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     Volume 10 |Issue 26 | July 08, 2011 |


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Straight Talk

A Virtuous Cycle

Nadia Kabir Barb

Healthy choices to soothe the sweet tooth.

I have never been a great advocate of diets or food fads. In fact I have in the past considered dieting to be my arch nemesis. Maybe I just lack the motivation or discipline to follow any of the numerous diets floating around cyberspace or to buy any of the books on offer in the ever decreasing bookshops around town. Or more likely, I have never really cared much about what I put into my body. Recently, however, the saying 'you are what you eat' has begun to make more and more sense to me. I suppose it starts with the recognition that the words 'dieting' and 'diet' are not interchangeable; a diet is not necessarily so much about weight loss as it is about ensuring a balanced intake of food and its nutritional content.

This all started a couple of months ago when I suddenly developed an inexplicable desire to eat chocolate. A lot of chocolate. So I went into our local newsagent and bought not one or two but three bars of chocolate and proceeded to devour them during the course of the day (I hope my children do not read this bit!). I am sure for some kids and adults this is not an unusual thing to do. But quite apart from the fact that we know too much chocolate is bad for us, I have the additional problem of suffering from chronic migraines and chocolate is a taboo food item for me. As you might have predicted, my migraines struck with a vengeance and I was nigh on debilitated for the next few days.

I think I must have had an epiphany after my little episode. Suddenly I found myself thinking not of eliminating chocolate from my diet (which I had tried and failed to do in the past) but of substituting it for something else I enjoyed (although perhaps not quite as much) instead. I am not a doctor or a nutritionist, but a little bit of common knowledge and reading on the internet gave me the push I needed. So off I went again, only this time I bought packets of dried fruit and an assortment of nuts knowing that they would not trigger any migraines and were also a healthier option. As anyone who knows me well could tell you, choosing food based on health and not taste is completely out of character. It also occurred to me that although I think I provide my children with a relatively healthy and balanced diet, I had to acknowledge that my actions, i.e. what I was putting into their bodies now would affect them at a later stage too. Quite a responsibility if you ask me.

What started with chocolate gradually started spilling over into other areas of my day to day life, like, for example, tea. Being a true Bengali, I like my tea with a few spoonfuls of sugar and always accompanied by some form of some 'nashta' (in London it is usually some biscuits, a slice of cake, mishti etc.). Now caffeine is not ideal for my headaches so cutting back on tea consumption seemed like a good first move.

Delicious but not very healthy options.

And with the additional threat of future diabetes also looming over my head (it is prevalent in my family), I thought it prudent to finally moderate my sugar intake as well. There are two types of diabetes, type one and type two. The first one usually affects children and young people and it occurs when your body cannot produce insulin. This type can be fatal if it is not treated regularly with insulin. The second type is more common and tends to develop over time as people grow older (usually over the age of 40) and, according to the British Heart Foundation, is linked with being overweight, being physically inactive, having a family history of diabetes and of course by consistently consuming food items with such a high sugar content that your body's natural mechanisms stop coping. To compound that, as luck would have it, people of South Asian origin have a much higher rate of type 2 diabetes. I feel like I have a bulls-eye on my forehead! But for me black tea without sugar just does not work so this time I substituted black tea with green tea. Despite the fact that green tea is also said to contain caffeine, it is significantly less than coffee or black tea. Furthermore, evidence suggests that regular green tea drinkers have lower chance of heart disease and of developing certain types of cancer.

I am now trying to stock my cupboard with fewer sweet things and I have noticed that even the kids have started to munch on the nuts, fresh fruit or yoghurts that sit virtuously in the kitchen. This is not to say that given a choice they would not opt for a doughnut or biscuit instead and I am not about to restrict them from going to a fast food joint or having some chocolate or biscuits every now and then. Moderation in everything we do is a step closer to leading a healthier lifestyle and making ourselves miserable by trying to be draconian about what we eat or do not eat is not the solution but can add to the problem.

The next area I decided to tackle was to make sure I do not end up with high cholesterol levels. So I did my research and found that to help reduce cholesterol level, we need to try and cut down on food that contains saturated fats such as butter, ghee, cream, cheese, fatty meats, chocolates etc., and instead use unsaturated fats such as rapeseed oil, sunflower oil or olive oil. Even if we do not have access to these alternative cooking oils, just reducing the amount of oil we cook with on a regular basis can be beneficial. Also eating oily fish (which can prevent blood from clotting and can also regulate heart rhythm), eating food with a high fibre content such as lentils, pulses, beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables and doing some form of regular physical activity can all help lower cholesterol levels. It can also help reduce high blood pressure (or help people avoid developing high blood pressure in the first place) which can lead to the heart becoming enlarged and subsequently beating less effectively. This, in turn, can increase the chances of having a heart attack or stroke. My reading has also reminded me, however, that fat is a critical part of our food intake and to try to cut it out altogether would also be a mistake.

There seems to be a recurring theme here that whether it is diabetes, high cholesterol levels, or high blood pressure we are scared of, eating healthily is one of our best defences. And one way to do this is to increase our daily intake of fruit and vegetables, cut out too much salt or sugar, cut out smoking, reduce consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, and maintain a regular amount of physical activity.

I have to admit that for someone who has never cared about regulating what food I eat, it has been a bit of a challenge changing my diet but my theory is that the easiest way to go about eating more healthily is by never saying never. The minute I tell myself that I have to stop eating something completely I find myself obsessing about that particular food or drink. So I have decided to take it one step at a time and 'gradually' change the way I eat without absolutely prohibiting anything and with some luck this will make the whole transition much easier. So far the change has not been as difficult as I thought it might be. But it is early days yet so let's see how I fare on this particular journey...

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