Eating Right in Myanmar

Living Well in Myanmar

Eat local, eat right

In this column I’ve frequently written on the importance of diet and exercise in a long and healthy life. To prevent disease and disability, a primary care doctor has no therapy as potent as a healthy lifestyle. What you eat and how much you move your body impacts all aspects of your health, from cardiovascular function to cancer to psychological sharpness.

The five fundamental aspects of a healthy lifestyle are:

1) eating vegetables, beans, nuts, fish and olive oil

2) not smoking

3) exercising 90 minutes per week

4) not becoming overweight, and

5) drinking a glass of alcohol every day.

In Yangon we might add carrying a flashlight at night so you don’t fall through a hole in the sidewalk.

In a previous column, we discussed how to eat a “Mediterranean diet” in Myanmar which is considered by many experts to be the healthiest approach to food consumption. Ample opportunities exist in Yangon to access most of the items in the Mediterranean diet: vegetables and fish in the market, beans in many Myanmar and South Asian dishes, and peanuts pretty much everywhere. The challenge in eating well for most people is not the availability of the proper foods but rather access to sufficient income to purchase these foods.

Large studies continue to support these dietary choices. The Nurse’s Health Study, one of the largest investigations into chronic disease ever conducted, has been following more than 100,000 people in the US since the 1970s. The ongoing data collection has provided medical professionals with great information on a healthy lifestyle. A recent analysis showed that people eating the most vegetables and fruits had a 17 percent lower risk of heart disease.

A separate analysis from the Nurse’s Health Study showed that eating nuts saves lives. People who ate nuts reduced their risk of death by 7pc if they consumed nuts less than once per week, by 11pc if they ate nuts once per week, by 13pc for two to four times per week, by 15pc for five to six times per week, and 20pc for seven or more times per week. Even better, the study authors checked if the behaviour worked for just tree nuts and peanuts (which are actually legumes) and found the same benefit.

As we’ve known for many years, excess meat consumption appears to have a negative impact on lifespan. The European EPIC trial of over 400,000 people showed that a daily intake of 160g (5.6oz) or more of red meat was associated with 14pc higher mortality than eating meat infrequently. The data is worse for processed meat like salami, where death from any cause was increased by 44pc.

So which parts of the Mediterranean diet, or our Burmese version of it, are most beneficial?  A Greek study using the EPIC data asked 23,000 people what they ate and then watched them over an average of eight years to find out how many of them died.  In slicing the data they were able to break out how the different components of diet affected the risk of dying.  They concluded that a 16pc reduction in the likelihood of death could be attributed to high vegetable intake, 11pc to nut consumption, 10pc to legume eating, 24pc to moderate alcohol drinking, 17pc to low consumption of meat, and 11pc to healthy oils like olive oil.

The science of healthy eating shifts over the decades. Many people remember the attack on fats in the 80s, which has cooled in recent years. Nevertheless the current data piling up in support of vegetables, fish, nuts, beans and olive oil is consistent in its reproducibility and striking in its benefit. It would be great to one-day conduct research which shows that a proper Myanmar diet can achieve the same advantages.  © Christoph Gelsdorf 2013