Than We Can Chew
Aasha Mehreen Amin
is the centre of our lives. For Bangladeshis it is the
core of all functions, the highlight of weddings, the
joy of any celebration, and the reward for attending
a religious ceremony. There is no doubt that we take
our food very seriously. But are we thinking about what
we eat as opposed to what our taste buds crave for?
Not really, at least not very often. Which is why we
are wreaking havoc with our bodies.
A typically Bangali diet is
supposed to be fairly healthy consisting of all the
essentials that nutritionists recommend--plenty of fish,
loads of veggies, basketful of fruits. Ok, lets not
disillusion ourselves any further. Let's face it, we
no longer consume a typically Bangali diet. The Bangladeshi
diet is a mish mash of traditional Bangali cuisine to
which we have added Mughlai, continental, oriental and
who knows what recipes. This includes the whole gamut
of fast food-- burgers, fries, fried chicken and so
on. Add to this our inexplicable affinity for inactivity,
our weakness for the lazy good life and we are treading
on the territory of ill health, diabetes, heart disease,
arthritis and obesity. So where are we really going
wrong and is there a way out of this vicious cycle of
eat, eat and eat till you drop dead?
on Fridays is a grand affair at the Chowdhury home.
The alluring aroma of freshly made paratha,
chilli and onion omlette, last night's chicken korma
and ghee-dripping shujir halua waft
intoxicatingly from the kitchen. For most middle class
Bangladeshi families, Friday is a day of great indulgence
and rich, tasty delicacies are consumed from breakfast,
flowing into a late lunch, afternoon tea and even up
But what we food connoisseurs may be
oblivious to is that the combinations of these mouthwatering
treats make up the blueprint of a lethal bomb inside
our suffering bodies. They translate into globules of
saturated fat that may clog our arteries, high cholesterol
and glucose levels and trillions of calories which may
never get burnt out leading to unsightly bulges that
seem to categorise the average middle class Bangladeshi.
Conceding that Friday is a special day
when we tend to go a bit overboard with the eating rituals,
let's take a normal weekday. For breakfast Mr. Chowdhury,
a middle-aged man with a paunch, has two to three slices
of white bread, an omlette or fried egg, a mug of tea
with milk and two teaspoonfuls of sugar. Sounds like
a more or less harmless diet. Think again. The white
bread is made of refined flour and full of calories
and hardly any fibre (the buzz word in the Good Health
Dictionary);the egg is a good source of protein but
also full of cholesterol; two spoons of sugar-- it takes
no genius to know just how bad that is, being loaded
with empty calories. Then take into account that Mr.
Chowdhury goes to his office in a car, sits there till
about seven, comes home to watch t.v. with greasy snacks
like dal puri or samosas and then
eats a big dinner before crashing out on the bed. This
high carbohydrate, high fat and high sugar diet along
with a sedentary lifestyle typical of the average middle
class Bangladeshi spells major trouble in terms of health.
Carbo and Oil Galore
Dr. Farida Rahman, a US-trained dietician
and nutritionist with over 18 years of work experience
says that it is not just the type of foods we consume
that is unhealthy but also the proportion of different
types of food we eat. One of the major food follies
we make says Rahman, is consuming far too much carbohydrate
especially rice. For a person with a fairly sedentary
lifestyle Rahman recommends having not more than one
cup or 8 ounces of rice per meal. "Of course it
is better to have one meal such as dinner with wheat
bread or ata ruti which is high in fibre",
she says. Rahman who has her own nutrition and diet
therapy centre in Gulshan, adds that rice which has
some husk as opposed to polished rice like basmati
is a healthier option as is whole wheat flour rather
than refined flour.
"Also when we drain the rice off
after cooking, we are washing away all the vitamins
(mainly Vitamin B) which gives us so much energy",
says Rahman. The best way to cook rice is to use a 1:
2 rice to water ratio that uses up all the water and
so draining is not needed.
is another item we use far too much in our cooking.
"Even our snacks such as shingaras, samosas
and pithas are very oily", comments Rahman,
"we must have as little oil as possible as there
are natural oils in many foods." Deep-frying is
a big no no as it soaks up huge amounts of oil. So oily
puris and fried chicken are out. She also points
out that many people think that margarine is a better
alternative to butter but it is just the opposite as
the process of making margarine makes the hydrogenated
fat more harmful. While adults should go low on the
butter, children need it for brain development. As far
as cooking goes, the less oil the better. Using non-stick
frying pans and measuring out the oil put into the food
in teaspoons reduces the need for large amounts of oil.
