As the risk of heart disease continues to affect young parents, experts agree that making cholesterol management a priority is part of good parenting.
The loss of a young parent has far deeper consequences than that of an older parent.
To a child, it means losing love, trust and a role model during his or her most crucial, formative years. The impact on the livelihood for the family also cannot be overstated.
Such a scenario is not at all uncommon as Malaysia continues to grapple with heart disease being the leading cause of death among adults.
High cholesterol, a major risk factor for heart disease, affects eight million or 40% of adults in Malaysia.
As parenting roles, expectations and demands continue to grow against the backdrop of a fast-paced lifestyle, parents in particular are becoming increasingly vulnerable to high cholesterol.
“Poor lifestyle choices are the norm for the new generation of young parents, ” says consultant cardiologist Dr Beni Rusani.
Unhealthy eating habits, increased stress levels, sedentary lifestyle and smoking – largely as a result of hectic work schedules– predispose young parents to high cholesterol and other non-communicable chronic diseases (NCDs).
“Chronic being the operative word here i.e. it is the result of years and years of build-up.
“Heart disease is commonly diagnosed amongst people in the 50-60 age group. But, NCDs do not happen overnight; the groundwork has been laid for at least a good 20 years or so, ” he points out.
The increase in young people having heart attacks is dramatically on the rise, with Malaysia having the youngest age bracket compared to other countries in the South-East Asian region.
“In fighting high cholesterol, prevention is better than cure, ” says Dr Beni. “It is a much cheaper solution. The nature of high cholesterol is such that it is long-term in the making, so the longer you ignore it, the harder it becomes to fix the problem. And the harder the problem, the more expensive the cost of medicines and treatment will be.
”Monkey see, monkey do"
Many will argue that prevention is easier said than done.
He says, “If parents struggle to find the right motivation, then do it for the sake of your kids.”
This is because children tend to copy their parent’s behaviour.
“Parents need to start being better role models and set good examples such as following a balanced diet and regularly exercising for their children to copy. This way, we can break the vicious cycle of repeating their parents’ habits even before they become young adults.
“It really is common sense and responsible decision-making," Dr Beni says.
While breaking the vicious cycle may sound like a tall order, dietitian Rozanna M Rosly believes that it is as easy as starting with improving one’s eating habits.
“As Malaysians, the convenience of fast food, eating out and food deliveries certainly isn’t making the situation any better.
“But observing some of the positive lifestyle changes that have occurred as a result of the recent movement control order, such as home-cooked meals and increased time for family bonding, we are certainly capable of making heart healthy choices the new normal, ” she says.
A heart healthy balanced diet, according to Rozanna, is not rocket science. Nor does it necessitate drastic changes.
“All it takes is a handful of life hacks, that even parents with busy schedules can apply.”
The Malaysian Healthy Plate is a good life hack to master.
A guide for healthy eating, balanced nutrition and portion control, it is based on the concept of dividing the regular meal plate into three sections: Quarter-Quarter-Half.
The first Quarter is filled with protein (fish, poultry, meat and legumes), the second Quarter with carbohydrates (rice, noodles, bread and cereals) while the remaining Half is packed with fruits and vegetables.
Rozanna stresses, “Emphasis is on the Half, as a staggering 95% of Malaysian adults do not consume the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals."
A diet that is high in dietary fibres helps in reducing the risk of NCDs including high cholesterol.
To enhance their diet, parents may also consider foods that are enriched with plant sterols as they have a similar structure to cholesterol and work to reduce cholesterol absorption in the bloodstream.
Although naturally occurring in all plants, one is unlikely to get enough of plant sterols to have cholesterol-lowering effects from a typical Malaysia diet.
Plant sterols are added into a range of food products including fortified milks.
Research shows that a daily intake of 2g-3g of plant sterols lowers low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – or bad cholesterol – levels by approximately 10%, even in people with high cholesterol.
The other life hack is food swaps.
“You will be surprised by just how many healthier food swap options there are with our everyday Malaysian dishes. A good rule of thumb is to reduce oily, deep-fried foods and foods that are high in salt, as well as to watch your calorie count, ” she explains.
Rozanna has the following advice for better eating habits:
- Reduce the amount of snacking, and when you do snack, choose healthier options such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Keep processed meats and fast foods to a minimal.
- Watch not only what you eat but also what you drink. Excessive consumption of carbonated and sugary drinks adds to your calorie count.
There are no shortcuts to heart health but every little step counts.
If parents can start making these minor adjustments in their daily routines, can we build a healthier nation.
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