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What’s healthy food?

October 30th, 2013


What’s healthy food?

I’ve recently been to America, and I saw many changes that I would like to share with my dear readers.

As a cardiologist, I must say I am happy to see these changes because they are good for the heart. I remember in the past, when I went to America and wanted to order food, I would feel very uncomfortable because the portion was much bigger than what I would normally eat back home. It’s at least twice the size! Not so surprisingly, America was full of obese people. Food usually came in a large portion, and who would hurt the chef’s feeling by leaving such delicious food on the plate? Besides, having paid so much for it, I wouldn’t want to leave a grain of rice.

This time, however, was different. On the menu of many restaurants was the half-portion option, reducing the amount of the food by 50%. Perfect for people with smaller stomach capacity like us!

I discussed this change with my American friend and he told me that the FDA had conducted a research on obesity and it was found that the portion of food played an important role in the weight problem. There have been campaigns to raise this awareness among restaurateurs in America so the restaurants have adapted themselves by giving healthier options, which is a constructive competition.

I visited a famous fast food store (also prevalent in Bangkok) and I was pleasantly surprised to see salad on the menu! I was ordering chicken salad, then I overheard a guy next to me ordering a hamburger (my ears are still working fine, obviously) and I heard him ask the staff, “You have salad now?” The staff replied, “It has recently been added. We’re observing how well it does in the market.” The guy just shrugged and mumbled something like “Yeah, right, as if!”

In fact, healthy food is not easy in case the options are limited (or sometimes the knowledge). Many of my patients say to me that they don’t know what to do because they usually have lunch outside the home and all the available options are either greasy or full of refine carbohydrate and fat. I would like to give you a tip when eating out if you want to stay in shape. Do not put the oily topping or gravy right on the rice.

Stir-fried vegetables or a small amount of curry is not fattening on their own, but the oil used in the stir-frying process and the excess curry (it’s made of coconut milk) adds the calories to the dish. Or you can start by taking out a quarter of the normal amount you would eat.

Speaking of the supersized food in America, I cannot help but wonder, do people really finish eating or drinking such a large portion? Extra large drinks (about one litre) or extra large bag or chips are so high in calories. If you finish that one bag of chips by yourself (which I believe is possible if you sit in front of the TV), the calories that you get are about 1,000 cal. or 15 servings of rice! Plus, the chips come with health-hazardous trans fatty acid.

Trans fatty acid is an interesting subject because it has been found to be of greater danger to the heart than cholesterol. It can be found in fried food, using used cooking oil and processed food. In many countries, the law requires that the nutrition facts label must determine the amount of trans fatty acid the food contains. The food producers are just as quick. I have seen a chips brand announcing that it has cooperated with a medical institution to produce healthier chips.

Another thing that impressed from this trip to America was that one fast food chain now gives detailed nutrition facts of the food sold in its store and there is a healthy dining corner for those who are health conscious but do not know what their options are.

However, I still saw many obese people, and from statistics, there is an increase in the number of obese people as well. We’ll have to wait and see whether these healthy campaigns will make a change. In our country, however, there is increasing risk. About 20% of our children, especially in big cities, are overweight now.

A patient of mine came to see me because he felt tight in his chest. He had high blood pressure, high cholesterol level, and low HDL because he rarely exercised. I ran him through a treadmill test and checked his coronary artery with the X-ray, and found that everything was fine. I said he should watch his diet and start exercising, and he followed my instruction strictly.

In just a month, his weight dropped 4 kilograms, and 3 more in the second month. He was worried whether he was sick or had cancer although there was no symptom. His appetite was still fine but finally he was so worried he had his colon X-rayed with a computer. Of course, nothing was wrong with him. It’s just that he used to eat a lot of food, but now that he’s more careful, he ate less and he also exercised. That’s why his weight came down so fast that he’s worried. He’s not worried anymore now. Last time I saw him, he said he’s in such a good shape that he could see his toes when he stands up.

The Buddha has said that many people have died from overeating, and eating what you want instead of what the body needs can be dangerous in the long run. Eating can make you smart or stupid, alive or dead. A moment’s pleasure is not worth a lifetime’s suffering.

When I was working abroad, I used to have this Jewish patient who was obese, weighing over a hundred kilograms. He had diabetes and heart diseases. I told him he should reduce his food and control his weight, but he firmly stated that he would never ever starve because he had been through the camp during World War II and he almost died of hunger. He swore to himself he would rather die than starve again.

Oh, well… whatever works for him, and he was happy.

So the answer to healthy food is the food for the need of your body to stop the hunger not for what your mouth wants.

Prof Nithi Mahanonda is consultant cardiologist and interventionist, Perfect Heart Institute.



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