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The Heart of the Caribbean

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by Dannielle Nicholson-Baker

 

Oh how great is the aroma and taste of Trinidad's fried bake and shark, Jamaica's escoveitch fish (fried fish) and festivals (sweet deep fried dumpling sticks) and fish cakes and flying fish from Barbados.  Though these foods taste great, if consumed regularly over time they can have detrimental effects on the health of your heart, leading to heart disease.  The reality is that a combination of certain foods and, more importantly, how they are prepared has a negative impact on the heart.

There are many theories on the cause of heart disease, in particular Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). The most dominant belief in the medical community is the association of elevated cholesterol levels and its effect on the heart. However, it is certain that there is a correlation between heart-health and what we eat. According to cardiologist Dr. Winston Ince, "It is a result of the high intake of animal fat, which is high in the saturated fats that can raise our total cholesterol levels, but we also have to look at other factors including our refined carbohydrate intake." 

Unfortunately, there is a lot of conflicting information out there regarding what type of fats are good for you.  Before 1970, animal fats such as butter, lard and other forms of saturated fats were touted as dangerous to heart-health because of their potential to increase your LDL or "bad" cholesterol.  That spurred the emergence of vegetable oils as manufacturers sought a ‘healthier' substitute.  However, the vegetable oils were too unstable to be used for the same purpose as the animal fats. In order for them to be used for frying and baking, they endured a process called hydrogenation, which lead to an increase in trans fatty acids in our diets. 

What Foods Contain Trans Fatty Acids?

  • Margarine
  • Shortening
  • Commercial frying oils - soy, safflower, sunflower etc.
  • Fried foods
  • Most breads and baked goods
  • Many pre-packaged snack foods,
  • Chocolate and candy

 

 

A trans fatty acid is an unnatural formation of the fatty acid that research has shown not only increases our LDL levels but also decreases our HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol).  In the eyes of many health professionals, consuming trans fats is even worse than consuming saturated fatty acids.  In 1997, a New England Journal of Medicine study found that eating one gram of trans fats a day for a decade increased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 20 per cent. Since then, there has been a host of other studies warning of the dangers of high consumption.

The problem with trans fatty acids and heart health is so serious that in New York City, the Board of Health voted unanimously to ban trans fatty acids from all food service establishments (cooking oils, margarine and shortening) by July 1, 2007 and from all other foodstuff by July 1, 2008.

When it comes to saturated fats, we are speaking about animal fats in particular, beef and pork, butter and lard as a main component of your diet and also some plant fats such as coconut and palm oil.

In foods that contain coconut milk like our pelau and stews in Trinidad and Grenada's traditional "oil down" (a stew with breadfruit and salted meat as the main ingredients), the saturated fat is the main component that many are concerned about.  However, it isn't so much the coconut itself as it is the processing of it. 

Most coconut oil goes through the same hydrogenation process and other refining processes, making it unhealthy. High quality coconut oil is a completely different product and is being purported as the healthiest oil that can be consumed.  Coconut does have many health benefits, including its antiviral, antimicrobial and antifungal properties. One must look for virgin coconut oil that meets certain requirements, including no (GMO) genetically modified ingredients, bleaching, deodorising, refining or hydrogenation. This type of coconut oil may be currently only available in health foods stores.

So what types of fats are good for us?
We should consume more of what are termed Essential Fatty acids (EFAs) to prevent and even treat heart disease.  EFAs are necessary fats that humans cannot synthesize, and must be obtained through diet. There are two families of EFAs: Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omega-9 is necessary yet "non-essential" because the body can manufacture a modest amount on its own, provided EFAs are present. For optimal health, our bodies need to have a higher amount of the omega 3 fatty acids than the omega 6 fatty acids.

SOURCES OF EFA:
Omega-3 fatty acids  
Omega-6 fatty acids  
Omega-9 fatty acid
Flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seed, sesame seedswalnuts, brazil nuts, salmon, mackerel, sardines, wheat germ oil, anchovies, white albacore tuna etc.Hazelnuts, pecans, cashew, flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil, hempseeds, grape seed oil, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds (raw), olives, borage oil, evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, chestnut oil. Avocado, almonds, olive oil (extra virgin or virgin), olives, peanuts, sesame oil, pecans, pistachio nuts, cashews, hazelnuts and macadamia nuts.

To be heart-healthy, you should:
1.         Reduce, if not eliminate the use of commercial vegetable oils, such as soybean, safflower oils as they have been chemically treated.
2.         Use olive oil cold on steamed vegetables, salads and lightly stir frying of foods.
3.         If available, use virgin coconut oil or canola oil for frying foods. Use Omega-3 fatty acids as part of your daily diet including fatty fish, nuts and seeds or supplementing with a fish oil or flax seed oil. Ensure that these oils are kept refrigerated and never heated.
4.         Avoid use of butter, lard and margarines.
5.         Read your food labels and avoid those that read "partially hydrogenated oil".
6.         Reduce your intake of refined carbohydrates.
7.         Exercise regularly.
8.         Get an annual check-up with lipid profile and blood sugar readings.
9.         Learn to manage stress well.

First appeared: Volume 2 Issue 4  2007

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