Do you need to watch what you eat because of a health problem? BENITA AW YEONG finds out that you can still enjoy Christmas food if you stick to some rules
Supermarket catalogues are full of them at this time of the year: legs of honey-baked ham, succulent joints of roast beef and chocolatey log cakes. They are to die for ? something heart patients should do well to avoid. This is a tough time of year ? stretching all the way to Chinese New Year ? for anyone who has cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol or diabetes or is watching his weight.
Ministry of Health statistics show that 23.6 per cent of deaths last year was due to heart disease. Ischaemic heart disease, caused by inadequate oxygen reaching the heart muscle, ranks as the No. 2 killer in Singapore. Diabetes and obesity rates are also creeping up among Singaporeans. A recent National Health Survey found that 11.3 per cent of adults between 18 and 69 years are diabetic, up from 9 per cent in 2004. Obesity rates have climbed from 6.9 per cent to the present 11 per cent.
So how can patients with heart problems, diabetes or obesity enjoy rich, calorie-laden festive food while keeping an eye on their health?
Dietitian Charlotte Lin from National University Hospital said that patients with heart problems should watch out for food high in saturated and trans fats. These include festive fare like roast beef with a layer of fat and food cooked with lots of butter, ghee or palm oil. “Simple steps, such as removing the skin or fat from meat and using olive oil instead of butter to fry or cook, would be good for heart patients to stick with,” said Ms Lin. Dr Ruth Kam, a cardiologist with her own practice Ruth Kam Heart and Arrhythmia Clinic, added that ham, a hot favourite at Christmas, is something heart patients would do best to avoid.
“Ham is not good for heart patients because it tends to be high in sodium and nitrites. If you really can’t resist, have just one slice, but skip the gravy ? it’s salty enough on its own,” said Dr Kam. An alternative to processed meats like ham and bacon would be fresh meat, seasoned with herbs and spices. Roast turkey without skin, for example, is not unhealthy. “Go for meats with flavour-enhancing herbs rather than those that are cooked with salt or soya sauce,” said Ms Lin. Also, eating sauces and gravy high in salt may exacerbate high blood pressure, she said.
Changi General Hospital (CGH) dietitian Ling Ping Sing recommended those struggling with obesity to contribute a low-calorie dish to potluck parties, so that they have at least one healthier option. And no, those delectable cookies and rich cakes of the season do not have your name on it if you have diabetes or a heart condition. Dr Kam said: “Choose one ? and only one ? dessert to expend your calories on. “I generally tell my patients not to go near log cakes and cookies, but if you are really craving it, have just one, small slice.”
Ms Lin added: “If you have heart disease or are baking for someone who does, use low-fat milk instead of full cream, and soft margarine, which has less trans fat and saturated fat compared to butter or shortening.” CGH’s Ms Ling said diabetics need to watch out for carbohydrate content in food. “They should stay away from cake, cookies and sweet drinks if their blood sugar level is not under control,” she said.
Parties and restaurant dinners are unavoidable during Christmas. However, doctors said that you do not have to skip them if you can make wise choices. No prizes for guessing which you should pick from a menu that offers a choice of prime roast rib and a lean meat like turkey breast. In addition, if heart or obesity patients find it difficult to control food intake, they should first load up on vegetables and foods that contain fibre before helping themselves to the meat dishes, recommended Dr Kam.
Ms Lin added: “When it comes to ordering food at a restaurant, soupy dishes make good choices for those who have high blood cholesterol or those who have had a heart attack. Also, pick items which are grilled or baked instead of deep-fried, oily food.” Of course, people with specific dietary constraints need to choose their drinks carefully too. Opt for a glass of dry, white wine or champagne rather than egg nog or a sugar-laden cocktail. Ms Ling has a tip for diabetics: bring your own sweeteners to add to tea and coffee. Most restaurants offer sweeteners suitable for diabetics, but if you are at a party, your host may not think of serving these.