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Eating Right

Eating Right in Our Busy Lives

At home, at work, at play, life has become really fast-paced for all of us. There is little time to pause and think about mundane things like what should we eat for the next meal. Most of us just grab a quick bite in between the multitude tasks that we perform each day, whether it is managing the home and kids or commuting long distances to work and then sitting huddled at a desk trying to meet deadlines. Bad eating habits are common. Daily circumstances often make you eat on the run, skip meals, eat whatever is fast and easy, or use food to relieve stress. In the long run, there are consequences to deal with and it’s never too early to be aware of these.

Dr Pulkit Mathur
Assistant Professor, Department of Food and Nutrition
Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi

We ignore all warning bells of aches and pains or feelings of breathlessness and slog on till diseases take their toll. India is the diabetes capital of the world and we are not far behind in other chronic diseases like high blood pressure, dyslipidemias (abnormal blood lipid levels), heart disease and cancer. There is hardly an extended family where near and dear ones are not suffering from one or more of these ailments. Hence, it is vital that we take some time out and analyse what is wrong with our lifestyles before we fall prey to these incurable and sometimes fatal diseases.

The food we eat plays a very important role in the development – and hence the prevention – of these lifestyle diseases. So let’s have a look at some common mistakes that many of us make.

To avoid skipping meals you need to plan meals in advance. A little time spent in making sure you have all the ingredients to prepare a quick meal, doing prepreparation the night before, waking up slightly earlier than your usual time usually help. If you still don’t see time for a sit-down breakfast or lunch, pack stuff that is a handy finger food and can be munched on while on the move. So, instead of parantha/roti and sabji packed separately and requiring you to eat by sitting down properly, how about rolling the vegetable in the roti and making it a wrap covered with butter paper or brown paper? That way you can still eat a healthy homemade meal and it is convenient to eat quickly while moving. Fruits, packet of roasted, unsalted nuts, roasted chana and puffed cereals are good for those in-between hunger times. You can keep these in your briefcase, bag or purse.

Common Mistakes, Consequences and Probable Solutions

1. Skipping Meals

How many of us are used to dashing out of the door most mornings without breakfast? Reason could be any – school starts too early and so the child doesn’t feel like eating so early in the morning, long distance to work, late for a meeting and hence no time to cook for the family. Some may skip a meal thinking it’s a good way to lose/control weight. Lunch is usually the other meal to be sacrificed as you may be on the road or in a meeting. As a result, you tend to satisfy hunger pangs by eating whatever you can lay your hands on, like a samosa, a patty or a packet of chips.

Most people would be surprised to know that skipping meals to lose weight may result in exactly the opposite effect. Our metabolism is triggered to slow down each time you skip a meal thanks to the genes being tuned to do so because of the insecure food supply that has existed for man for centuries. Every time the body doesn’t receive food, it fears impending starvation and goes into a ‘save calories’ mode converting them into fat for storage. Secondly, if you skip a meal, then by the next meal you will be so hungry that you will munch on snacks that are usually not healthy. Over time you may thus gain weight if you as a habit skip meals. Weight gain slowly leads to obesity, which is a root cause of the other diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Obese people are also more prone to certain types of cancers. Skipping meals and keeping the stomach empty for long hours also leads to the problem of acidity and stomach ulcers. Research has shown how students concentrate better in class if they have had a hearty breakfast. The same applies to adults who need to perform tasks requiring alertness and concentration. Do you need any more reasons to stop skipping meals, especially breakfast?

2. Eating while Watching TV

Eating meals in front of a TV screen not only kills all attempts at a family conversation but also encourages mindless eating. One is totally unaware of how much they have already eaten and what all they are consuming. If not meals, munching on snacks like chips and namkeens in front of your favourite TV show is also quite common. The worst part is, you may not even realize what you’re doing to your diet and the consequence is that you slowly gain weight.

Several studies have shown that the home food environment is vitiated by having meals in front of a TV. Parents don’t get an opportunity to use meal times for bonding with their children and inculcating good food habits. It takes a lot of will power, but do reach for the remote and switch off the TV at meal times. Or simply change meal time to when nothing interesting is on TV. At the same time, do not stock unhealthy snacks at home which are within easy reach. This will discourage munching while watching TV between meal times.

