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Archive for the ‘Diet/Nutrition’ Category

FATS – The good, the bad and the ugly!

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

When it comes to fats, it is generally not a good idea to avoid all fats entirely, but to get an understanding of which fats are “good”, which ones are “bad” and which ones are “ugly” and then to consume them accordingly. The South-Asian diet is very high in saturated fat as it consists of deep frying and includes dishes (mainly desserts) which are made with full fat dairy products. Dietary fat is a source of energy and supplies fatty acids which are necessary for most of our body’s activities. An example of such a fatty acid is linoleic acid which must come from the diet and is needed to ensure proper growth in children and to make hormones and cell membranes. Fats not only enhance the flavor and aroma of foods, but are also essential for carrying the fat-soluble vitamins into the body. But, one has to be smart about which fats to consume in order to stay healthy and avoid getting heart disease as certain fats can raise blood cholesterol and clog arteries.

 So what are the “good”, “bad”, and the “ugly” fats? Let’s take a closer look. 

 Good fats are the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats come from plant sources and are liquid at room temperature. These are the good fats as they lower the levels of cholesterol in the blood by lowering the level of low density lipoproteins (LDLs) in the blood. One drawback to these fats is that they also lower the level of high density lipoproteins (HDLs) the “good” cholesterol. Examples of these fats are corn, sunflower, safflower oils. Many nuts and seeds and their oils are also polyunsaturated.

 Monounsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature. These include canola, olive oil, peanut oil and avocados. These fats reduce total blood cholesterol by lowering the LDL fraction while keeping the HDL stable. The polyunsaturated and the monounsaturated fats are the ones you want to choose from when incorporating fats in your diet. Choose from any of these unsaturated vegetable oils when cooking: corn, olive, peanut, canola, sunflower, safflower, sesame and soybean.  Olive oil, by far, is the healthiest fat around as it protects against cancer and heart disease by reducing levels of LDL cholesterol. Therefore, the rate of heart disease and cancer is low in Mediterranean countries which consume an abundance of fruits, vegetables, grains and, of-course, olive oil.  

 The “bad” fats are the saturated fats. Saturated fat is the main cause of high cholesterol. Saturated fat is found in foods that come from mainly animal sources (meats and dairy) and some plant sources. These fats are solid at room temperature. Plant sources of saturated fats include oils such as coconut and palm kernel oil.  Ghee and butter which are commonly used in cooking many Indian dishes are also sources of saturated fats. Ghee which is frequently used in religious ceremonies is also believed to have many benefits such as improving digestion, enhancing the aroma and flavor of food, and providing energy and stamina. However, we must use control when consuming ghee or foods cooked with ghee, as this is a saturated fat which interferes with the removal of cholesterol from the blood. Saturated fat is also found in whole milk and whole milk products such as cheese and paneer. Therefore, most popular Indian sweets made with whole milk products are high in saturated fats and if consumed regularly can eventually increase cholesterol levels and contribute to having clogged arteries. If not completely avoided, these should be strictly limited.

 According to researchers, trans-fats have more detrimental effects than saturated fats, and therefore can be labeled the “ugly” fats. Trans-fats are made by a process called partial hydrogenation in which otherwise healthy liquid fats are turned to solid fats to extend their shelf life. Trans-fats can be found in store bought items such as cookies, cakes, pastries, snacks, donuts, potato chips, and also commercially fried foods such as french fries. In the long run, consuming too many products with these trans-fats has been known to increase total cholesterol levels and eventually cause heart disease (not to mention weight gain).  These are the fats that are “tricky” as most of them come hidden in ready made products, and unfortunately are pleasing to the palate. Trans-fats are definitely the enemy and the ones you need to steer clear off.

 When choosing healthy fats, a good rule of thumb to remember is to choose fats that are liquid at room temperature (such as olive, canola, sunflower or corn oil) instead of those that are solid (such as butter, ghee and lard). Avoid store bought and pre-packaged items that have hidden trans-fats in them. Avoid full fat dairy products (milk and cheese) and try fat free ones instead. And finally, do remember to use all fats sparingly, as they are after all, very high in calories!

