Healthy Eating Section > A guide to healthy eating

A guide to healthy eating

IT IS a common misconception that healthy eating is bland, boring and difficult to practise. Truth is, you don't have to be qualified in nutrition to make it part of your daily living. Another misconception is that healthy eating is only about restrictions. Draconian rules like no salt, no sugar, no fats, no this, or no that only serve to further mystify everyone. 

By the same token, there are some parties that propagate trendy diet regimes or insist upon special food based on dubious scientific evidence, if at all any! When people get the wrong idea about healthy eating, they reject it (can you blame them?). By rejecting, they are only depriving themselves of one of life's pleasures, or end up compromising their health. 

To set things right, the Technical Working Group on Nutritional Guidelines under the auspices of the National Coordinating Committee on Food and Nutrition (NCCFN), Ministry of Health Malaysia deci-ded to produce the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines 1999. They made it simple to practise healthy eating through nutritious food choices everyday. 

What should you eat? How much should you eat? Can you be sure of meeting your nutritional needs? Follow the guidelines and you will be well informed of what to eat to enjoy a healthier and more fulfilling life-style. 

The basic concept is to eat according to our needs and maintain a well-balanced diet. Yes, we're going to discuss the Food Guide Pyramid. 

The Food Guide Pyramid is not as sensational as some new-fangled diet ideas that are abound. It is based and validated by scientific research. Compelled by the evidence, the World Health Organisa-tion (WHO), governments and mainstream health professionals are happy to acknowledge that it's safe and sensible. More importantly, it is proven to work by helping people eat right for good health. 

Sure, we admit that there are other dietary systems out there but they are mostly developed for people with health conditions. Some are associated with health risks or side effects that are usually not mentioned. 

If you are healthy and want to stay that way, take this simple advice: follow the Food Guide Pyramid. In other words, your daily meals should consist more of the foods from the lower levels of the Pyramid and the least from the upper levels. It's amazingly simple. 

The Basic 8 
With the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines, there are only eight simple messages: 

In Malaysia, we generally categorise foods into four main groups carbohydrate; fruits and vegetables; protein; and milk and dairy products. Within each food group, there are many different types of food. For example, the carbohydrate group consist of rice, other cereals, cereal products, bread, noodles, pasta and tubers. 

It should be a cause for celebration to know that the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines recommends savouring the variety that's out there. And why not? Variety is the spice of life. Besides, it's a great way to ensure you receive the diffe-rent combinations of energy (calories) and nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals and fibre) that each type of food offers. 

If you are overweight (Body Mass Index of 25 to <30), it is important that you shed some kilos. Do it safely by aiming to lose no more than 0.5 / 1kg per week. Lead a more physically active lifestyle. Take every opportunity to work your body rather than rely on automation (such as the elevator, escalator and your car). Better yet, exercise at least three times per week for 20-30 minutes each time. In the meantime, cut down on the high-fat and high-calorie foods. Resist the urge to overeat or snack, and eat at regular times. 

Cereals and produce 
Go for whole-grain products as they are high in iron, phosphorous, vitamin B and fibre content. Peas, beans, lentils and soybean products tend to be rich in protein, carbohydrates, fibre and some vitamins (especially vitamin B). Have at least one selection that is rich in vitamin A or carotenoids daily (dark green vegetables, carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, mango, papaya or melon). 

Also, eat at least a selection that is rich in vitamin C (guava, papaya, oranges, mangoes or star fruits). Fibre from these foods helps im-prove bowel function and reduces constipation, diverticular disease and haemorrhoids (piles). Fibre may also lower the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer. 

Minimise Fat 
Dietary fat is important to your health. However, excessive fat in-take is the main culprit responsible for overweight. It also results in high cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. Use as little cooking oil as possible; instead of frying all the time, try grilling, microwaving or steaming. Choose lean meat and discard the skin. Don't forget to limit foods (like burgers, crisps and kueh) that may contain high amount of hidden fats. It's fine to take cholesterol-rich foods once in a while. 

Less salt 
Sodium is naturally present in many raw and processed foods. Therefore, it is unnecessary to add extra salt to your meals. Control salt intake by limiting the consumption of salted foods and condiments (soy or oyster sauce). Choose fresh foods over convenient foods and "fast foods". Read food labels to determine sodium amounts in processed foods and snack items. You can also substitute salt with herbs and spices for seasoning. 

Watch the sugar 
Excessive sugar intake tends to displace nutritious foods and can contribute to nutritional inadequacy, dental cavities and raised levels of triglycerides in the blood (in susceptible individuals) and gastro-intes-tinal irritation. The World Health Organisation recommends that not more than 10% of energy should come from sugar. So go easy on sugar. 

More water 
Water is essential for digestion, nutrient absorption, transportation and excretion of waste products, regulation of body temperature; and lubrication of moving parts. Yet, your body loses a total of about one and a half to two and a half litres a day. Replace lost fluid by drinking at least six to eight glasses of water everyday. Don't wait until you're thirsty; you might not realise that you're dehydrated already. 

Practise Breastfeeding 
Healthy eating begins at birth. Breast milk provides all the nu- trients your baby needs for growth and development including brain development. Breastfeeding is also beneficial to the mother and promotes bonding with the baby. Give your baby the best start in life. 

Professor Dr Mohd Ismail Noor, a nutritionist, is the chairman of the Technical Working Group On Nutritional Guidelines, president of the Malaysian Association For The Study of Obesity, and vice-president of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia. For further information on the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines, visit


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