Soybean oil and olive oil are good options as they contain
about 15 and 14 percent saturated fat. Coconut oil and
ghee should be avoided.
all in the Fibre
a revered word amongst the health conscious, is yet
to be recognised as an essential item in the Bangladeshi
diet. While we eat fruit and veggies sporadically they
are not given the importance they deserve. Fibre is
of two kinds--soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre found
in apples, carrots and citrus fruits dissolve easily
during digestion and keeps the stomach full for quite
a while. So if you're trying to lose a few pounds, having
an apple just before a meal can substantially reduce
the appetite and you needn't pile your plate with fattening
stuff like rice or potatoes.
fibre, also called roughage can be found in wheat, vegetables
(especially leafy ones) and whole grains. This kind
of fibre is extremely important as it helps to steer
food through the intestines. The best cure for constipation
which leads to serious problems like hemorrhoids, is
to eat a lot of veggies and switch to wheat bread. Eating
oatmeal or Yusuf Guler Bhushi also ensures
smooth bowel movement.
and Veggies: Food Royals
importance of fruits and vegetables as sources of vitamins
and minerals cannot be emphasised enough. But it's also
necessary to know what kind of fruits to eat. Bangladeshis
eat way too many bananas compared to other fruits. One
whole banana has about 120 calories which is almost
the same as eating two slices of bread says Rahman.
Indigenous fruits such as papaya, guava, kamranga
(star fruit) and amlaki are high in Vitamin
A and C. "You can get your whole day's Vitamin
C requirement by eating just one amlaki"
says Rahman. Mangoes are also a good source of Vitamin
A, B and C as well as calcium and magnesium. "Vitamin
A is needed for hair cell's integrity and helps in keeping
the skin and eyes healthy. As with fruit, vegetables
are high sources of vitamins and minerals and the more
colourful the better. Dharosh or ladies fingers have
a lot of fibre, chillies have vitamin C, carrots and
other yellow or orange vegetables like mishti kumra
(pumpkin) and green leafy vegetables like spinach have
a lot of Vitamin A and essential minerals. Green papaya,
which aids digestion and is good for the skin has Vitamin
A, C and B complex, amino acids, calcium and iron as
well as antioxidants.
are great 'food soldiers' to fight disease by preventing
cellular damage. The fibre in the veggies also help
reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes,
stroke and cancer. So at least the Bangalis bhaji
bhorta diet is something to be proud of. That however,
depends on the preparation. Boiling and draining vegetables
or washing them after cutting also loses a lot of the
vitamins. In the case of our favourite vegetable potato
it is the peel that contains all the Vitamin C, B, potassium,
iron and zinc and we lose them by shaving off the skin.
The outer green leaves of cauliflower have calcium,
iron, fibre and beta carotene so instead of tearing
them away, cook them and eat them.
Korolla or bitter gourd is another Bangali favourite
and happens to be rich in iron and good for treating
diabetes and liver disorders.
like “Dal Bhat Lebu”
are high in fibre and an excellent source of protein
especially when combined with rice and whole grains.
They are loaded with B vitamins--especiallyB3-- essential
for a healthy nervous system and digestive system. It
is also high in iron, zinc and calcium and are a good
replacement for red meat. Lentils eaten with vegetables
like tomatoes, raw mango and broccoli helps to absorb
iron more efficiently, decreases blood glucose, cholesterol
and may even decrease insulin requirements for diabetics.
Squeezing a bit of Vitamin-rich lemon into the dal
makes it even more nutritious.
Cooking in high heat also kills the nutrients in foods.
Steaming the vegetables or boiling them for a minute
or so while retaining their juices will ensure that
their goodness is not lost.
up Your Life
spices we use in Bangladeshi food have many hidden benefits.
Turmeric or holud is an essential ingredient
in our cooking and is good for the skin, has excellent
antibiotic properties and helps to digest protein. Garlic
has effective antibiotic, anti-viral and anti-fungal
properties. High consumption of garlic lowers bad cholesterol
and also fights colds. Onions are rich in Vitamin C
and fibre; it helps fight disease and lowers blood pressure.