Carbohydrates and the Asian Indian Diet

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

With all the hype in the media about low carbohydrate diets, and carbohydrates being the culprit when it comes to weight gain, one is left confused about which carbohydrates to eat, when to eat them, or whether or not to eat carbohydrates at all! Some might wonder, “What is a carbohydrate, and how does it play a role in my Indian diet?”

 Carbohydrate foods can be divided into two groups: simple and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates which include whole grain breads, beans, cereals, brown rice, sweet- potatoes and vegetables, take longer for the body to digest, therefore, providing the body with a steady stream of energy throughout the day. These foods also provide the body with fiber, minerals and vitamins.  Complex carbohydrates are clearly the better choice.

Simple carbohydrates are rapidly digested and provide the body with quick energy.  These simple sugars are found in foods such as milk and fruit and provide the body with vitamins and minerals. However, simple sugars are also found in processed foods such as cakes, cookies, soft drinks, desserts and candy; and unfortunately we consume most simple sugars not in the healthy form of milk and fruits, but more in the form of processed foods. Carbohydrates are broken down by the body in a form called glucose and are the body’s best source for energy. Glucose is the only energy source used by the brain and the nervous system.

 As carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, these sugars are absorbed by the bloodstream. As the sugar level rises, insulin is produced to transport these sugars from the blood to the cells where it is used as energy. When blood sugars are raised too quickly as when simple sugars are consumed, insulin surges are greater and as a result, one feels hungry quicker. On the other hand, when whole grain foods or complex carbohydrates are consumed, insulin levels are kept steady and one stays satiated much longer as these foods are not digested rapidly. Recent research shows that eating foods over a period of years that cause blood sugars to elevate rapidly and then drop may cause health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. If eaten in excess, carbohydrates are converted to fat, a storage form of energy which can be stored in subcutaneous tissues or around organs such as the liver, stomach and heart. This high carbohydrate diet coupled with a sedentary lifestyle could become a health hazard for most Asian Indians if not properly managed.

 The typical vegetarian Asian Indian diet is very high in carbohydrates. Items such as roti, daal, rice, raita, vegetables are all considered carbohydrates. Even lentils and daals which are believed to be good protein choices have a higher content of carbohydrates than protein! The result of eating a high carbohydrate diet for years and following an inactive lifestyle may the reason that so many in our community are predisposed to obesity related diseases such as diabetes.

 So how does one manage carbohydrates? The smart choice is to eat more complex carbohydrates and to consume more of your calories during the day and less at night. But, most of us do just the opposite. We eat very little or nothing at all for breakfast, a light lunch and a big dinner. The better option would be to eat more for breakfast and lunch and eat a very light dinner. Unless you are planning to go dancing for a few hours after dinner or run a marathon, a high carbohydrate meal is not necessary at night. If consumed during the day, however, the carbohydrates can be used for energy and would be less likely to be stored as body fat. According to Registered Dietician, Purvi Shah, R.D.L.D., another consideration is to consume more green vegetables as a vegetable choice instead of potatoes being the choice of vegetables. She further suggests that more green vegetables should be eaten at night, to avoid overcooking these vegetables, and to add items such as yogurt, milk, lassi, tofu, and beans to one’s diet to increase protein intake. Late night dinners should also be avoided.  

  Items such as rotis, parathas, etc. can be prepared with whole wheat flour. King Arthur brand flour available at local American grocers is an excellent choice. Brown rice can be substituted for white rice. Ms. Shah also suggests that daal is an excellent choice of protein for vegetarians but to limit eating rice every night. Rice can be eaten every other night. Carbohydrate choices at night should be limited to just roti and vegetables, or rice and daal, instead of consuming all four. Or, if all four must be consumed, use portion control.  Simple carbohydrates which come in the form of processed foods such as traditional “mithais” and sweet dishes should be limited.  

When it comes to managing a vegetarian diet high in carbohydrates, remember to be choosy- eat more complex carbohydrates, limit the simple carbohydrates, use portion control, break away from the traditional way of eating, be more creative and above all, give up that sedentary lifestyle and exercise!