Observing food discipline, Covid guidelines, key to a heart healthy New Year | Sunday Observer

Observing food discipline, Covid guidelines, key to a heart healthy New Year

11 April, 2021
Avoid over eating oily starchy foods to prevent heart probems
Avoid over eating oily starchy foods to prevent heart problems

In a couple of days, the National New year will dawn on us. As we celebrate this joyous harvest festival, one must not forget that we are still in the midst of a Covid-19 spread  where observing strict guidelines issued by the Health Ministry is a must even when re-uniting with our families for the occasion.

Excessive consumption of rich sugar and oil laden foods is common even among patients on prescribed diets leading to cardiac problems, cholesterol and early non-communicable diseases.

Senior Cardiac Surgeon, Teaching Hospital, Karapitiya, Dr Namal Gamage said nearly 70 percent of patients who come for bypass surgeries are diabetics. The Sunday

Observer asked him to share some tips on how and what foods one should avoid or reduce adverse impacts on the heart.


Q: The Sinhala and Tamil New year is almost upon us. However, this annual national holiday which is celebrated islandwide is likely to be different from previous New Year festivals. What do you see as the most significant difference?

A: As I foresee it, this New Year festival would be a more disciplined one. Let me explain why.  In the distant past, the New Year was observed in a traditional manner where people were more interested in cultural and religious customs. However, later indisciplined elements were introduced by various groups of people sometimes with ulterior motives, such as alcohol consumption, smoking, gambling, drugs abuse and less acceptable behaviour.

However, thanks to Covid-19, a big percentage of these antisocial behaviour is likely to be reduced allowing the good old traditional New Year norms to predominate this year.

Q: As we are now under the new normal and most people are trying to get back to our normal lives, do you see the relaxation of strict rules and regulatations preventing free movement of people to their traditional homes to visit their kith and kin and have family get togethers for the New Year celebrations is a good thing?

 A: It is always good to be with one’s kith at a time like this. However, every one of us should see and treat the others we also meet at these gatherings, like one’s mother, father, brother, sister, son or daughter. Things which we don’t do to our people should not be done to the others. That attitude and thinking should be cultivated in us. If we change our thinking that way, even Covid-19 spread could be stopped.

Q: As this is the time of the year when revellers following strict diets put them on hold temporarily to enjoy the rich foods served at New Year, tell us what health impacts do you foresee on especially those with underlying illnesses such as Diabetes, Hypertension and Cholesterol if they were to forget to stick to their prescribed diets during this time around?

A: Ours is a festival laden society. There is a row of festivals all over the year. So when you calculate the days this happens, breaking one’s food ritual only at festive times itself will carry a fair number of days about 5-10% of 365 days. Food served at festive times is not prepared scrupulously like day-today meals. Raw materials are not carefully selected. Hence the risk is higher that toxins could be in higher concentration in this festive food. Therefore, eating discipline must not be broken on any account as it would result in grave health consequences.

Q: Are there any safe food they can eat?  What are the kind of foods that should be avoided during the New Year? Fried? Steamed? Cooked?

A: Traditional new year foods are generally not bad as traditional home-made coconut oil which is made out of fresh coconut kernel has no aflatoxins is used. But sadly, today nobody prepares coconut oil  the traditional way nowadays. Hence minimal quantities of toxins are there in coconut oil anyway. Traditional Kitul treackle which has low glycemic index is very rare now. Some 99 percent of the times you get sugar adulterated treacle. The same story goes for the other raw materials also. As we don’t have those good old days traditional New Year food nowadays, it is always better to eat them in minimal amounts.

Q:  So what kind of oil do you recommend when cooking?  What are their benefits or disadvantages?

A:  As pure coconut oil is not available, nobody can make a safe fry nowadays. Palm oil is anyway harmful as they contain large quantities of bad fatty acids. Soya sunflower corn cannola sesame or olive oil are healthier if they can be used.

Q: Regarding traditional dishes,  can you specifically mention a few that are found  on every New Year table e.g.  Butter cake, kavum, kokis, asme,lavariya  etc?

