up with the sunrise. That will automatically lead to an ideal break between breakfast and lunch. And, have your dinner at least 1 ½ hours before going to bed to have the ideal break between the three main meals.

Q. In the case of healthy persons who overeat and consume wrong foods can it lead to chronic non-communicable diseases early in life? At what age?

A. If you eat wrong foods you will get ill, definitely. Also, you will get ill early in life by consuming food in the wrong way. The most common diseases are the non-communicable diseases. Risk factors other than the unhealthy diet for NCDs are tobacco use, alcohol use, a sedentary lifestyle and mental stress.

Therefore, age cannot be predicted as these diseases are multifactorial in origin. Today, more young people suffer from NCDs than a decade ago. If more factors are contributed, you may get the disease at a very early age.

Q. What are the diseases overeating is usually associated with?

A. First, your blood sugar and lipid levels will rise. With time if you don’t get your food habits corrected you will be overweight and obese, and the blood pressure will increase. Finally, you will suffer from heart attacks, brain attacks, diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases.

Q. Studies have recently shown that obesity resulting from overeating or eating the wrong foods are linked with Diabetes? Your comments?

A. Yes, being overweight and obese is an intermediate risk factor for NCDs. High blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure are the other intermediate risk factors, which will lead to diabetes.

Q. How does this impact on a person who already has the disease?

A. People with NCDs are given specific instructions on diet in the management of their diseases.

If they do not follow them it may aggravate their disease condition and lead to complications which will lower their quality of life and shorten their life.

Q. What about those who are borderline cases or are at pre-diabetic stage?

A. Pre-diabetics or borderline cases should take extra precaution about behavioural risk factors of NCDs. They should be cautious during the festive season, not to exceed the amount of food they consume, so that they too can enjoy food without problems.

Q. Since time is a limited factor as everyone is busy shopping and decorating the tree and house, many housewives often cook meals in bulk during this season and store it in the fridge to microwave them when needed. Is this a good thing?

A. I don’t like to comment on microwave heating as there are debates on it. But I too use it for reheating food. I think, the constituents of the food you eat matters for NCDs, rather than how you heat it.

Q. This is the age of instant foods, and junk foods are increasingly making their way into our diet. What kind of junk foods are likely to have the most serious effect in undermining our health?

A. If the instant or junk food contain unhealthy constituents they may affect your health. Select foods with low salt, sugar, fat, energy and high fibre, irrespective of whether they are junk or instant foods.

Q. Our diet today is increasingly shifting to one which is high in fat and sugar, low in fibre as well as processed artificial foods . It is said, 75% of deaths are due to NCDs such as, heart, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes and other NCDs . What is the danger of such a diet?

A. Fat and sugar contribute more for energy in the food. If you consume more energy than required in your meals, they may increase the intermediate risk factors and you can get NCDs. Fibres in the meals will reduce or slow the absorption of food in the gut and make time for the body to manage the absorbed meals. Some chemicals in processed foods may cause cancers in bowels whereas fibres reduce bowel cancers.

Q. Today, during the Christmas and New Year season, we see traditional sweetmeats like kavum, pani valalu and kokis, which are served only during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in April, on the festive tables. When these foods are served along with the usual Christmas cake and other sweetmeats, what happens?

A. Normal people can control sugar levels in the body. But, if it goes unexpectedly high the control mechanism may get exhausted. In a Diabetic patient high blood sugar levels will send him to a hospital bed with threatening complications.

Q. Alcohol and wine are a must on most Christmas tables. How much alcohol and wine should one drink per day to avoid adverse effects? What are the adverse effects?

A. According to recent studies published in reputed international journals it has been shown that even drinking a small amount of alcohol could lead to NCDs. Also, alcohol is the reason for most hospital admissions due to injuries during this season. Alcohol doesn’t give any pleasure, even users show it. Therefore, it should be totally avoided.

Q. I understand the Health Ministry and your Unit has introduced several interventions to spread the message of eating right during this festive season. Tell us what they are.

A. All field staff were instructed to carry the message to the grassroots level. This is continuous, not only for the festive season. The information is already with the public. I hope the public will listen to them and put the information into practice during this festive period.

Q. Your message in brief to all holiday makers this festive season?

A. I appeal to the public to refrain from using alcohol and tobacco during this season. Eat moderately and be mindful in selecting and consuming foods that will help you to stay healthy, and switch from your sedentary lifestyle to an active one to counteract the adverse effects of excessive consumption of rich food.