A Malaysian Dietitian On How To Eat Healthier

Elaine Ho, a Malaysian girl from Taiping, spent the last 9 years in Sydney, where she completed her degree in nutrition at the University of Sydney, and later on went to pursue a postgraduate degree in public health. An accredited practising dietitian, she’s currently based in Malaysia, ready for her next food adventure!

A lot of people love food, but not to the degree of, well, completing a degree in it. When did her interest in food and nutrition start?

“I think I really took on an interest in food and nutrition whilst studying and working in Australia. Over the years, it grew into a passion as I began to appreciate how food influences our lives in so many ways.

Australia is blessed with an abundance of high quality local produce which I have grown to love and enjoy. Sydney is a multicultural food paradise – we are well and truly spoilt for choice. I am quite a foodie, and nothing excites me more than getting into the kitchen to experiment with recipes, midnight baking, creating DIY food gifts for friends or family, and ticking off my never-ending list of amazing local Australian cafés. I also have an incurable love for 100% nut butters, Chobani greek yoghurt, yellow peaches, and pink lady apples.”

Food has become a really trending topic lately, and I wanted to know what her thoughts on it were. Were there any food myths she couldn’t stand?

“There are A LOT of food myths that I can’t stand, but if I have to pick one, it would probably be claims related to the acid-alkaline diet, also known as acid ash diet/alkaline ash diet.

The acid-alkaline diet is based on the idea that some foods (e.g. meat, fish, refined sugar, highly processed foods, alcohol, grains, and dairy) can cause our bodies to become acidic, and therefore should be carefully balanced with alkaline-producing foods, predominantly fruits and veggies.

Proponents of this diet, including celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow, claim that it can help you lose weight, increase energy levels, and reduce risk of health problems such as heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. Earlier this year, Robert Young, often hailed as the ‘father of the alkaline diet’, was convicted for practising medicine without a license.”

Click here to find out more.

“Clearly, eating more fruits and veggies as well as cutting down on alcohol, added sugar, and processed foods have many health benefits. It’s not exactly rocket science!. However, changing the pH of your body isn’t one of them. Claims about the mechanisms behind this diet are physiologically flawed and research on its long-term health effects is limited.”

(Read here for more).

“The FACT is this: whilst food can alter the pH value of urine (followers of this diet are often encouraged to monitor this using pH test strips), it simply cannot change your blood pH (if it did, you would have been severely ill or dead!) and there are many other factors that influence the pH of your urine.

The overall balance of food in our diet is important, and judging a food based on its acid-forming potential is oversimplifying the relationship between food and our health.”

What about diets like going gluten-free? In my opinion, this is a fad diet that’s rather annoying. If you REALLY had Coeliac disease, you wouldn’t be able to eat out at all and you’d have to be really careful about everything that you ate.

“Going gluten-free (GF) is a worldwide phenomenon and a trend that is showing no sign of slowing down. In countries like Australia, UK, and US, GF food is becoming a norm in grocery stores, restaurants, and cookbooks.

Hardly surprising considering that the GF diet is often hailed by A-list celebrities and professional athletes as the reason for their weight loss or improved performance. Let’s not forget that people who swear by the GF diet as the key to weight loss are also cutting down on chunks of calories from highly processed food such as cakes, biscuits, pastries, and pizzas.”

“For people with medically diagnosed coeliac disease (in Australia, that’s 1 in 70 people), gluten needs to stay off the menu for life as even a tiny amount of gluten, about 1/100th of a slice of bread, can cause damage to their gut lining. There is another group of people who believe that giving up gluten improves their gut health, i.e. no more troublesome digestive symptoms. However, the cause and treatment of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is not well understood.

For the rest of us, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that gluten is unhealthy or harmful to our health. Yet, many people follow this diet because they think it is healthier and happily buy all the GF products on supermarket shelves. Many GF products are highly processed; lack essential vitamins and minerals; as well as high in sugar, fat, or sodium to compensate for the lack of taste.

This is not to say that one can’t eat healthy on the GF diet. If the bulk of your diet is made up of highly processed GF products, then you’re probably doing more harm than good to your health.

Considering that coeliac sufferers must avoid all gluten-containing grains (rye, barley, wheat, oats, and wheat varieties such as spelt) and any food that may contain traces of these ingredients, eating out can be challenging as going GF is literally a matter of life and death – not a lifestyle choice. It is not just about avoiding regular bread and pasta as gluten can also be found in stock cubes, sauces, commercial salad dressings, and frying oil contaminated with crumbs. Plus, relying on GF labels on restaurant menus does not guarantee that the food is truly GF.

Thankfully, in Australia, the national coeliac organisation has launched a GF Accreditation Program where food outlets would have to comply with stringent standards if they want to be accredited. Good news for coeliac sufferers living in or travelling to Australia as they can now dine with confidence in accredited cafés, restaurants, and other food businesses.”

I’ve never been to Australia, but my impression is that it’s easier to eat healthier in Australia vs Malaysia, where we’re super proud of our delicious, yummy, greasy, unhealthy food! How does one eat healthy in Malaysia?

“Firstly, I think there is a strong cultural barrier to change the way we eat and think about food in Malaysia. Our taste buds are trained at a very young age to enjoy food that is rich is flavour – usually a combination of fat, salt, and sugar in quantities that far exceed recommendations for the general population.

Eating out is also a big part of our lifestyle – especially as life gets busier. Hawker food, the pride and downfall of Malaysians, are often laden with fat from coconut milk/cream, pork lard, ghee, and palm oil; high sodium (salt) condiments e.g. soy sauce and oyster sauce; and added sugar. Most also come with too much rice or noodles and very little vegetables (or vegetables dripping with oil and sauce).

