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The "Two-Faced" Phenomena of Food

Food is not just a word that signifies nourishment and health but can also be perceived as a cause for disease. Epidemics of both obesity and diabetes are still on the incline yet we fail to see the fine line between health and disease. What I hope to walk you through is to demonstrate how food is a life essential but also a possible hindrance to health. Starting with the current epidemics; obesity and diabetes…Slide1

Nutritional imbalance has been a major cause of chronic disease especially being in positive energy balance but what does that mean? In simple terms, we may be eating ourselves to the point of illness. Obesity is a chronic disease where a person accumulates excessive amounts of fat causing a number of disturbances in the body. The two most important causes of obesity are inactivity and excessive intake of energy-dense foods i.e. foods that are very high in calories, fat and sugar. Yes, our society has provided us with an abundance of foods but when do we say “Thank you, I’ve had enough”? Who is to blame? Now, food’s major components are carbohydrates, fats, protein and micronutrients, by which all have essential roles in health and wellbeing. But here’s what happens when consumed in excess:

Carbohydrates (especially refined types: biscuits, white bread, white rice…) Fats  (especially saturated fats = animal fats including palm and coconut oils) Protein (especially animal sources)
Excess Calories = Weight gain Excess Calories = Weight gain Excess Calories = Weight gain
Unstable blood sugar levels Increase in cholesterol levels especially if consuming large amounts of animal fats Constipation and stomach irritability
Stomach upset such as bloating and gas Increased risk of heart disease and stroke Increased risk of kidney & liver problems

So the key here is balance and also knowing your choices. For carbohydrates, focus on healthier alternatives such as wholegrain breads, brown rice and legumes. In regards to fats, use olive oil instead of butter and include nuts in moderation such as walnuts & almonds. Finally, include lean sources of protein such as fish, chicken and limit red meat to twice per week. Healthy plant sources of protein also include beans, lentils and soy products as well as dairy products.

One of the major consequences of obesity is the development of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Diabetes is a chronic disease where there is an excessive amount of sugar in the blood. This occurs because of declined function of the pancreas and the insulin that is secreted. Type 2 diabetes mellitus was known to occur in adults but this is no longer the case. We are now seeing more and more teenagers getting diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. What’s the cause?? It all begins with insulin resistance. This is where the pancreas is producing insulin but it is not working as well as it should. As a result, the pancreas is under extra pressure to continue making more in order to keep blood sugar levels controlled. This continues until the pancreas can no longer keep up and blood sugar levels rise leading to type 2 diabetes being diagnosed.

When we look at the bigger picture, parts of the world are suffering from an excess of abundance leading to obesity and subsequently, diabetes. Yet, other parts of the world are experiencing severe under-nutrition and starvation. A global end to such crises is still far out in the horizon despite efforts by public health activists and health professionals but with regards to the obesity epidemic, could there be a solution? I believe that in certain circumstances, change can start on an individual level. You have a choice. A choice to find your balance so start now, make a change and maintain it!

The next example I would like to discuss is in the case of a vitamin called folate.  Folate is a water-soluble B-complex vitamin and is found in green leafy vegetables such as cabbage, spinach, rocket and wholegrain products. Folic acid is the synthetic form of the vitamin given as supplements. The main functions of folate include cell division, growth and blood cell formation in the bone marrow respectively. Now, for all the expectant mothers out there and those who are trying to conceive, take note! FOLATE IS AN ESSENTIAL VITAMIN AT THIS STAGE OF YOUR LIFE! Why? Failure to consume adequate folate pre-conception until 12 weeks post-conception might increase the risk of Neural Tube Defects. This is a condition when the neural tube of your baby fails to close within 26 days after conception causing a disease called Spina Bifida. The current recommendations are:  women of child bearing age without safe contraception are advised to consume a folate rich diet in combination with a supplement of 0.4mg of folic acid daily (preferably taken as a multivitamin) until 12 weeks after conception.

From being an important aspect of prevention to possibly aggravating disease, can folate speed up cancer progression? Some studies have shown that folic acid may have dual modulatory effects on cancer. In layman terms, folic acid may either inhibit the development of a tumour in normal tissue cells BUT can also promote the progression of established tumours. Therefore, the stage of cancer development is important to determine whether folate acts as a promoter or an inhibitor. So far, studies have been inconclusive with regards to showing an association between high folic acid intakes and cancer risk but neither do they exclude a risk. The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) have published recommendations for cancer prevention and they include the following:

  • Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight
  • Be physically active for at least 30 min. every day
  • Avoid sugary drinks, limit consumption of energy- dense foods (particularly processed foods high in added sugar, or low in fiber, or high in fat)
  • Eat more of a variety of vegetables and fruits (> 5 portions, > 400 g/d), wholegrains, and pulses
  • Limit consumption of red meat and avoid processed meats
  • If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to 2 for men and 1 for women per day
  • Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt
  • Don‘t use supplements to protect against cancer
  • It is best for mothers to breastfeed exclusively for up to 6 months and then add other liquids and foods
  • After treatment, cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention
  • And always remember – do not smoke or chew tobacco

By discussing such examples, you may be able to realise the fine line between the effects of food in health and disease. The ‘two-faced’ phenomena of food does exist but it comes down to how well you understand, apply and maintain the balance in all aspects of life.

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