Is our food obsession the cause of our cardiovascular health problems?

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By Sabrina Almeida

A recent GO train trip had me thinking about our community’s longstanding and unhealthy obsession with food.

A bunch of South Asian women sat huddled together animatedly exchanging recipes. Nothing wrong with that except the discussion was initially about how they spent their weekend. The description of their social excursions finally came down to the meals and snacks they served or were served. And once it began, there was no stopping them. The 45-minute train ride could have conjured up an entire recipe book.

Contrast this with other passengers—mostly 40-something white men discussing Trump and stock markets or hiking trails to explore this summer. Gen X women sharing their relationship and clubbing experiences. And students listening to music or podcasts on their smartphones. There is a life outside of the kitchen we need to explore, I wanted to say.

Thereon, I began to pay special attention to conversations with family and friends from the community. I unhappily report that it always gravitated towards food. How a traditional favourite was made, where Indian ingredients could be cheaply purchased and which new takeout restaurants supplied our “heart attack” food.

In my humble opinion, this food obsession (and sedentary lifestyle) is a leading cause of the community’s serious health problems. However, others don’t agree, preferring to see it as a distinctive cultural trait and symbolic of our award-winning hospitality. Meaning overindulgence in food…

But that depends on your priorities. An uncle visiting from England observed, we are always thinking about what to eat. He couldn’t handle being asked what he would like for the next meal while he was still trying to get through the current one.

And we can’t ignore medical research that highlights our predisposition for cardiovascular diseases–encouraged by our diet.

One international study by researchers at McMaster University in 2007 found people native to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka can die from heart disease five to 10 years earlier than those from other ethnic groups. The Canadian Diabetes Association’s 2013 Clinical Practice Guidelines also stated that people of South Asian descent are one of the populations at a higher risk to develop type 2 diabetes.

While most of us prefer to attribute it to genetics, the truth is that inherited eating habits are equally, if not more, to blame.

My obsession with our food fixation progressed to an examination of what we eat. Almost everything from breakfast to snacks, meals and desserts included starchy, refined grains (carbohydrates) and generous amounts of fats in the form of ghee and deep-fried offerings, plus plenty of salt and sugar.

The irony, most South Asians are vegetarians and consider themselves healthier than meat eaters. However, there are few vegetables in their daily diet. Take for example the buffet at a popular vegetarian South Indian restaurant I visited two months ago. It consisted of 4 varieties of rice preparations, 3 types of lentils, 2 legumes and cauliflower combined with our favourite potato. Dessert was once again a rice pudding and vermicelli in sweetened milk.

Also spare a moment to think about the typical Indian snacks we indulge in, often daily—samosa, pakoda, vada pao, bhel, dhokla and chewda—all consisting of flour and potato. Desserts too are mainly composed of refined flour and excessive amounts of oil and sugar. Whether it is gulab jamuns, jalebis, ladoos or kheer.

A Fraser Health report in 2015 revealed that only 1 in 8 South Asians in British Columbia eat the recommended 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Not specific to BC, I’d like to point out.
It also showed that the odds of reporting diabetes and heart disease were three and two times higher, respectively, among South Asians compared to the overall Fraser Health population. No surprise!

Being largely a society of meagre means, any economic and social mobility manifests in overindulgence in rich food. Typically in nuts and dried fruits, deep-fried snacks and sugar-filled desserts.
We pride ourselves on home cooked meals. However, when filled with refined flour, fats, salt and sugar, these can be unhealthier than the Western burgers and fries we turn our noses up at.
Thanks to a mainly sedentary lifestyle—high cholesterol, high blood pressure and sugar are almost a given and at increasingly younger ages. The bulging waist line and abdomen being symbolic of cardiovascular risks.

It is time to rethink our love affair with food in favour of a healthy relationship with life.


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