Whether it is hawker food or restaurant meals, if you are eating out regularly, you are more likely to be served meals that come in huge portions and are high in fat, salt, and sugar.

’Life is too busy’ or ‘I have more important things to do’ are commonly expressed barriers to healthy eating. We’re all time-poor. Work and family commitments are realities for a lot of us. The thought of preparing an evening meal or eating something healthy can seem too much after a crazy-hectic work schedule or long commute home from work (traffic jam lah!). Plus, despite the growing popularity of food blogs and TV cooking shows, many people don’t or can’t cook. People seem to have lost or no longer appreciate the art of cooking.”

I agree. I was given a lot of grief by my boyfriend for not knowing how to properly boil an egg. (OK, I didn’t know I had to poke a hole in the egg before boiling it. So sue me!)

On a more serious note, how can Malaysians overcome roadblocks to healthy eating?

#1. Plan and prepare.

“Healthy eating does not just happen on its own. Spending some time planning and organising can go a long way to help you make healthier choices – from what you buy and store in the house, what you bring to work, to your daily meals and snacks. That way, you are less likely to get caught in the moment and overeat at the next meal. And, you are less likely to make a habit out of reaching for high calorie, nutrient-poor snacks or drinks when you are feeling that mid-morning or mid-afternoon slump in energy or concentration.”

#2. Make veggies the star of the meal.

“A simple guide is to fill half your plate with vegetables. Although what you are currently managing may look very different to this, start by thinking about the small changes you can make to double the amount of vegetables you’re eating in a day and keep building on them. Consider embracing a meat-free meal once a week, like Meat Free Monday.”

Yes! I completely support Meat Free Monday. As a matter of fact, I’m trying to decrease the amount of meat I eat in a week, and I’ve realized I feel better and lighter when I’m not gobbling down so much meat.

#3. Get to know your food.

“Preparing and eating home-cooked meals is often one of the biggest steps you can take to improve your health. If you have little experience in the kitchen, start small and cook what you know is healthy and you will enjoy. Arm yourself with simple, quick, and delicious recipes – there are plenty of resources out there! Delicious and healthy home-cooked meal doesn’t have to be MasterChef quality or magazine-cover worthy – keep your ingredients and technique simple.”

#4. Eat smart when eating out.

“If you eat out for most meals and days of the week, choose food outlets that you know serve healthier options (you may need to scout the menus in advance). When ordering meals, ask for more vegetables and if possible, less oil, salt, gravy or sugar. Choose dishes that are grilled, baked, roasted, poached, and steamed more often than those that are deep-fried and oily. If you don’t know how they are prepared, don’t be shy to ASK!”

#5. It is not just what you eat, but how you eat.

“For a lot of us, eating has become a mindless act. We have a tendency to inhale food, whether it is because we are in a rush, or distracted from the actual act of eating by our smartphones, computers or television. Eating while distracted often leads to overeating. Did you know that it takes up to 20 minutes for our brains to register fullness?

If you find yourself frequently eating past the point of comfortable fullness or in the absence of hunger, learning how to eat mindfully can help you to tune in to your hunger and fullness sensations, enjoy the eating experience, and recognize when you’ve had enough. Mindful eating helps you to become aware of triggers that make you want to eat when you’re not hungry and gives you freedom to choose your response.”

Elaine shares a few tips for beginners in order to help practise mindful eating.

  • Slow down your eating and chew thoroughly. Engage your senses to taste and savour each mouthful of the meal.
  • Remove distractions. Put down your phone, eat away from your lunch desk, and turn off the TV.
  • Check in and ask yourself how hungry you truly are. Stop when you’re satisfied, not when the plate is empty. We have been trained since young to finish everything on the plate and not waste food (‘think about the children in Africa’ is what we’re often told), BUT you are not practically feeding them by stuffing yourself! Instead, consider packing away the excess to be consumed later or sharing it with a friend.

#6. Rally support.

“Knowledge alone is often not enough to motivate someone to make and sustain changes in their lifestyle. Eating healthy is easier and more enjoyable when you have a supportive network of family, friends, colleagues or healthcare professionals. Recruit people whom you can trust to keep you accountable and be your cheerleader.”

#7. Find and build on what works for you.

“Don’t set yourself up for failure by taking on too many changes at a time. Are your goals achievable, enjoyable, and realistic? And be kind to yourself. Meaningful changes take time, patience, and commitment, but once you get going and build the momentum, those changes will eventually turn into habits.

Healthy eating should be characterised by balance, variety, nourishment, flexibility, enjoyment, and satisfaction. It is not about labelling food and single nutrients as ‘good/bad’ or ‘allowed/banned’. Neither is it about #cleaneating, #guiltfree, #sugarfree, #fatfree, going on a detox, loading up on the over-hyped ‘superfoods’ or depriving yourself of your favourite food. A black-and-white thinking instills guilt, shame, and an unhealthy obsession around food and eating.”

If there was only one thing that she wished people knew about food, what would it be?

“Food is food. There is no need to over-complicate or assign moral values to food. Stick to food as close as possible to its natural source and remember that a single meal won’t make or break your health. It is what you eat and drink on a regular basis that counts i.e. your overall eating pattern.”

Thanks for these tips, Elaine! I think a lot of us do over-complicate food, and forget that at the end of the day, it’s all about balance and moderation.

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Ann Jie

Loves good conversations and hates small talk. Finds people fascinating and wonders why meanies exist. Loves writing violent, graphic short stories but finds horror movies too scary to watch. Follow me on Instagram @annjieslices or tweet me a slice of YOUR life at @annjieslices!

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