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Healthy eating is not just about taking smaller portions. Parkway Cancer Centre’s Senior Dietitian Fahma Sunarja looks at how you can eat healthily.
Is it more healthy to eat less? A growing trend has seen many people try to cut down on the portions they eat at each meal, which they believe is more healthy. Some have also taken to cutting out food groups such as carbohydrates and replacing them with meals made up entirely of protein or vegetables.
Such efforts to avoid overeating are natural, given the links between obesity and disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity and being overweight increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases (such as heart disease and stroke), diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and some cancers. Globally, statistics show that being overweight and obesity kill more people than being underweight.
A quick way to check if you are overweight or obese is through the Body Mass Index (BMI), a simple index obtained by dividing your weight (in kilogrammes) by your height squared (in metres). According to WHO’s Asian guidelines, a BMI of 23 or more indicates that you are overweight, and a BMI of 25 or more means you are obese.
BMI-watching has led many people to cut their meal sizes, in the hope that reducing their weight will make them healthier and reduce their risks of various diseases including cancer.
To be sure, being overweight and obese are to be avoided. But does that mean that we should all eat less?
First, we need to understand how one becomes overweight or obese. Fundamentally, this comes about when you consume more calories than you expend. It is not just a simple case of eating too much, but a more complex equation involving your intake of energy-dense, high-fat foods, compared with your level of physical activity – or inactivity.
Indeed, studies show that much of today’s obesity problems are caused by a high consumption of high-energy foods combined with low levels of exercise – a result of urbanisation, increased wealth, and the increasingly sedentary nature of work.
What does this mean in practical terms?
It means that it is more important to watch what you eat rather than how much you eat. In other words, dietary habits and eating patterns over time – and not just the amount alone – are the important factors that lead to obesity and other health-related issues, which in turn can increase cancer risks.
In fact, there is no direct link between portion sizes and cancer risks. Rather, the risk of getting some cancers is related to the consumption of specific food types:
To ensure that you don’t consume more energy than you expend (which leads to weight gain), you need to eat the right amount of calories, which is the amount of energy that a specific food provides. Generally, the average male needs around 2,500 calories a day, and the average woman needs around 2,000.
However, these numbers depend on your age, weight, height, gender and lifestyle. So don’t get obsessed with counting calories all the time; instead, make sure you eat healthily.
How? By ensuring that you get a balanced mix of carbohydrates, proteins, fat, fibre, vitamins and minerals each day. Eating healthily doesn’t mean completely depriving yourself of your favourite dishes or giving yourself unrealistic restrictions; rather, it is about balance and moderation. The occasional buffet or crash diet will not make a huge difference!
You can also replace food types which are not beneficial with healthier choices, and eat more of the good stuff – and less of the unhealthy foods.
And don’t forget to drink plenty of water – water not only quenches your thirst but it is also a healthier choice, as it does not contain any calories or sugar. Avoid sugar-sweetened drinks (e.g. soft drinks), flavoured fruit drinks, sports/energy drinks, sweetened coffee and tea.
Healthy fats: E.g. oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna and trout, which are low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids. Other sources of healthy fats include avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil and eggs.
Lean protein: Chicken, turkey, lean meat, fish and shellfish.
Fibre: Brown rice, multigrain bread, wholegrain cereal, vegetables and fruit. Fibre can boost your health, help you maintain a healthy weight, and even help you lose weight as it makes you stay full longer.
Red meat and processed meat: Try to limit yourself to 500g of red meat a week.
Sugar: Sweets, lollies, cakes and cookies, and sugar-sweetened drinks. Don’t cut sugar out of your diet completely, however, as sugar, in the form of carbohydrates, is an important source of energy for your body.
Saturated fats: Butter, cream, palm and coconut oils, animal fats in meat and chicken skin. Replace with unsaturated fats and oils such as canola oil, soybean oil or olive oil.
A balanced plate ensures that you get enough (and not too much) of each main food group.
Vegetables and fruit are rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals, which can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer.
Meat provides the proteins that are needed for growth and repair.
Carbohydrates provide energy. Compared to refined grains (white rice or white bread), whole grains contain more fibre and more nutrients. They also keep you full for a longer time.
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