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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 136 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 2 , 2004

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Biting More
Than We Can Chew

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Food 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?

Breakfast 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 to dinner.

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.

Oil 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.

It's all in the Fibre

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.

Insoluble 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.

Fruit and Veggies: Food Royals

The 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.

Vegetables 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.

Nothing like “Dal Bhat Lebu”

Lentils 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.

Spice up Your Life

The 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.

The Fishier the Better

So 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.

For 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.

Fatty and Fast

Urban 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.

We 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.

Sugar -- Poisoning Us Sweetly

Now 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.

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 jilapi.

Icecream, 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.

Fad Diets and Exercise

Being 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.

Low fat milk and yogurt are also recommended for weight watchers which will give them the essential calcium without burdening them with extra fat.

Portion Size and Activity can have Magical Results

Finally 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 energy.

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.


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