If you’re a working adult, the chances are you don’t always pay enough attention to eating right. Continuing our series with the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka on diets for all ages, this month we speak to Priyanwada Amarasekara, Nutritionist at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka on the challenges we face as we try [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Eating well is also all in a day’s work


If you’re a working adult, the chances are you don’t always pay enough attention to eating right. Continuing our series with the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka on diets for all ages, this month we speak to Priyanwada Amarasekara, Nutritionist at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka on the challenges we face as we try to balance professional demands and health concerns. The two are far from being at odds – a compromise on one will affect the other.

Skipping breakfast and other challenges

When asked to plan a diet for this age group, Ms. Amarasekera acknowledges the difficulties of generalising across several categories of working adults. The dietary requirements can vary dramatically. From the youngest who are at the very start of their careers to those who are already established, with families of their own to run; from those adults who actually undertake heavy manual work to the largely sedentary, office based jobs.

However, one thing many have in common is that they have late breakfasts or even skip them altogether. “Lack of breakfast will affect thinking, decision making and physical fitness,” says Ms. Amarasekera, explaining that another problem is the carelessness with which many people, even those with children to look after, put together their meals, seldom taking nutrition or calorie content into consideration. Women who work and maintain their homes as well are particularly vulnerable thanks to the many demands on their time.

In the long run, such lifestyle choices can lead to increased risk of diseases such as obesity, increased blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol levels leading to more serious types of diseases such as heart attacks (myocardial infarction).People who were energetic youngsters may find themselves overtaken by a desk job and unable to stay fit. It’s essential to nip the trend in the bud. Not only should you exercise and cut down on calories to suit your newer, less physically active life but keep close tabs on your weight – check at least once every three months. “A good method is to keep a record of your food intake like a diary,” Ms. Amarasekera recommends, pointing out that her patients are often surprised when they realise how little they remember of their food choices otherwise. 

What to eat when

A little planning ahead could help you take charge of your diet. When it comes to breakfast, Ms. Amarasekera recommends you avoid overly sweet, oily or highly processed foods. If you’re not going to cook, try to start your day with a helping of fresh fruit. (Caution: avoid drinking them as juice because the addition of sugar and the straining out of fibre makes them so much less healthy.)

If you are going to cook though, the trick might be to prepare something like ambulthiyal that can be kept for awhile or even individual elements like oven dried vegetables, as well as roasted nuts that can be combined later to make a tasty meal. Many people will opt for a quick solution like a bun, but remember one slathered with jam and butter just isn’t nourishing enough, instead try to use healthy fillings (vegetables baked, boiled or used raw) and some protein (even a single egg will do the trick) on a wholewheat bun.

When it comes to planning meals later in the day, a trick Ms. Amarasekera recommends is that you mix different kinds of vegetables into one curry or that you create rich salads with loads of fresh, seasonal ingredients. “If you are planning to buy foods such as string hoppers from outside, make sure you add a vegetable to that meal – if that food outlet does not sell vegetable curries for breakfast, may be even you can bring your own curry which was prepared for lunch from home to add to the breakfast – be creative!”

Try to vary the way you cook each dish – make some curries with coconut milk and some without, for example. When cooking vegetables though, it’s best to cook them lightly and quickly, to prevent the loss of their nutrients. Eschew too much oil and avoid margarine altogether – “Remember that the amount of coconut or coconut milk powder used also counts for oil intake,” says Ms. Amarasekera.

If you’re office bound, remember hydration is essential. Though a sweet carbonated drink might seem ideal to quench your thirst, it can actually end up dehydrating you further – so stick with water. Be aware of your own triggers – many of Ms. Amarasekera’s patients report feeling like they only release the stress when they go home and relax. “That is why we tend to eat a lot when we go back- biscuits, sweets, fried foods in large quantities.” To combat that sudden hunger surge you could take meals at regular intervals and punctuate them with healthy snacks (a fruit, a yoghurt, cup of tea with less sugar) and drinking water to meet the day’s requirement of fluid in between main meals. It will help to avoid stress, she promises. 

Dieting and peer pressure

It can be hardest to diet around your friends and colleagues. “There are certain patterns that occur with workplace food habits,” says Ms. Amarasekera pointing out that group meals for instance can make it difficult to eat at the same time every day. The more serious problem though is that of sharing food between friends. “A food that is not healthy is difficult to avoid when sharing foods due to peer pressure. Over-eating also may not be unavoidable. Though you do not want to eat, due to peer pressure and availability you may eat what is not essential,” she says. It’s even harder to stick to a diet during birthdays, weddings and on festive days. Her suggestion is that you take charge – sticking to your diet and encouraging others to follow suit. 

Ms. Amarasekera notes that “going from one diet to another is not a good practice and can lead to wide weight fluctuations.”Weight gain is simple to understand. At its heart is the issue of energy imbalance. Oil and fat (09 kcal/ g) are the most energy dense foods, followed by alcohol ( 07 kcal/g). Then there’s the issue of quantity. Rice is a food with low energy density and (about 3.45 kcal/g) we can eat far too much of it. “If you know what to eat, when to eat and how to prepare the food and your requirement, you can control most of your weight.”

Healthy meals for working adults

While childhood is seen as a formative period for the growth of the body, how critical is it that adults continue to eat well? Society may dub you an adult on your 18th birthday but there are still critical changes taking place in your body. You may have reached your maximum height but your skeletal tissues will spend the next 10 – 12 years getting stronger. “A body should have good protein and micro-nutrient status to maintain health, to have the ability for child bearing, to do the work assigned properly, to be protected from diseases, to avoid chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension,” says nutritionist Ms. Amarasekera.

Here are a few suggestions for healthy meals for the working adult. 

For breakfast: Kola kenda or boiled pulses (grams). Fresh fruit or carbohydrates like rice/string hoppers, noodles (not instant), pasta, thosai, roti, wholewheat bread taken with a serving of vegetables and a protein of your choice.

For lunch: Rice / thosai/ whole wheat bread added with vegetables and appropriate protein. Eg.fried rice with as little oil as possible, but plenty of vegetables and fish/chicken or egg

For dinner:Rice/string hoppers, noodles (not instant), pasta, thosai, roti, whole wheat bread added with vegetables and appropriate protein source. eg: If having string hoppers with fish curry and sambol( purchased from outside), prepare some boiled vegetables or a cup of vegetable soup to have with this meal. Or you can eat 2-4 slices of whole meal bread with salad leaves, cucumber, bell pepper, tomatoes, an egg omelette or a slice of cheese.

Use less salt – less than 1 teaspoon per person per day. Use plenty of spices but do not depend on artificial flavours and seasonings.

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