Ginger is a great spice to help cure colds, coughs,
bronchitis, indigestion, diarrhea, fever, headaches
and respiratory infection. Other Bangladeshi spices
like jeera (cumin seed), cardamom, cinnamon
and bay leaves have health benefits and also give great
flavour to food.
Fishier the Better
what about probably the most essential food group protein?
Rahman says that typically, Bangladeshis tend to have
fewer proteins and larger amounts of carbohydrates which
leads to obesity and poor nutrition. "When we eat
chicken curry we may end up eating one or two small
pieces which is not enough", says Rahman. Fish
being an integral part of the Bangali diet, should be
encouraged she says. But instead of fatty fish like
pangash and hilsa, small fish such as kechki
mach are healthier options as they have high amounts
of Vitamin A, phosphorus, potassium and calcium. Sea
fish is better as it has less fat. Fish also has high
levels of omega 3 fatty acids which have been shown
to lower the risk of heart disease and may reduce prostrate
cancer as well as helps in the development of brain
and eye tissues. Even the fish head (in say good old
Muri Ghonto) and fish liver and entrails are
full of Vitamin A, D and iodine.
the chicken lover, lean deshi chicken rather
than fat-filled farm chicken should be the choice. Lean
red meat such as beef or mutton should be preferred.
Lentils or dal are also high in protein, folic acid
and iron and low in fat.
Bangladeshis are also fond of fast food such as burgers,
fries, patties etc. With the mushrooming of fast food
joints the choices are endless. In the US many studies
have proved that most fast foods, often referred to
as junk food, contain far too much fat and salt and
are low in nutrional value. This is just as true for
Bangladesh where kids just can't get enough of their
favourite burger, soda and fried chicken and adults
can't get over how convenient it is. Fried chicken,
for example, is laden with grease and fat as are French
fries, which are drowned with glasses of soda filled
with refined sugar. Nothing could be unhealthier and
more fattening, which is probably why both young and
older Bangladeshis are putting on weight. Completely
cutting out fast food may be far too unrealistic, so
making it a once a month ritual rather than an every
other day thing, would be a sensible strategy.
must also limit the amount of that amer or
jolpaier achar (mango or olive pickle) no matter
how delicious it is as it contains huge amounts of oil,
salt and sugar.
-- Poisoning Us Sweetly
this last item--sugar, may sweeten up your life but
is actually a sneaky poison. Bangladeshis have the biggest
sweet tooth in the world. Whether it is an after dinner
desert legitimised as sunnat or celebrating
a birthday, good results or getting married, we have
to do it with deshi sweets. These tasty deserts
are full of refined flour and refined sugar. Sugars
provide empty calories and unless you are a marathon
runner, there is no way that you are going to burn them
in a hurry. Refined sugar has absolutely no food value
and instead works like a toxin in the body. Refined
sugar drains the body of valuable vitamins and minerals
which work overtime just to bring back the body's natural
balance disrupted by the extra sugar.
is found naturally in many fruits and vegetables as
well as grains so there is no need for that extra sugar.
Excess of this nasty white stuff causes the liver (which
stores glucose or glycogen) to expand. The excess glycogen
returns to the blood and go to the body's inactive areas
like the belly, buttocks and thighs. Then it starts
getting distributed to the heart and kidneys making
their tissues degenerate and turn to fat. The best alternative
to refined sugar is honey which has been known to have
healing properties and is good for ulcers, throat infections
and constipation. Pure chhana (with no added
sugar) would be a healthier desert than syrupy chhanar
cakes, cookies, chocolates and sodas which have made
their way into the Bangladeshi diet, are filled with
refined sugar (not to mention fats) and should be drastically
reduced and if possible avoided.
Diets and Exercise
overweight has become a major worry for Bangladeshis
in the middle or higher income groups thanks to the
inactivity and over eating associated with affluence.
At Dr. Farida Rahman's clinic on Gulshan Avenue, most
of the patients come to lose weight. The first thing
Rahman does is calculate the patient's ideal weight
according to the height and then find the difference
between the actual weight and the aspired weight. The
dietician then recommends a special diet that will guarantee
weight loss over a period of time. "I usually suggest
a healthy diet with at least 1,000 calories since a
drastic weight loss can shock the body and lead to imbalances",
says Rahman. A combination of proper diet and exercise
over a sustained period gives long lasting results.Fad
diets on the other hand may lead to loss of body protein
and muscle, minerals and electrolytes and also raise
the risk of osteoporosis in women.
fat milk and yogurt are also recommended for weight
watchers which will give them the essential calcium
without burdening them with extra fat.
