Practical eating for health


  • Health
  • Sunday, 25 May 2003

There is an easy way to healthy eating, without having to measure our meals, compute our calories, or weigh the fat, oil and sugar every time we eat, writes Dr TEE E SIONG. 

IT’S finally sinking in. More people nowadays are starting to accept the fact that poor eating habits – coupled with an unhealthy lifestyle – are fuelling the rapid increase of chronic diseases such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers. 

Desiring to protect themselves, many individuals actually go to extremes to cut out the “fearsome foursome” – fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt – from their diet. Some go further by earnestly counting their calories, seeking out “health” foods, and trying out all kinds of “special diets” (many of which are dangerous without medical supervision!).  

This sounds like a complex, expensive and hardly delicious quest for health that’s bound to be difficult to sustain in the long run. Furthermore, with all the quackery out there, there’s no telling if any harm will come out of it. Surely, there must be a more practical, enjoyable and safer way to eat for one’s nutritional wellbeing! Fortunately, there is.  

Pyramid pointers 

Healthy eating boils down to getting the right nutrition for body and mind, while preventing nutritional deficiencies and excesses that may lead to illness. This is where the Food Guide Pyramid comes in handy to show you the way to practical eating for health. 

The Pyramid is one of the main features of the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines. It is a visual aid that categorises a wide range of foods into five major groups. These are then arranged on different levels according to a particular order to provide guidance on amounts to be consumed for each food group. 

The Pyramid embodies three important, yet easy-to-remember messages. First, enjoy a variety of foods. Second, consume those foods in the right balance. Third, eat in moderation.  

Let’s start with variety. It’s been said that “Man cannot live by bread alone”. Indeed, we need a varied diet that combines all the food groups contained in the Food Guide Pyramid. Within each food group, we also need to vary the types of foods consumed. 

The reason is simple. People need energy (calories) and nutrients (like carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and fibre) for growing, developing, moving, working, playing, thinking and learning. Different foods provide energy and nutrients in different amounts and combinations. Variety is the best way to obtain all the goodness that different foods offer. 

Now, let’s look at balance. It is achieved by eating more of certain food groups than others. Foods eaten daily should come most from the lowest level of the Pyramid and least from the tip.  

In line with this, the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines specifically recommend that you eat more rice and other cereal products, legumes, fruits and vegetables. These foods are emphasised because they provide complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fibre and healthful components.  

Incidentally, the Guidelines also have some things to say about fat, cholesterol, salt and sugar – the much-maligned occupants of the Pyramid tip. Basically, the message is minimise them in your diet. 

Let’s now dwell on the final Pyramid pointer – moderation. Put simply, it means “don’t over-eat”. It’s one thing trying to achieve a varied diet, it’s another to polish off a 50-dish buffet spread; that’s pure gluttony.  

The question then is “how much is too much”? The answer is again found in the Food Guide Pyramid which prescribes the size and number of servings. Since the recommendations are good for age two and above, young children only need the lower number of servings whereas adults could go for the upper limits. 

When experts agree ... 

The effort to save millions of lives from diet-related chronic diseases has led the world’s leading health and nutrition experts to agree that people are better off eating a well-balanced diet which entails taking less fats and more fibre daily.  

You hear this time and again from leading authorities like the World Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation, and professional bodies such as the American Dietetics Association, to name a few. Governments of many countries, too (including our own), are echoing the same message. 

These messages form the foundation for healthy eating principles that are supported by, and consistent with, the findings and recommendations of the world’s leading researchers, research institutes and government agencies. 

Be sure to always remember this when anyone offers a conflicting view and proffers a so-called “better” diet, especially one that recommends eating more fats or proteins. If it were indeed “better”, don’t you think the world’s experts and governments would have clamoured to announce it by now? Could there be side-effects and long-term health hazards of such diets that overwhelm any short-term improvements? 

For as long as the world’s mainstream medical and nutrition science do not announce a change, you will do well to stick with the plan.  

Experimenting with your health with untested hypothesis may lead to a mistake that’s just too costly. 

This article is contributed in conjunction with Nutrition Month Malaysia 2003, courtesy of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, Malaysian Dietitians’ Association, Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity and the Health Ministry. 

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