By Akkinapally Ramakrishna
Increased consumption of more energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods with high levels of sugar and saturated fats, combined with reduced physical activity, have led to obesity rates that have risen three-fold or more since 1980 in the Pacific Islands and Australasia.
Obesity and overweight pose a major risk for serious diet-related chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke, and certain forms of cancer. The health consequences range from increased risk of premature death, to serious chronic conditions that reduce the overall quality of life.
The societal changes and nutrition transition are driving the obesity epidemic. As incomes rise and populations become more urban, diets high in complex carbohydrates give way to more varied diets with a higher proportion of fats, saturated fats and sugars.
Moves towards less physical activity are also found in the increasing use of automated transport, technology in the home, and more passive leisure pursuits.
What can we do about it?
Firstly by creating supportive population-based environments through public policies that promote the availability and accessibility of a variety of low-fat, high-fibre foods, and secondly by encouraging eating healthy food such as vegetables.
Vegetables are storehouse of vital vitamins and minerals required by us to keep the body in good health. They are high in fibre content and low in fat. Vegetables are also blessed with phytochemicals and antioxidants and help combat an array of diseases.
Our body requires several nutrients on a daily basis in order to function properly and stay in good health. But the only fuel it requires is glucose.
Although the body is capable of digesting almost any kind of food into glucose including proteins and fats, the carbohydrates found in vegetables are the best source of energy for the body. The type of carbohydrates found in most vegetables are complex, which are good for health and do not contribute to weight gain.
Vegetables are also good source of fibre. There are two types of fibres – soluble and insoluble. Both are blessed with their unique advantages.
Soluble fibre is great for patients with type 2diabetes as it slows down the process of digestion and makes blood sugar enter the blood stream very slowly. It also prevents the accumulation of cholesterol in the blood vessels, thereby, preventing heart disease.
Insoluble fibre, on the other hand keeps you satiated, thereby preventing overeating and initiating weight loss. It enhances the bowel movements and prevents constipation, preventing gastrointestinal disease.
Fat is the main culprit behind various diseases including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, certain types of cancers, hypertension and high cholesterol. Vegetables are great for those looking to shed weight, particularly green leafy vegetables. They are low in calories and can be consumed liberally owing to their high nutrition content.
Vegetables are rich sources of phytochemicals or substances that combat disease and infection.
Phytochemicals occur naturally in plant foods and help battle cancer and hypercholesterolemia. They also have great antioxidant properties that battle the harmful effects of free radicals and promote good health and longevity.
Vegetables are also valuable in maintaining alkaline reserve in body. They are valued for their high vitamin and mineral contents.
Vitamins A, B and C are contained in vegetables in fair amounts. Faulty cooking and prolonged careless storage can, however, destroy these valuable elements.
There are different kinds of vegetables. They may be edible roots, stems, leaves, fruits and seeds. Each group contributes to diet in its own way.
Fleshy roots are high in energy value and good sources of vitamin B group. Seeds are relatively high in carbohydrates and proteins. Leaves, steam and fruits are excellent sources of minerals, vitamins, water and roughage.
To derive maximum benefits of their nutrients, vegetables should be consumed fresh as far as possible. Most vegetables are best consumed in their natural raw state in the form of salads. If vegetables have to be cooked, it should be ensured that their nutritive value is preserved to the maximum benefit.
An intake of about 280 grams of vegetables per day per person is considered essential for maintenance of good health. Of this, leafy vegetables should constitute 40%, roots and tubers 30% and the other vegetables like egg plant, okra, the remaining 30%.
The importance of vegetables in the balanced diet of the people needs no emphasis in a developing country like PNG where high percentage of population is suffering from malnutrition, obesity and non-communicable diseases like hyper tension, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
The per capita intake of vegetables is far below the recommended standard requirement of 280g per day (see diagram below).
It is high time for policy makers, research managers, social and community workers join hands to promote vegetable R&D and extended cultivation and consumption of vegetables as they not only provide important nutrients, minerals and vitamins which are necessary for protective functions performed by the body but also generate jobs, increase incomes and improve livelihoods and above all a healthy and happy society which is the need of the hour PNG.