Disturbed by the prevalence of heart attack and stroke cases during the holiday season, health experts yesterday dispensed a few tips on how to eat healthy, especially at this time of the year when Filipinos tend to overflow their tables with fat-laden food.
Dr. Tony Leachon, a cardiologist and consultant to the Department of Health (DOH) for noncommunicable diseases, said merrymakers should divide their plate into four sections to avoid overeating. To drive home his point, he accompanied his advice with a diagram of a plate measuring nine inches in diameter.
“One fourth should be allocated for fruits, one fourth for vegetables, one fourth for proteins and the remaining space for carbohydrates,” Leachon told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “We call this the ‘food plate.’”
In the Philippines, during the Christmas season—said to be the longest Yuletide season in the world—people tend to overindulge, making themselves vulnerable to noncommunicable or lifestyle-related illnesses, like cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
“For noche buena, eat everything in moderation, drink alcohol in moderation and stop smoking,” Leachon advised.
Noche buena is a Filipino custom originating from Spain and Mexico. It involves family members and relatives who gather together for a feast usually after the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
The Filipino staples include queso de bola, pasta, fruit salad, lechon (roast pig), hamon or Christmas ham, pancit (noodles), chicken relleno (stuffed chicken) and hot cocoa.
Top causes of death
Leachon said it was OK to enjoy festive food, but he urged people to stick to the ones low on calories, like fish and chicken. “Take more vegetables and fruits to lessen the risk of a heart attack and strokes,” he said.
A 2006 study of the Philippine Health Statistics showed that noncommunicable diseases are the leading causes of death in the country. Aside from heart illnesses, these include chronic respiratory diseases.
Such ailments have been linked to such risk factors as smoking, unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and alcohol use, according to the DOH.
The DOH has observed a trend of increasing heart attack cases in hospitals during the Christmas season.
The key to maintaining good nutrition during the holidays is “variety, balance and moderation,” said Felicidad Velandria, a registered nutritionist-dietician formerly associated with the Food and Nutrition and Research Institute.
“We can still serve the traditional Christmas foods but choose healthy ones,” Velandria said.
Instead of serving fat-laden beef hotdogs, glazed hams and pork sausages, choose the chicken variety, which are healthier, she said. “Eat less fat, sugar and salt. Eat more fruits and vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy, nuts and whole grain staples,” she added.
Healthy way of cooking
Revelers should also ditch fried foods in favor of those that are steamed, baked, grilled or boiled.
Grilling, baking, stir-frying and steaming are healthy cooking methods that help enhance the flavor of the food without the unwanted fats that may clog the arteries, Velandria said.
“Alcoholic drinks are OK, but drink in moderation,” she added. For males, two bottles of 12-oz beer or a glass of 6-oz wine or 3-oz whiskey should be enough. Females should only drink half of the amount recommended for males, she noted.
A healthier option would be a glass of fresh fruit or vegetable juice, a fruit punch or a cup of herbal tea, she said.
Most important, one must exercise to burn off the extra calories gained from the season’s festivities.
“Balance food intake with physical activity. We need to burn the calories that we take to reduce or maintain our body weight,” Velandria said.
Dried fish and rice
With thousands of people still suffering in Mindanao following Typhoon “Pablo,” an official of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has his own advice: The noche buena can be as simple as a meal of “tuyo” or dried fish and rice as long as the spirit of sharing is present among those who partake it.
“It doesn’t really matter what food is prepared on the table for noche buena … it can even be tuyo,” said Fr. Edu Gariguez, executive secretary of the CBCP National Secretariat for Social Action (Nassa). “Christmas is in the heart and not in the food that we eat.”
Think of the victims
Gariguez said that on Christmas Eve, instead of concerning oneself with extravagant food, one must think of families devastated by the typhoon and his or her less fortunate neighbors with barely a decent meal to eat.
“It’s better if those who have enough for noche buena will help and share what they have with the poor and the typhoon victims,” Gariguez said. “It’s sad that while you are stuffed with festive food, many are starving.”
Gariguez said the CBCP-Nassa and various dioceses continued to give relief assistance to the typhoon victims but that the aid was not intended for the victims’ noche buena.
He added that the CBCP-Nassa had already sent an appeal mostly for housing and shelter materials to its international partners.
“Food for noche buena is merely palliative, not a long-term remedy, so we are more focused to give them housing assistance, basic survival kits like food, shelter and housing materials,” Gariguez said.
“Following the devastating calamity, I don’t think these people even think about noche buena. They think about having a house or a shelter to go home to,” he said.
Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles has advised all dioceses under his jurisdiction that the second collection in all Christmas Day Masses will be donated entirely to the victims of the typhoon.
“All priests-celebrants of Christmas Masses are kindly asked to urge the faithful to be very generous in sharing Christmas joy with Pablo victims,” Arguelles said.