As a doctor and the president and founder of the Canada India Network Society (CINS), I know that eating habits play a major role in the relatively high risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes among South Asian people.
The good news: Making a few small and easy changes to how you eat, what you eat and how much you eat can reduce these and other health risks. And best of all, you don’t have to give up any of the foods you love.
How to eat
If your mother kept reminding you to brush your teeth and chew your food, it was because mom knows best! How you eat is vitally important to your health because it affects the bacteria, viruses, and fungi living in your digestive system.
As well as helping to digest food, the gut microbiota crowds out and kills potentially harmful bacteria, strengthens your immune system, and even plays a role in keeping you mentally sharp and reducing the risk of mental illness.
Here are three easy ways to keep those healthy microorganisms happy:
Chew your food thoroughly
Digestion starts in the mouth. By chewing your food until it’s small enough to easily swallow, you save your stomach from having to work hard and becoming irritated or inflamed. At the same time, by keeping food in your mouth longer, you increase its exposure to amylase, the enzyme in saliva that helps break down food.
Rather than counting how many times you chew, try putting your food or utensils down between mouthfuls. Then, when you’ve finished chewing and swallowing, pick up your naan, chapati or cutlery and take another bite.
Have good oral hygiene
Healthy eating starts with good oral hygiene. Poor oral health is associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, so be sure to follow the recommendations of the Canadian Dental Association and brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss at least once a day.
As well as removing the plaque that causes gum disease and tooth decay, this prevents the growth of unhealthy bacteria at the start of your digestive system. It’s estimated that as much as 20% – 30% of the causes of chronic diseases might be related to oral hygiene, and the mouth is a big part of bacteria and inflammation.
Pay attention when eating
Instead of eating just for the sake of it, focus on savouring the experience: the aromas, the flavours, the textures, the company, all of it. Remove cellphones and other distractions from the table, sit down with your co-workers, friends or family, and let your natural appetite take care of the rest. Chatting, for instance, will slow down your food intake.
What to eat
A healthy diet is all about balance. I’m not telling you to stop eating naan, roti, chapati or paratha. For a South Asian diet, I think the biggest imbalance is that we eat a lot of carbohydrates, so we need to try to reduce that amount.
For example, instead of having potatoes, rice and grains all at the same time, try only having one. If today is potato day, then tomorrow can be rice day. The next day can be a chapati day. Spread out your carbohydrates. Also, instead of having one whole chapati try having half of one.
Here are a few other things you can try:
- Swap white rice and white flour for long-grain rice and other whole grains such as barley, quinoa, oats and millet.
- Meat is the hardest protein to digest, of which Beef is one of the hardest meats to digest. So, you may want to spread it out, not eat it 7 days in a row and reduce your portion size. Try some alternatives like lighter meats or even better vegetarian options like beans, lentils, peas and tofu.
You’ll be surprised how easy and tasty these healthy food swaps can be!
Cutting out certain items is less important than eating MORE of healthy foods. Try including fresh fruits, vegetables, greens and legumes in your diet. That’s more important than excluding things. Here are a few examples:
Dark green vegetables
- such as spinach, green bell peppers, okra, beet or radish greens, and green peas
Colourful fruits and vegetables
- such as carrots, blueberries, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes, apricots, cantaloupe, mango and papaya
- such as char, herring, mackerel, rainbow trout, salmon and sardines
- such as apples, okra and eggplant, oats, barley, and legumes like beans and lentils, which contain healthy fibre
How much to eat
While buffets and banquets make it all-too-easy to pile your plate high and go back for more, and with South Asian meals tending to include calorie-rich rice, grains and potatoes, portion control is the key to eating a healthy amount of food each day.
An average South Asian male, who isn’t very physically active, should consume around 1500 to 1800 calories broken down over three or four meals during the day.
How much is healthy? The daily diet of an adult male should consist of:
- 7 to 10 servings of vegetables and fruit;
- 7 to 8 servings of grain products such as whole-grain bread and brown rice;
- 5 to 6 servings of protein foods like meat, nuts and dairy.
How much is a serving?
- This handy guide shows you how to measure food portions with your hand.
- One serving of rice, for instance, is half the size of your fist.
- Put your thumbs together, and that’s the size of a peanut butter serving.
From there, you simply count the servings until you hit the recommendations above. When those servings combine to form a meal, hey presto! You’ve got yourself a healthy portion.
Two more easy tips:
- Use a smaller plate! You’ll eat less and feel just as satisfied.
- Drink a glass of water before a meal. This fills up your stomach, which makes you feel less hungry. Studies have also shown that drinking water reduces our intake of sugary soda pop, fatty coffees and gut-busting beer. At the same time, your body actually burns calories as it processes the zero-calorie water you drink.
If you happen to be dining on phaal curry, you may want to keep another glass of water handy. That’s some spicy stuff!
Have you made any changes to your diet that have helped you? Share them with us in the comments below.
Canada India Network Society is a not-for-profit society registered in the province of British Columbia. Founded in 2009 with a vision of lowering the burden of chronic diseases and building a healthy society through engagement, collaboration and technology. The society is a virtual, project focused organization, and it organizes major international conferences (CINI) and round tables to explore, network and facilitate health and health care.