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Good and bad foods: Myths and facts

In India, as in other countries, for centuries, many food items are credited with good or bad qualities which affect your health. Though many of these beliefs have some credibility, sometimes they cause misconceptions. Modern theories and aggressive marketing strategies of certain food manufacturers, combined with the age old beliefs confuse the consumers. The solution to this problem is to understand what is good and bad about these foods and their relevance to the current lifestyle. In many cases the good has a fraction of bad and vice versa.

Many sayings and blessings in India, people associate "ghee and sugar" or "milk and honey" as symbols of prosperity and well being. This leads us to assume that sugar, ghee, milk and honey are good for health. But modern theories advice us to limit the intake of sugar and avoid saturated fats like ghee. So which is right and which is wrong? Here the relevance to lifestyle should be considered. In ancient times, daily life involved more physical activities which needed and used more calories from food. There was a certain discipline in the eating pattern. Particular dishes were prepared on specific occasions and some foods were prohibited on certain days. This might have lead to a more balanced diet. Most communities ate only their cuisine and most cuisines "good" and "bad" factors combined to make the diet healthier. In modern times, we have access and exposure to global food. So we may be eating all the wrong foods from different cuisines. It helps to understand the role of common ingredients in our daily diet.

Sugar is one of the ingredients high in calories. It provides instant energy. But these calories are now termed as "empty" calories; meaning that there is no other nutrition in them except the energy. These extra calories cause unwanted weight gain. Contrary to general belief it is not just diabetics but even healthy persons should avoid excess sugar in their diet. Many people think that substituting jaggery for sugar is allowed even for diabetics. But jaggery has almost the same calories as sugar. Being unrefined sugar, it has traces of iron and minerals which make it slightly more nutritious than sugar. Honey is credited with many healing properties and is considered "good." It is a better choice than sugar as it is a natural product and contains fructose (fruit sugar) besides sucrose(white sugar). It is rich in some vitamins and minerals. But this does not mean that one can consume large quantities of honey. Gram to gram, honey and sugar are equal in calories and it should be consumed only in moderation.

Ghee (and butter) is a saturated fat which increases the LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood. But for centuries it has been a favourite cooking medium in India especially for sweets, biryanis, parathas and many north Indian curries. As mentioned earlier the physical activity in those days might have reduced this risk to some extent. Now that we know for sure the ill effect this much loved fat has on health, it is better to avoid it.

All fats like ghee, butter and vegetable oils have same calorie content. But a small amount of fat is needed in our daily diet to supply the essential fatty acids and to have a healthy ratio of LDL and HDL (bad and good cholesterol). So consume in moderation, mono and poly unsaturated fats like peanut oil, gingili oil, sesame oil, corn oil, rice bran oil, sunflower oil, soya and olive oil etc. Whatever the health benefits a fat is credited with, it should be used only in moderate quantities. Margarine and other hydrogenated oils are used largely in bakeries, fast food joints and restaurants are high in trans fat, now considered the most dangerous and largely responsible for heat disease

Milk is a rich source of calcium and protein. But whole milk is high in saturated fat. So use low fat or skimmed milk. Use curds or paneer made from low fat milk.

Remember that any unused calories, be it from carbohydrates, fats or proteins is converted into fat and stored in our body which leads to over weight which in turn may contribute to hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and many other health set backs.

Foods to be avoided or consumed in minimum quantities are sugar, saturated fats, red meat and egg yolks. And foods that are to be consumed in moderation are poly and mono unsaturated fats, low-fat milk and milk products, egg whites, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, unpolished rice, soya products, and starchy vegetables like potato, sweet potato, yam, dry fruits like dates, figs etc.

Foods which may be consumed in generous helpings are fresh vegetables, mushrooms, fresh fruits (those on weight loss or low-cal diets should moderate the consumption of mangoes, bananas, chikoo and grapes as these are high in calories), fish, chicken and other lean meat. Flavour these dishes with onion, ginger, garlic and herbs.

Finally ensure that you get enough exercise to keep you fit.


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