18th July 2020   •   feature
How can we improve our diets to help us during the Coronavirus pandemic? We asked a nutritionist

Image: by Amirali Mirhashemian on Unsplash
Food plays a huge and important part in desi culture. But people from South Asian backgrounds also have the highest rate of type 2 diabetes. According to diabetes.co.uk, we are six times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than Europeans. As wonderful as traditional cooking is, the ingredients used and how they're cooked can be detrimental to our health.

This is particularly worrying during the Covid-19 pandemic. South Asian people are more likely to die from Coronavirus and existing illnesses such as type 2 diabetes have been proven to increase the chance of death.

I spoke with qualified nutritionist Deepa Mistry, who works with clients struggling with their health to create a sustainable diet plan, to help them become both healthier and happier.

I wanted to ask her how our diets played a role during this pandemic.

Has the pandemic affected people’s relationship with food?

"Since the virus, people are suffering massively with mental health. They’re comfort eating and snacking a lot more. People have got more time and because of this I have found that they are soul-searching and becoming more self-aware. This can be good but it can also affect their emotions and when this happens many people look for comfort - one of the ways they do that is through food."

What do you recommend to those people?

"I ask people to identify their trigger, which is essentially the moment when they feel like they need to eat something. Instead of reaching for food is there anything else that they can do? Boredom is a big trigger for people so think of doing something else to occupy you such as exercise, doing a jigsaw or reading. For some people that is really hard so I find out what they like to eat during these cravings and give them a healthy alternative."

How can we adjust our diets to improve our health?

"Asian people are quite set in their ways. They will say things like 'I can’t sustain healthy eating, I’m going back to what I enjoy,' because that’s what they have grown up with and it’s hard to break that habit."

"Asian food isn’t all bad by nature and many of our herbs and spices are packed with goodness, even ghee has good qualities despite being demonized in the media for being high in fat but it is sugar which is the biggest problem because it is addictive and gets used a lot in our cooking. A lot of vegetables will have a natural sweetness and once you cut down on sugar, your taste buds will naturally adjust and you will begin to enjoy it. Whereas if you add sugar in your foods, you will continue to crave it."

"Chapatis are something many people eat every day, but try to make it using wholemeal flour. It contains more fibre and leaves you fuller, for longer. So instead of having five chapatis with white flour, you might be equally satisfied with just 2 or 3. To bulk out your meal, you can have a side of salad, which will fill you up, provide some fibre and allows you to reach your recommended 5-a-day. Instead of rice, quinoa is a great substitute, which is lower in carbohydrate and higher in protein. To make it tastier, give it an Asian twist and add a bit of jeera."

What else can South Asians adjust cooking to improve their health?

"The best way retain nutrients of vegetables is to eat them more whole. This can be done by steaming them, eating them in salad or mixing them in a stir fry."

"1 in 5 South Asian people are low in Vitamin C and they often address this by taking supplements. This is totally unnecessary and all the Vitamin C you need can be found in food. Tomatoes, broccoli and peppers are high in C. But if you overcook it, it will be destroyed in the water."

"Asian people have used lots of traditional remedies but one that really work is turmeric milk - it is amazing - it has so many anti-oxidants and there is more research being done to confirm that it can reduce blood sugar, improve digestion and protect against heart disease."

How important is exercise in becoming healthier?

"Exercise is great for mental health, start small, the couch to 5km app is great and if you’re struggling then you can build yourself up by walking the 5km first."

"There are so many YouTube videos for workouts and yoga, especially since lockdown, which are proven to improve health and fitness. Joe Wicks has some great videos for the elderly. Even just walking around the house, up the stair and around the garden can make a big difference to your body and mind."

You can follow Deepa Mistry on Twitter and Instagram @wellness_adv for more advice on healthy recipes.
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Anish Parekh is a freelance journalist and writer.
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