A: Kawum, kokis and mung kawum absorb a lot of oil during cooking and frying. When made for commercial purposes as the same oil is recycled over again which is a harmful for health, as toxic material is made inside this type of oil makes such oily foods much more toxic than the first fry food. We should remember that there are enough traditional sweets which don’t use much oil for their preparation. In this category, halapa, gotupittu, uda balum, lavaria variety of dosia, aluwa mee gamu aluwa aggala, kiribath imbul kiribath walitalapa rice talapa or payasam are some others. We can also use fresh fruits prepared in various decorative ways to decorate the New Year table. 

Q: What about sweetened drinks or fizzy drinks?

A: Artificially sweetened or coloured drinks are best avoided. Natural fruit drinks are available in our country in ample amounts. Uncommon drinks, such as katu anoda, ripe ambarella, kirala, guawa maybe a welcome alternative.

Q: Other alternatives or healthier substitutes to take? water? tea, milk?

A:  Water is always the best. Thambili, Kurumba, black tea, green tea, belimal, boiled young beli nut are some suggestions.

Q: Consumption of liquor - It has been said that a pint of beer or glass of wine is good for the heart. Do you agree?

A: Wine - red wine contains some amount of rosveterol- a substance which is heart friendly. But if one takes larger amounts of red wine, the benefits of rosveterol is superseded by the harmful effects of alcohol. The other kinds of alcohols are, anyway, harmful and have no cardio protective substances.

Q: What about smoking?

A: Smoking is harmful. It is said one’s life span is shortened by six minutes each cigarette smoked.

Smoke carries more than 100 toxic agents. Passive smoking which means inhaling somebody else’s smoke when close to him is equally harmful.

Q:  At this time around many children leading sedentary lives tend to overeat especially snacks, fried foods, biscuits, cake and sweets and drink a lot of artificially sweetened juice. With the rise of obesity in children in Sri Lanka, will this lead to early non Communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart problems, hypertension and cholesterol?

A: The April New Year festival is a blessing for these children, especially those who go to their native villages and participate traditional physical New Year games. Their parents should encourage them in such activities, always keeping in mind they are performed within the Covid-19 prevention guidelines. Parents should also allow them to taste wholesome toxic free traditional village food varieties and how to prepare them. It would be an enjoyable exercise in contrast to ready-made fast-food items provided over the counters in big cities.         

Q: Since you referred to Covid guidelines, social distancing is difficult when families get together during the New Year.  Masks are put aside, hugging and kissing becomes normal instead of the elbow bump or hand clasped greeting the Ministry informs. Since the danger of Covid transmission is still prevalent what will be the health impact on those who are exposed to these risks by not adhering to the safety rules?

A: Covid-19 guidelines have been issued by the Health Ministry and most people know what is expected, how to follow them and what way to behave. All of us know direct spread of Covid-19 is by inhalation of one’s miniature droplets showering out when the person talks coughs sneezes or falling them on conjunctiva of eyes. Indirect spread is by touching the surfaces where those droplets are deposited on and then touching once mouth nose or eyes using that uncleaned hands- so called nosocomial spread.

Q: It has been reported that a few limited studies had found that many people were healthier during the Covid-19 lockdown as they ate limited quantities of healthy homegrown food without pesticides grown in their own gardens. It was also reported that hospitals reported less heart patients being warded. Your comments?

A:  There are good things and bad aspects regarding health impacts, in relation to the Covid-19 lockdown. People learned lot of things during this long Covid-19 vacation and it is true a lot of people thought about healthier ways of food habits thanks to Covid-19. 

On the other hand I have seen some needy patients losing their golden hour of treatment during the process of fulfilling Covid-19 screening requirements when they are hospitalised for an emergency heart attack treatment. 

Q. Compared to previous years, is there a rise in the number of heart patients requiring treatment?

A. It is difficult to say. Most of the patients did not turn up and transfers from distant hospitals were discouraged. The impact is not fully studied yet.

Q: Is it also true that many of these patients are younger than the 60 plus patient of yesteryear? What are the reasons?

A: Diabetes is becoming commoner and commoner among younger crowds. Nearly 70 percent of patient who come for bypass surgeries are diabetics. Most of them have poor control of it over the years. This could be the reason for increasing ischemic heart diseases in younger people.

Q: Your advice to readers on how to enjoy a heart healthy New Year.

A: As we are partially imprisoned by this pandemic, we should look for new ways to enjoy our longer hours staying indoors. Gardening, cooking, indoor exercising and bonding with the family are great for the health in general and the heart and other NCDs in particular.