Awareness on nutrient-dense food is vital | Sunday Observer

Awareness on nutrient-dense food is vital

9 January, 2022

Healthy eating for a healthy lifestyle is an oft-spoken topic, albeit, it is also the least followed way of life. Eating a balanced diet that consists of vital micro as well as macronutrients is the foundation of a healthy life. Food is a basic requirement for humans as per Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory in psychology that comprises of five-tier model of human needs.

Food is required not only to alleviate hunger but also for growth and development, to live healthy and active lives and to keep diseases at bay. 

Food provides energy to function and to maintain good health. It is the nutrients that are found in food that help the proper functioning of the body and maintain health. People should obtain nutrients from food because the human body does not have the ability to produce most nutrients required to stay healthy and to lead a disease-free life.

We need to consume a diversity of food to obtain the nutrients as no food contains all the nutrients that the body needs. That is why often the health authorities advise to consume food in high diversity. It is also important to take an adequate amount of nutrients to fight malnutrition. 

Health can be impaired if a person is malnourished. Malnutrition is often mistaken for undernutrition which is the deficiency of vital nutrients required by the body. The World Health Orgnanization (WHO) defines malnutrition as ‘deficiency or excess in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients or impaired nutrition utilisation’. As per WHO reports, about 45 percent of deaths among children under five in the world are linked to undernutrition which is often associated with poverty.

Knowledge

Nevertheless, poverty is not the only cause of malnutrition. Insufficient knowledge of the nutritional requirements of the body is also a reason. People are less aware of how to meet the nutritional needs of the body. They are also least aware of the importance of variety in a diet and their right amount. Knowledge of preparing meals while preserving the essential micronutrients is vital.

Preparing meals without destroying the essential nutrients and eating a healthy and balanced diet is an art. People need knowledge, skills and practice for that. Once they are aware of the right foods and the right way to cook and eat them, leading a healthy life is a cakewalk.

Increased awareness is required on good eating habits to fight malnutrition. Sri Lankans can boast of a rich food tradition that dates back to thousands of years. Unlike today, our predecessors had not been smitten by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and had lived healthy and disease-free lives solely due to their food.

The food they ate provided all the vital nutrients and energy to function. They worked hard to burn the calories that they took through their rich, organic and well-balanced meals. Their meals had variety and were free of toxins and chemicals. It is pathetic to note that we, the present generation, have failed in inheriting such priceless knowledge and practice. For whatever the reason, food choices of Sri Lankans today have caused many communicable and non-communicable diseases. 

Ancient people had knowledge of the food that they ate, in spite of the level of their formal education. Although information on healthy and balanced diets abounds on the internet as well as on mass media today, people are still unaware of the right food choices and correct dietary practices. All information found on the internet regarding food and diet is neither credible nor is backed by scientific research. Hence, it is always good to refer to the information provided by authentic and valid sources as well as professionals.

With the wide use of social media, some information which is not completely accurate is posted and shared. Spreading of not so accurate and informal information regarding food and dietary practices may not be a healthy scenario. 

Edible plants

It is helpful to possess general knowledge of the edible plants that are found in our surroundings and knowledge of which parts to eat and how to eat them. One does not require to be a qualified nutritionist to identify edible plants and to prepare them for consumption. Our ancestors, who were neither qualified nor had formal education possessed exemplary knowledge of their food which is the secret of their healthy and long lives.

There are common, but indispensable culinary plants in our surroundings that have medicinal properties and are laden with essential nutrients. Such plants possess the ability to cure certain ailments and are used in Sri Lankan ethnomedicine.

There is an ancient saying by Indian sages that is most appropriate for today’s society. “Food should be our medicine and medicine should be our food”. This shows the importance of the quality of food that we should eat. 

Almost all the plants that are used in Sri Lankan ethnomedicine have food value and are found in abundance. The problem is that people are not aware of the edibility of such plants. Some, due to their attitude on food, do not tend to consume such local and wild food (edible plants) which were consumed by our predecessors.

They consider such food as inferior as they are often eaten by poor people. Hence, the rich look down upon such nutrient-dense food plants. Some do not want to consume such edible plants because they are abundantly available in the home garden or in the wild. They prefer purchasing luxury, popular and expensive food from the supermarket. 

Awareness on good food and healthy dietary practices should be raised among the public. Since cooking is done mostly by women at home, they should be educated on proper culinary practices, the importance of variety and healthy food to provide balanced and nutrient-dense meals for the family.

One who does the shopping for food should also be made aware of healthy, organic food that contain no or less chemical content to purchase a variety of them. Knowledge of seasonal food such as vegetables and fruits is important as they are good for the body during that season. 

Undernutrition

Undernutrition can be seen not only among the poor but also among the rich due to lack of knowledge and poor dietary practices. Poor nutrition intake damages the body and reduces immunity. They are susceptible to frequent illnesses and recovery takes longer than usual. Undernourished children cannot perform well in education and sports and fail to function to their full potential. 

A balanced diet is not only important for a healthy body, but also for a healthy mind. Diets rich in essential nutrients support cognitive functions such as memory, concentration and mood. A good diet can well fight psychological issues such as stress and depression. 

However, there’s a significant drop in consumption of nutrient-dense food globally which gives rise to undernutrition. Although good dietary practices are easy to adopt, people have failed in doing so due to various reasons such as ignorance and attitudes. Raising awareness can minimise people becoming malnourished which indirectly hinders the development of the country as the healthy workforce is the strength of a country. 

Dr. Naveen De Soysa is the Assistant Secretary of the Government Medical Officers’ Association and the Registrar in Community Medicine at the National Institute of Health Sciences. Panchamee Hewavissenti is a culinary researcher and recipe creator

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