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Prescriptions For Healthy Living

Say It With Vegetables

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Studies of Seventh Day Adventists in southern California, considered the healthiest community in America, offer powerful evidence on the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. The SDA diet is heavy in fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grain breads, cereals, pastas, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

According to the SDA Dietetic Association: “SDAs, in general, have 50% less risk of heart disease, certain types of cancers, strokes, and diabetes. More specifically, recent data suggests that vegetarian men under 40 can expect to live more than eight years longer and women more than seven years longer then the general population. SDA vegetarian men live more than three years longer than SDA men who eat meat.”

Vegetables and legumes (like chickpeas and daal) are heavy in the Indian diet as well. So you feel good, right? Not so fast.

The problem lies in the way South Asian Americans prepare their vegetables, especially their practice of frying. Why is frying a problem? Because it exposes vegetables to tremendous heat and chemical reactions, which destroy vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. It would be best if we could eat our vegetables fresh or raw, such as in a salad. My parents made the switch a few years ago and have a spinach, tomato, carrot and onion salad with dinner every night. Several of my relatives have switched to fresh vegetables as well.

Still, they like to have — much as my parents do — their shak-bhaji with their roti and daal. In other words, they still fry. I should be exhorting you to “fry less!” But I realize the advice will fall on deaf ears. So, if you must fry, use better cooking oils.

The worst oils are hydrogenated. A company basically adds hydrogen to the oil molecules, turning many into trans fats, which are really bad. Our bodies can’t break them down, so they end up as plaques that clog the coronary arteries supplying the heart. This is why trans fats are linked to heart attacks and are a threat to public health. In New York and California health officials have banned trans fats in restaurants. Avoid anything that says “partially hydrogenated” on the label.

Saturated fats, such as ghee, are also problematic. Passed down over generations, ghee is as Indian as the french fry is American. In India ghee has long been perceived as being good for you, which was true when food was scarce and it was important to pack the body with calories and fats at every opportunity.

But today, for most middle class Indians and certainly Indian Americans food is abundant. Furthermore, we don’t move around enough. So we should decrease the calories and the saturated and trans fats we consume. It’s not all that difficult. Replace hydrogenated vegetable oils and ghee with good oils.

So which oils are best? The ones with lots of unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, which are easy for the body to break down and are used in various structures and metabolic processes. Olive oil is not only low in saturated fats, it also has a large amount of an unsaturated fat called omega-3 fatty acid, which helps reduce inflammation in your heart’s coronary arteries and keeps your brain cells functioning.

Canola oil is cheaper and even better than olive oil. It is better suited to frying too. Like olive oil, it’s high in unsaturated fats like omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated fats. Corn oil is also good. For years, experts recommended we avoid corn oil because it has lots of omega-6 fatty acid (not the same as omega-3 fatty acid), which is thought to be “pro-inflammatory” and possibly contributing to plaque rupture and heart attacks. However, the American Heart Association recently concluded that omega-6 fatty acid is good for the body and that it, like omega-3 fatty acid, reduces inflammation. So if you like the taste of corn oil and if you must fry, it is your oil.

But enough about oils. You can cook your vegetables in other ways to preserve the nutrition inside them. In fact, a 2008 study demonstrated that carrots cooked in steam actually had higher levels of antioxidants and phytochemicals than the raw form. Besides steaming, you can bake, boil, grill and broil. These methods add less calories and fats to what you eat and likely preserve more nutrition than frying. Nimesh Bhargava, a nutrition expert, offers other recommendations, such as coating baking pans with vegetable cooking spray (instead of using ghee or oil) and sautéing foods in water or wine (instead of ghee or oil).

Simple Changes With Big Dividends

Prescription: Eat more raw vegetables and fresh fruits

1. Eat raw salads made of a few simple vegetables like spinach, carrots and bell peppers with every dinner.

2. Instead of leaving junk food or snacks on your table or kitchen counters, put fruits and vegetables there and put the junk food inside the pantry closest or otherwise hidden away. That way when you walk into the kitchen, you see (and eat) the fruits and vegetables.

3. Mix fruit like apple slices or blueberries in your morning cereal.

Prescription: Use good oils and dairy products low in saturated fats and free of trans fats. And cut down on bad oils and ghee.

1. Replace all your cooking oil with canola oil and corn oil.

2. Instead of using pasta sauce in your spaghetti, try extra virgin olive oil and throw in herbs and vegetables. (This is how many Italians eat their pasta).

3. When buying groceries, get butter that says “low in saturated fats” on the label and read the nutrition facts to make sure the product is low in trans fats and saturated fats.

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Health | Life | Magazine | March 2010

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