Ways to a heart-healthy diet

The Mediterranean diet came about when researchers noticed that incidences of heart disease among the population in those countries were significantly lower than the average American who ate diets that were largely high in fat and lacking in fibre.

They were curious about key components in the Mediterranean diet. They found the foods in their daily diet were wholegrains, carbohydrates, vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, dairy, fish and healthy fats.

Diets high in saturated fat clog up arteries and raises bad LDL cholesterol levels.

You don't have to suddenly eat Western foods that are a far cry from Asian foods to adapt to a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.

So how can you adopt the elements of the Mediterranean diet and incorporate it into Asian foods?

WHOLEGRAINS

Sure you love your rice, which Malaysian doesn't? But the grains in the Mediterranean diet are of the wholegrain variety, not refined grains.

A wholegrain has all the layers and components intact. There in lies fibre, and concentrated amounts of nutrients such as Vitamin E and B vitamins that are all heart healthy nutrients.

Cut down on refined carbohydrates such as white rice, white bread, buns, biscuits and noodles.

Choose wholegrain carbohydrates such as brown rice, multigrain rice, wholegrain bread, vermicelli, mung bean and soya bean noodles and wholewheat pasta.

All these are available at supermarkets and health food stores. Use them in your cooking as a wholegrain substitute for refined grains. If you bake, use wholewheat or wholegrain flours.

Also, look into other wholegrains as well such as semolina (sugee), oats and wholewheat cereals. A quick meal need not always be a rice meal.

Add wholegrains to curries, savoury porridgeand bubur kacang. One client of mine cooks oats together with rice.

FILL UP ON FRUIT AND VEGETABLES

The typical Mediterranean diet consists of a lot of vegetables and fresh fruit. Between seven and nine servings are consumed.

The Malaysian Dietary Guidelines 2010 recommends that Malaysians consume three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit per day.

Many of us don't even reach that recommended amount each day. Fruit and vegetables are a good source of fibre, Vitamins A, C, E and naturally occurring antioxidants compounds that help prevent arterial inflammation. Filling up on fruit and vegetables is a lower calorie way to stay full without over-eating.

As the nutrients in vegetables and fruit are lost when overcooked or canned, do consume them in ways which will give the most nutrients available. Enjoy them as a salad or ulam. One of my top recommendations to enjoy vegetables is to quickly cook them in soup.

SNACK ON NUTS AND DAIRY

The Mediterranean diet also includes nuts and cheese - something our Malaysian diet lacks. A majority of adult Malaysians give up dairy products, thinking that they make them fat.

As for nuts, Malaysians tend to eat deep fried peanuts and tidbits. All these may be nuts, but they are a far cry from their original healthy forms.

Snack on cheese, beans, yogurt and nuts instead. Walnuts are a good source of the essential fatty acids Omega-3. Portions are important - a serving of nuts is 1/4 cup and a serving of cheese is 30g.

A small serving is more than enough for a snack between meals. As for yogurt, a serving is one cup. Go for low fat or fat free natural yogurt which contains live active cultures. If you want a touch of sweetness, add a light drizzle of honey or top the yogurt with chopped or pureed fruit.

CHOOSE HEALTHY FATS

Saturated fat is found in fatty cuts of meats, poultry skin, fast foods, bakery items, desserts and processed foods. Many of my clients say that those are the most delicious foods and that anything too low fat tastes like cardboard.

It's true, fat does make foods taste nice and even meats softer to chew. But it's about putting your fats into perspective. The Mediterranean diet is rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated heart healthy fats from nuts, seeds, legumes and fish.

Mediterranean people love fish and seafood because of their proximity to the sea. In their diets, fish is their primary protein source, which is by far much leaner than meats and poultry.

The Dietary Guidelines for Malaysians 2010 recommends at least one serving of fish as a protein source every day.

Fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sea bass and cod are good for the heart and cholesterol levels because they are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.

These unsaturated fat gives your body essential nutrients from fat, but without the damaging artery clogging effects in the long run.

The use of good oils is important, as the large part of fat in your diet will come from cooking oil. When buying cooking oil, take the time to glance at the Nutrition Information Panel and look for brands where the saturated fat percentage is the lowest compared to the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated amount.

Good oils come with a higher price tag. But as it will be your largest source of dietary fat in your food, it's worth shopping around.

It's for this reason I encourage people to make time for more simple home-cooked meals. The truth is, when you eat out, most stalls and eateries will not use high quality cooking oils. It's just basic economics on their part. But if you cook at home, you'll be more aware about investing in better ingredients to ensure your meals are healthy.

It is unrealistic to tell you to totally avoid eating out, but do put things into perspective. And when you do eat out, choose foods cooked with as little oil as possible such as those that are boiled in a soup, steamed or braised.

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