Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers, and their risk factors like obesity, hypertension and high blood cholesterol, have been major health threats to Malaysians for decades.
While we are still struggling with NCDs, we are now faced with another health threat in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has had profound impact on all aspects of human life.
Its effects can be particularly felt by people with NCDs.
It has been well-established that this group of people are particularly vulnerable to coronaviral infection due to their underlying chronic health conditions.
Overweight and obese individuals, and patients with hypertension and/or diabetes, are known to have a substantially higher risk of becoming severely ill, and are also more likely to die, from Covid-19.
What is worrying is that Malaysia already has a high burden of overweight and obesity before the pandemic hit us, i.e. one in two Malaysians were overweight or obese.
In addition, many Malaysians are unaware that they have undiagnosed NCD risk factors such as high blood sugar and high blood pressure.
Restrictive measures such as the movement control order could also potentially mean that more people will be exposed to worsening NCD risk factors as their dietary pattern may be adversely affected and their physical activity curtailed.
It is also feared that the widespread outbreak of Covid-19 will interfere with people with NCDs and risk factors continuing with their medical treatment.
Thus, while much of our attention has been on Covid-19 in the past months, we must not overlook the need to pay attention to preventing and controlling NCDs, as they are both interconnected.
When we manage to contain Covid-19 in the near future, the battle against NCDs must continue as these have proven to be long-term health threats that affect large segments of the population.
Adopting healthy nutrition is one key way of combating both of these health threats.
NCDs are “lifestyle” diseases as the majority of their risk factors are lifestyle-related, with the main ones being an unhealthy diet and a sedentary lifestyle.
Therefore, being able to achieve good nutrition through a healthy diet will play a key role in the prevention of NCDs.
It is also imperative to make greater effort to practise healthy nutrition during this pandemic.
Healthy nutrition is the key to supporting an immune system that is able to prevent, fight and recover from the coronavirus that may have invaded our body.
So, how can we achieve good nutrition to prevent NCDs and to support a healthy immune system?
Here are a few simple steps:
> Practise balance, moderation and variety (BMV)
These are the principles of a healthy diet.
What it means is that one should have balanced meals in moderate amounts (so as not to overeat) that contain a variety of different food types from each key food group.
Remember, no one single food or supplement can provide complete nutrition to meet our daily needs.
> Adopt healthy cooking practices
This is so that you and your family can have healthier meals.
Select and use healthier ingre- dients (e.g. plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat), and use healthy cooking methods with less oil (e.g. steaming, stewing or stir-frying).
> Be sensible when using salt, sugar and fat
You don’t have to completely eliminate these items from your diet, but do make an effort to consume less of them.
When cooking and preparing food, limit the amount of salt and high sodium seasonings or condiments such as soya sauce, fish sauce and ketchup.
Avoid processed meats as they are high in fat and salt.
Limit your intake of sugar- sweetened beverages and desserts.
> Eat more fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods
These should be a part of your daily diet as they provide important vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and phytonutrients.
All these nutrients are helpful in the prevention of NCDs and important in supporting a healthy immune system.
> Consume milk every day
It is a wholesome food with protein and micronutrients needed to support immune health, and helps build muscle, bones and teeth.
> Include probiotic-rich foods
You should include functional foods that contain probiotics in your diet.
This is as they contain beneficial bacteria that promote good gut health by maintaining a healthy balance of gut microbiota, thus supporting our immune system.
Examples of probiotic-rich foods include cultured milk drinks and yoghurt, or fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, tapai pulut, tapai ubi and natto.
> Stay hydrated
Drink between six to eight glasses of water a day.
It is recommended to drink more plain water and less sweetened beverages as excessive consumption of sweetened beverages will lead to weight gain, thus increasing the risk of overweight/obesity over time.
As plain water is calorie-free, it is the best thirst-quencher.
> Be physically active
Regular physical activity has a positive effect on reducing risk of NCDs, as well as reducing hospitalisation and death among Covid-19 patients.
Even simple physical activities are beneficial.
You can start with light or moderate intensity activities over short periods of time that are spread out throughout the week.
This can consist of simple routines such as brisk walking around or near your house compound, or indoor exercises such as riding a stationary bike, yoga, tai chi and light stretching exercises.
> Stay positive
Stress can affect our overall health and well-being, thus it is important to find positive ways to manage stress.
Some methods include having enough sleep, taking a break from your day-to-day routine, and indulging in relaxing hobbies.
Prevent and strengthen
Both NCDs and the Covid-19 pandemic are threatening our health and well-being.
There is no magic bullet or shortcut to fighting NCDs, just as there is no single food or supplement that can prevent coronavirus infection.
It is through eating a holistic healthy diet, along with other positive health behaviours, that we will be able to prevent NCDs (and thus reduce the risk of severe Covid-19 complications).
This will also strengthen our immune system’s ability to fight infections.
Healthy nutrition is the way to fighting both health threats.
Dr Tee E Siong is a nutritionist and chairman of the Nutrition Month Malaysia (NMM) Steering Commit-tee. The NMM 2021 Virtual Nutrition Fair will be held from Aug 5 to Sept 5 at virtualfair.nutritionmonthmalaysia.org.my. NMM is an annual community nutrition education initiative jointly organised by Nutrition Society of Malaysia, the Malaysian Dietitians’ Association and the Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity.
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