3. Snacking Round the Clock

Endless snacking is another bad habit we pick up along the way. Whatever chore one is busy doing, munching something all the time has become a habit for a number of people. This not only spoils the appetite for the main meals but also adds on extra calories to the day, again leading to undesirable weight gain. The kind of snacks one munches on will further determine what types of health problems one is inviting. World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that salt intake in a day should be less than 5 g (less than a teaspoon) and sodium intake less than 2 g in order to prevent chronic diseases like high blood pressure. A single packet of chips/namkeen may pack in 250 mg sodium. Other high-sodium foods include pickles, papads, cheese, sauces, canned vegetables, bread, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, processed meat products, soups and salted nuts. Reading labels will help select foods low in sodium. One serving should have less than 140 mg of sodium.

WHO is also going to propose that less than five per cent of our total energy intake should come from sugars, which translates into roughly 25 g or 5 teaspoons. Currently the recommendation is double of this. You may think that’s quite a bit of sugar and you don’t consume so much anyway. Well, consider this: much of the sugars consumed today are ‘hidden’ in processed foods that are not usually seen as sweets. For example, 1 tablespoon of ketchup may contain around 4 grams (around 1 teaspoon) of sugar. A single can of sugar-sweetened soft drink contains up to 40 grams (around 10 teaspoons) of sugar. Sugars are also naturally present in honey and fruit juices and added to other products like syrups, jams, jellies, mithai, cakes, pastries, ice creams, desserts, candy and chocolates.

There is increasing concern that consumption of free sugars, particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, may result in both reduced intake of foods containing more nutritionally adequate calories and an increase in total caloric intake, leading to an unhealthy diet, weight gain and increased risk of non-communicable diseases. Also of great concern is the role free sugars play in the development of dental diseases, particularly dental caries/cavities.

High fat, sugary or salty foods like fried namkeens, chips, soft drinks, ice cream and candy are considered unhealthy and should not be stocked up in your homes. Easy availability is one of the reasons why a person may not wait till meal time and keep munching, whether they are really hungry or not. Read nutrition labels and select snacks that are roasted or puffed rather than fried. Select nuts that are unsalted. Select juices that don’t have added sugar. Keep only healthy snacks within reach, such as cut carrots and cucumber slices with a curd-based dip, air-popped popcorn, fresh fruits, etc. Lastly, brush your teeth right after dinner. There will be less temptation to munch with a freshly brushed mouth.

4. Eating Too Quickly

Wolfing down your food, whether it’s a meal or a snack, doesn’t give your brain enough time to register if the stomach is full or not. Your brain doesn’t signal that you’re full until about 10 to 15 minutes after you’ve eaten enough. So, if you gulp down your meal you are not giving enough time to your brain to react, and this means you could end up eating way more than you need. Research studies have shown that eating too quickly is strongly associated with being overweight.

To fix this problem you need to consciously start to slow down your eating, physically put down your spoon between bites, take smaller bites, and make sure to chew each bite thoroughly. Do not keep eating till you feel the feeling of satiety or fullness, as by then you would have eaten more!

5. Emotional Eating

Many people tend to use eating as a coping mechanism for stress. Whether you have had a bad day at work or are emotionally disturbed because of some reason, using food as an outlet is never recommended. Polishing off an entire brick of ice cream or a box of chocolates when you are feeling low or binge eating and drinking when in a celebratory mood are not a good idea at all. A number of studies confirm that emotions, both positive and negative, can cause people to eat more than they should.

The best solution is to first recognize the problem and then find alternate stress-busters. Choose a physical activity that keeps you out of the kitchen and away from food – go for a walk to cool off or chat with friends who can de-stress you. Similarly, control yourself when in a celebratory mood by enjoying dancing, singing or simply talking to friends, instead of gorging on food. Keep your glass and snack plate reasonably full to discourage over-enthusiastic hosts from piling food on you.

6. Large Portion Sizes

The larger the plate or bowl you eat from, the more you unknowingly consume. You must have noticed how you tend to overeat at buffets. A trick that works for most people is to pick up only those dishes that you are unlikely to be able to taste elsewhere or only new kinds of preparations. You would tentatively take a smaller serving size as you are unsure whether you would like the dish or not. The second but more important thing to be resolute about is that you will not go back for second helpings!

