Published on: December 2015
Category: Op eds
It was summer of the mid-1990s, I was ten years old and the sound of the notorious blood-sucking mosquitoes in the thick dense tropical forest of the Northern mountain range of Trinidad & Tobago was ringing in my ears. We were harvesting healthy bell peppers and green figs in the wee hours of the morning. We dragged those enormous crocus bags of produce, heading to the market to reap the rewards. Those were the days. How many of us know about the farming days: the plowing, the weeding, the seeding and the harvesting? And I’m not talking about HayDay, FarmTown, or FarmVille on Facebook! Do we really know what it takes to toil the land; the enormous amount of strength, dedication and love required to produce a viable crop? From behind our computer desks and blackberries, I am sure for many it’s almost unfathomable. Is it safe to say the generations before ate healthier and more active?
We often read about reports of drastic increases in mortality and morbidity rates as a result of heart disease, cancer and the other chronic non-communicable diseases. Recently, it was highlighted that one of the most common medical conditions in the UAE is the ‘Metabolic Syndrome’ which refers to a cluster of diseases affecting an individual; high blood pressures, high blood sugars, obesity and high cholesterol. The World Health Organization (WHO) has ranked UAE 2nd in the world with respect to the incidence of diabetes and obesity. How did we reach to this point? Who are we to blame for these escalating rates? Should this be a global, regional, national or personal concern?
I believe it’s all of the above but there is great hope because we can HEAL ourselves! How? While at a restaurant last night, a dear friend said to me, ‘gaining weight is part of the Dubai experience’. I chuckled for a moment, only to contemplate for a minute whether or not it is true. ‘Was it really in the culture? No, it can’t be! This is absurd!’ I replied. Then it got me thinking, how we are constantly bombarded with the various multi-cultural foods and events in Dubai and how in turn, we ignore the detrimental repercussions of our own lifestyle and habits. While pursuing my Dietetics internship in 2008 while in Trinidad, the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI), a specialized program by PAHO, launched a H.E.A.L. Campaign: Healthy Eating and Active Living as mentioned two months ago in an editorial opinion piece entitled, “Healthy eating and active living will tackle obesity in the UAE”.
‘I eat healthy’, some may say to themselves; but what really is healthy eating? Is it eating a salad for lunch or having a diet coke? Healthy eating is choosing a variety of foods from the Food Pyramid every day. It also involves consuming well balanced meals and practicing portion control. The food pyramid is the universal term for food groups. These food groups are your grains, vegetables, fruits, meats and beans, milk and fats & oils. All these food groups are of paramount importance since each has their respective nutrients and hence serve different purposes in our body.
Grains are known for providing our bodies with energy. Grains include any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain. Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits are examples of grain products. A healthful tip is to incorporate more whole grains, for instance, whole-wheat breads & brown rice as these food choices are highest in fiber. While cooking, to reduce the amount of fats in our diet, try to use methods such as baking, boiling & steaming, as opposed to frying.
My mother used to always tell me as a kid to eat my vegetables so that I could be strong like ‘Popeye’! Well I am sure that was sage advice! Apart from containing carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables are loaded with the vitamins and minerals which help to make our immune systems and bodies stronger. As well, I try not to over-cook vegetables, so as to keep the nutrients alive. In a recent posting from the New York Times, Alex Hutchinson highlight ‘how salad can make us fat’; that the ways in which a person’s the mind is tricked that they are being healthy by choosing a green salad with a 734 caloric burger. We need to be mindful and not to get caught up with these temptations. I also mainly use a variety of different colored vegetables, raw where possible. In the same light, any fruit or 100% fruit juice can be counted as part of the fruit group. Some ways to ensure that fruits are a part of your daily eating habit is to try keeping a bowl of whole fruits on the table or throw some packaged dried fruits in your bag being sure thing that do not have added sugars.
All foods made from meat, poultry, fish, dry beans or peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds (nuts) are considered part of the meat and beans group. These foods are rich in proteins, minerals and fats. One thing to note is that protein is vital to our bodies for repair and rebuilding our tissues, muscles and blood vessels. The leaner parts of the meat are lower in fat content, such as the breast of the chicken. These are the better bet to choose. Keep in mind that there is no need to eat meat at every meal. Also the best choice in the milk and cheese products would be those classified as being low-fat or fat free.
Fats and oils are often viewed as bad for our health! True? Well, there is a secret behind fats. As with everything, there are always two sides to the coin: good and bad. I remembered years ago, my University of West Indies professor saying, “Fats and oils protect the vital organs (e.g. the heart), and carries fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K) from food to your body and provides the body with energy. They are good!” That seemed like a joke Russell Peters would say. But in fact, it is undoubtedly truthful. Good fats are those which have good cholesterols (HDL) which help to remove excess cholesterol from the body. These include mono-saturated fats (e.g. olive oils, vegetable oils); omega-6 fatty acids (e.g. soybean); and even omega-3 fatty acids (e.g. herring and salmon). On the other hand, there are three types of the bad fats. Trans-fat (e.g. fast food, fries, creams), bad cholesterol (LDL) deposit fatty substances that clog up your arteries and saturated fats e.g. butter. How can we reduce the bad fats in order to be healthier? Use soft tub margarines instead of hard butter and try measuring smaller portions of vegetable oils for cooking. Snack on fruits and nuts instead of sweets, pastries, potato chips and other high fat foods.
Now that the healthy eating aspect has been viewed upon, what about active living? We commonly hear, ‘I am too busy to go to the gym!’ Or ‘Let’s take the elevator’. Is active living exercise? I bet we all know the benefits of exercise, yet we are too consumed by our so-called busy routines. I know from personal experience it is very difficult to commit to some sort of routine of exercise on a daily basis. We need to find ways to incorporate some sort of exercise in our daily lives. How about taking the flight of stairs instead, and having outdoor games with friends and family in the winter months though. For those that have a tread mill or cycle at home, instead of being a couch potato, run or cycle while watching television with a liter of water beside.
These subtle ways of healthy eating and active living can help us live healthier and longer lives. After all, do you think we can HEAL ourselves and save this nation from becoming another statistic in World Health Organization (WHO)? Just remember, as Dubai is a diverse multi-cultural environment, so should our meals be: well balanced, in moderation and diverse.