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13 December 2021
Pasembor, nasi kandar and char kuey teow – just the thought of these dishes makes the Penangite in me salivate.
Like all Malaysians, food for me is both a comfort and a culture, but as delicious as the food may be, we know that most of our favourite local dishes are not the healthiest out there. Fortunately, with early education and social media, more people are becoming better informed about nutrition.
This wasn’t always the case. In the early 90s, information about nutrition wasn’t as readily accessible as it is today where we have the internet, an abundance of books and even access to experts who are just a phone call away.
In the early days of my career, I have had nutritionists in Malaysia explaining the importance of a balanced meal for performance and the basic information about the food group categories, such as carbohydrates for energy and protein for muscle strength and recovery. Of course, that also included general food moderation, such as no excess of sugar or fried food, and drink lots of water to keep myself hydrated.
Back then, I had thought that knowledge was enough, but little did I know that I was not applying it correctly. It was only when I started to make my way around the professional squash circuit that I knew I needed to optimise my training with my diet, and I couldn’t just eat anything I wanted since I was competing at a more demanding level.
I knew I had to go about it the smart way, which is why I decided to consult a nutritionist to work exclusively with me and to understand what I needed specifically. Since then, I have come a long way learning about food, how it affects us, and how we should approach it. Diets, I found, while effective for short-term weight loss, may just not be the best or healthiest approach to achieving your long-term health goals.
Growing up, there were many diet trends that I saw. The Atkins diet was the rage back then, similar to how ketogenic, paleo, intermittent fasting and other diets take centre stage today. These popular diets – more commonly known as fad diets, according to Dr Sareena Hanim Hamzah – are highly influenced by obesity, a long-standing issue faced by our nation.
During my recent catch-up with Dr Sareena, a nutritionist and a Senior Lecturer at University Malaya, she shared that obesity was one of the initiators of the diet culture. Diets were a way to address obesity as a public concern which affect morbidity, mortality and quality of life. In Malaysia, the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey found that 50.1% of adults were either overweight (30.4%) or obese (19.7%), and one in five adults suffer from diabetes. These were the worrying statistics that had directly led to an upward spike in the fad diet trend.
In addition, she revealed that the fad diets are typically unhealthy, unbalanced, and may cause detrimental health effects in the long run. For instance, low-carbohydrate or high-fat diets result in lower blood glucose which lowers our insulin levels, keeping us feeling full longer. The diet plan may promote weight loss but will starve us of the nutritional requirement we need from fruits and vegetables, not setting us up for a healthier, longer, and better life.
Another example she gave was about the keto diet method. As much as it helps reduce blood glucose and insulin concentration, people on the ketogenic diet should be aware that the metabolic weight loss is mainly due to water loss, leading to dehydration and an electrolyte imbalance.
Similarly, a high-protein diet reduces body weight and enhances body composition by decreasing fat mass, which can result in delaying gastric emptying, increasing satiety, and thus reducing food intake. However, this diet may increase dietary cholesterol and saturated fat intake and may cause constipation due to the lack of fibre intake.
Where fad diets can risk rebounds and nutritional deficiency, a slower and more consistent approach is better to achieve a healthy lifestyle while losing weight naturally.
Rather than relying on fad diets, my philosophy is to have a balanced meal that fits to my individual need and physical health. I feel that the term ‘diet’ has a negative effect, reminding us to stop consuming something in order to feel better or lose weight. It becomes a mental game, rendering a trauma in our heads. Personally, I prefer to keep a balance of my food intake, having a fair amount of carbohydrates, protein, and greens.
I learnt this early on, when I was first introduced to my personal nutritionist, that it was useful to log everything that I would eat in the next three to five days, which included weighing my meals and adding my training schedule. This method also enabled my nutritionist to understand my routine and how my body processed energy.
However, I did face several challenges.
Despite my best efforts to control the right amount of food for my body, I surprisingly felt my energy levels were lower, especially when I trained at high intensity. After consulting with my nutritionist, I was told to have a recovery meal or drink within 30 minutes of the workout, and anything later would cause my body to miss out on the crucial window for recovery. Since then, I make sure to always have a little snack or shake with me after training, infinitely makes me feel better.
As a professional athlete then, my primary dietary focus had been to ensure that my body is getting the best nutrients it needs to perform at its best. I discovered that my body responded better when I made some switch in my daily consumptions, such as swapping dairy milk with almond milk and sugar with honey or taking my black tea in the mornings with no sugar and milk to cut out animal fat and processed sugar.
Now that I’m retired, I eat a lot less since my metabolism isn’t working overtime. I keep to my three-meal-a-day routine and occasionally shift the meal portions around. Compared to when I was competing where I had a small breakfast, medium-sized lunch, and a big dinner, I now keep to a smaller and lighter meal at night since I’m not doing anything after 8pm.
Food is so engrained in our culture and lifestyle that now the thought of starving off nasi lemak for long periods is daunting. Instead, I find that making minor tweaks to my lifestyle by balancing my meal each day is a better and healthier approach. One method that has worked for me is to have a meal plan for the week. You can have full control of your meal plan and may include your cravings as well. With a general idea of what you will be eating during the week, you will be able to better focus on what is in front of you and help you avoid eating something else out of your schedule.
I also understand that in order to find the right balance, discipline is often the biggest hurdle. Sometimes, I myself succumbing to the temptation, treating myself to fried foods such as char kuey teow. But instead of punishing yourself for slipping or referring to these meals as cheat meals, consider them as a ‘treat to yourself’ meal. It is totally natural that we will have cravings from time to time, but it is worth remembering that if we continue to go into the habit of having them continuously for a few days, then it’s harder to break the cycle.
While many of us currently battle with unhealthy food habits that we developed or picked up along the way – the best way to inculcate positive food habits is to start young. It’s often the case that parents find themselves eating healthier because they want their kids to eat healthy too and what better motivation for you to load up on those greens so that you set a great example for your kids. Starting early, creates the best foundation for healthy eating and helps your kids develop a healthy relationship with food that will prevent them for going down the tunnel of fad diets.
In fact, this month I’m partnering with AIA to shed light on child nutrition with the AIA ‘Mighty Healthy Meals’ initiative together with Danish Harraz. Together we’ll demonstrate how to transform your child’s favourite meals into healthier options. I am a strong believer in the importance of moderation and love exploring new ways to make healthy versions of my guilty pleasures – so I hope you’ll check in on our attempts on AIA’s Facebook page.
Having shared my past experiences, I hope readers will come to realise that a balanced diet can lead to a healthier, longer and better life.
Everybody is different and has different needs, so as you explore and find what kinds of food and lifestyle change fits you the most, please always remember to consult with your medical expert first before attempting anything that is unfamiliar to you.
No matter how you decide to treat yourself, remember that no achievement is too small. Recognising what you can do keeps you motivated and giving yourself little rewards along the way is an effective catalyst for long-term change. Your body is your temple, and it deserves to feel energetic and fresher, signs of a healthy body and lifestyle. Celebrate being healthy and strong. And most importantly, celebrate being you.
Nicol David is AIA Malaysia’s Ambassador. Nicol has an impressive 19-year squash career under her belt, where she dominated global rankings by winning eight World Titles and held the World Number 1 position for a total of 109 consecutive months.
Nicol retired in 2019 and currently focuses on empowering a younger generation of Malaysians to stay fit and active through various initiatives.