Size and Activity can have Magical Results
it is moderation that must be the underlying theme of
the eating game. Eating is one of the most enjoyable
activities of our lives so let's not take all the fun
out of it. Apart from making healthy choices like piling
the plate with more vegetables and fish and less rice,
we must also reduce the overall amount we eat at a time.
As we grow older our metabolism becomes slower and we
need fewer calories to survive. This means the older
we grow the less we should eat. Taking small portions
of food and not loading the table with too many items
will ensure that we do not overeat. So the next time
you gorge on a plate of biriyani which is stuffed
with excess fat and carbohydrate, be a little frugal
in your portions (disregarding the encouragement from
our Musings piece this week). Of course there is no
need to harp on about exercise which even an idiot knows
is important. No matter how sensibly we eat we must
keep our limbs in movement. Bangladeshis in particular
hate moving unless they have to so most of them will
not go to the gym even for free. But we must make efforts
to avoid getting our joints rusty. Simple stretching
at various points of the day, the old rule of taking
the stairs instead of the lift, giving the bua
a break by wiping some floors, taking brisk walks, doing
your own little errands--these are some easy ways to
make sure that at least some of the calories we consume
are being burnt. Getting more active and eating less
and sensibly seems to be the secrets to a healthy, happier
existence. Plus, it’s really not that difficult .
Calories, Fats and Cholesterol Declassified
Calories are units that measure the
amount of potential energy the body is able to get from
food. Different nutrients in foods provide different
amounts of calories (the more correct term would be
kilocalories although no one seems to use it)
One gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories
One gram of protein has 4 calories
One gram of fat has 9 calories
Our bodies burn calories through metabolic
processes by which enzymes break carbohydrates into
glucose and other sugars, the fats into glycerol and
fatty acids and proteins into amino acids. These are
transported into the bloodstream and then the molecules
enter the cells where they are either absorbed for immediate
use or sent on to the final stage of metabolism. Here
they are reacted with oxygen to release their stored
How many calories you need depends on
three things: basal metabolic rate, physical activity
and thermal effect of food. Basal Metabolic Rate
is the amount of energy your body needs to function
at rest. Sixty to 70 percent of calories are burned
a day to keep our hearts beating and kidneys functioning
and keeping body temperature stabilized. Physical Activity
is everything we do from walking to making the bed to
ironing clothes. Thermal Effect of Food is the amount
of energy our body uses to digest the food we eat.
Exercise boosts metabolic rate and you
go on burning an increased number of calories for about
two hours after you have stopped exercising.
Saturated and Unsaturated Fat
All fats contain carbon, hydrogen and a little oxygen
to form fatty acids. If fatty acids contain all the
hydrogen possible they are saturated. If they are not
completely full of hydrogen fatty acids are said to
be unsaturated. Animal fat is saturated fat while vegetable
fat have varying degrees of unsaturated fat. Foods contain
a certain mixture of both types of fat. Poultry for
instance, has 30 percent saturated and 70 percent unsaturated
fat while olive oil and soyabean oil have 14 and 85
percent of saturated and unsaturated fat respectively.
Cholesterol is not a fat but a fat-like
substance that belongs to another chemical family called
steroids. Most of the cholesterol in our blood is manufactured
from a wide variety of foods but especially from saturated
fat and smaller amounts from eggs and dairy products.
Cholesterol is not poison and is important in producing
Vitamin D essential to our metabolism, cell formation
and other chemical processes. The problem is that sometimes
we produce too much blood cholesterol especially LDL
cholesterol which increases the accumulation of fatty
tissue in the arteries leading to heart attack or stroke.
So to decrease the risk we should limit the consumption
of all fats especially saturated fat. Health experts
recommend a daily intake of 300 mg of cholesterol. An
egg has 270mg of cholesterol, found mainly in the yolk.
HDL cholesterol on the other hand takes
away cholesterol from the arteries and back to the liver
where it is transformed to bile. Bile is used again
for bodily functions or excreted through the feces.