At home reduce the size of your dinner plate and bowls. Also, never eat straight from a container or package as you will not be mindful of how much you have eaten.

Meal Planning

Eating nutritionally balanced meals is important to maintain one’s health and vitality. The concept of a balanced diet springs from trying to balance the amount of different types of foods you eat every day. Foods have been classified into different food groups to make this task easier. Choosing wisely from each food group is important in order to balance your diet and at the same time stave off chronic diseases. The table here lists each food group, foods that should be included in the daily diet from each group, and foods that should be avoided.


provide us with energy and also some amount of proteins. Whole grains are a rich source of vitamins and minerals, which however are lost in the refining process (for example, when making maida from wheat). Pulses give us energy and are also a rich source of protein. Adults need protein to maintain the normal functioning of their bodies and to look after repair of worn-out body parts and tissues, while children obviously need it for their growth. The quality of the cereal and pulse protein can be improved by eating it in combination. In fact, one part dal with four or five parts of cereals provides very good-quality protein. Pulses are also good sources of fibre and B vitamins, especially those that are eaten with the seed coat (sabut dals). Iron and calcium are also present in this food group. Milk and milk products are rich sources of protein and calcium. Calcium is a mineral very important for bone health. In fact, milk and milk products are the best sources of calcium in the diet and calcium from this source is most readily absorbed by the body.

Meat and meat products are rich sources of good-quality protein and iron in a readily absorbable form and also other vitamins. Fruits and vegetables are full of important vitamins, minerals, important plant chemicals (phytochemicals) and also fibre, which make their place in our diets very special as protective foods. They protect our bodies from a host of diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Out of all the vegetables, the green leafy vegetables like spinach, methi, cholai and sarson are a storehouse of nutrients. Most types of vitamins and minerals are present in these.

Phytochemicals are chemical substances in plants which have protective or disease-preventive properties. Most phytochemicals have antioxidant activity and protect our cells against oxidative damage (due to stress, pollution and toxic substances we inadvertently ingest daily), and also reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Phytochemicals with antioxidant activity are present in a variety of foods like allyl sulfides (in onions, garlic), carotenoids (fruits, vegetables), flavonoids (fruits, vegetables) and polyphenols (tea, grapes).

Fats and sugars provide us with energy.

Foods containing phytochemicals are already part of our daily diet. In fact, most foods contain phytochemicals except for some refined foods such as sugar or alcohol. Some foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, beans, fruits and herbs, contain many phytochemicals. The easiest way to get more phytochemicals is to eat more fruits and vegetables of all colours.

Fats and sugars provide us with energy. However, eating too much of both fats and sugars is not desirable. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature – like ghee, butter, coconut oil and vanaspati (which is also known as hydrogenated fat or trans fat). In fact, foods made from saturated fat will tend to become hard when refrigerated. Foods that naturally contain a lot of saturated fat include red meats like meat of goat, sheep, cow and pig, full-cream milk and cream. These foods are also rich in cholesterol. Other foods high in cholesterol are eggs (the yellow of the egg has all the cholesterol), organ meats like liver, kidney and brain, shrimps, prawns, etc. Saturated fats and cholesterol are bad for our health and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Hence, foods rich in these should be consumed in moderation or only occasionally. Trans fats should be avoided totally because they are the worst of the lot. Foods that are a part of our everyday diet – like biscuits, breads, bakery products – or deep-fried foods like samosas, vadas and kachoris made in vanaspati are made from hydrogenated fats and these are rich in trans fat. Before purchasing packaged food, we must at least read the label and not select brands that still use hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat. As a consumer we have a right to demand that the foods being served in restaurants and snack corners are not prepared in hydrogenated fat.

Unsaturated fat

is liquid at room temperature and includes most vegetable oils. Unsaturated oils can be of two types: MUFA- and PUFA-rich oils. MUFA refers to monounsaturated fatty acids and PUFA to polyunsaturated fatty acids. Both types of fatty acids are beneficial as they help to reduce levels of bad cholesterol in the blood and hence are protective against cardiovascular diseases. This however does not mean that the more you have of these the greater is the protection! These are after all fats and will add to your calorie intake. We need to know about good and bad fats so that we can choose the right kinds of foods when planning our diet. The fat present in cereals and pulses is mostly unsaturated. MUFA-rich oils include red palm oil, palmolein, groundnut, sesame or til oil, olive oil and rice bran oil. PUFArich oils are corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil and in fact all vegetable oils except coconut oil. PUFArich oils should not be used for deep-fat frying as they decompose easily, forming harmful products. High intake of PUFA may actually be harmful.

Before purchasing packaged food, we must at least read the label and not select brands that still use hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat. As a consumer we have a right to demand that the foods being served in restaurants and snack corners are not prepared in hydrogenated fat.

The other kinds of fats that are considered protective are the omega-3 fatty acids or alpha-linolenic fatty acids (ALNA). These are present in fish and fish oils, flaxseed (alsi), mustard oil, soybean oil, cereals and pulses like wheat, bajra, black gram, lobia, rajmah and soya bean, mustard seeds, fenugreek or methi seeds and green leafy vegetables. Ideally, a healthy diet contains a combination of different kinds of fats. You can achieve this by using different kinds of oils for different types of dishes.

The number of meals we have in a day depends on our lifestyle. It is recommended that we have smaller and more frequent meals rather than two or three large meals in a day. Large meals are more difficult to digest and also increase our tendency to put on weight (especially if dinner is our heaviest meal for the day). Actually, we should have a hearty breakfast to get us going for the day, followed by a good lunch, a snack with the evening tea and a light dinner. Studies have shown that if people virtually skip breakfast and/or lunch without decreasing their total calorie intake, their risk of developing diabetes increases significantly. The reason for this is that when one large meal is eaten, the body experiences a blood sugar spike that it cannot process. This is especially true if the calories are consumed in the evening.

Those who travel a lot and have to eat out often should choose healthier options from the menu. Choose dishes that do not have too much fat, salt or sugar. Choose grilled or roasted preparations over gravy preparations as these gravies tend to be rich in cream and overall fat content. Choose steamed preparations like idlis, dhoklas or khandvis over fried preparations like samosas, bread pakoras and vadas. Bakery products like patties, buns and cheese straws also tend to have a lot of fat. Raw salads without heavy dressings like mayonnaise are also low in fat – however, from a food safety point of view, it is unadvisable to eat raw foods while travelling as you can’t be sure of hygienic conditions being strictly maintained. Raw foods like salads and cut fruits, foods served cold and milk-based foods are likely to be heavily contaminated with microbes and can lead to food poisoning. So always eat from neat and clean food outlets that have a brisk business. If the turnover is fast, it is likely the food is cooked fresh many times a day and you are not being served stale food that had been cooked earlier. Many restaurants now recognize the demand for healthy, low-fat eating options and also list these on their menus.

If short of time, try to combine a number of ingredients and food groups into a single dish that doesn’t need a very complicated cooking process.A Balanced Diet
For instance, breakfast could be a bowl of porridge/ cornflakes with milk and cut fruits, or whole-wheat bread sandwiches that have fillings of vegetables with boiled egg/chicken/paneer, or a roti wrap with vegetables/paneer bhurji. These and so many other options can be thought of which can be eaten on the go. The trick is to keep all the ingredients in a semi-cooked or almost ready form so that you don’t have to spend too much time cooking in the morning. Similar items can also be taken as packed lunch.

The golden rule to achieve good health and ideal nutritional status has always been moderation and prudence. A balanced diet will furnish appropriate amounts of all nutrients. No one food is a miracle cure for any disease or a storehouse of all nutrients. You need to eat a variety of foods in moderate quantities (that is, neither too less nor too much). In our daily race to excel at our work (or whatever it is that drives us), we must not—and cannot afford to—compromise on our health. Lifestyle diseases are life-threatening and debilitate people so that they can’t function to the best of their abilities. So, the next time you want to rush out without a proper breakfast or want to munch on unhealthy foods to satiate hunger pangs, spare a thought to what these eating habits are doing to your body.

Consumer VOICE

Consumer VOICE

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