It is not far from the truth to say that mental health has been hit during the pandemic mainly due to poor eating and reduced physical activity. These have been important factors in negative mental health during lockdown. There are also incidents of increased binge eating and consumption of processed snacks and alcohol. "I am comfortable eating fried snacks, chocolates and biscuits - even though I'm a diabetic - just as a bit of a release, to lift the mood," says Vivek Chandra, 43, from Mayur Vihar, East Delhi. His medication makes him put on weight, but that's not his main concern right now. "Half of me doesn't really care how I look at the moment, it's all about surviving through this terrible period. Then when it's all over we can get back to working out," he says. "I realised but could not help much as I was always going to the fridge or the cupboards and seeing what I could eat, because I was bored. I gained 4lb in a week, and I thought, 'How have I done that?'" These are the sentiments that are abounding during the Covid-19 months amongst the people. When the body is stressed it produces too much cortisol, which makes us more likely to over-eat - and not just any kind of foods, but those which are high in fat and sugar.
We may be alarmed at the rising Covid death tolls, which is more than one lakh 30 thousand, but another bigger killer is stalking and lurking silently at a greater scale, mainly due to the increased consumption of Trans Fatty Acids (TFAs) in food items that people during the lock down are binging. These trans-fats are the major cause of killers, of much greater scale than the Covid created pandemic—the Ischemic Heart Disease or Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) kills more than 4,000 Indians daily (COVID a lifestyle disease that has fast risen in prevalence in India alongside Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Diabetes, over the years.
Trans fats are all-pervasive as billions of people around the world consume food that contains toxic, artificial trans-fat, leading to half a million deaths every year. Trans fat, the invisible mainstay of the food industry which is also known as partially hydrogenated oil, is used almost universally in the food environment as it is inexpensive and prolongs shelf life. It also adds to the organoleptic properties of a food item which enhances its smell, appearance, taste and touch. Worse, It is still seen as a silver bullet by food manufacturers for producing an endless range of items from breads, cakes, pastries and chips, to cereals, candies, cookies, granola bars, chips, snack foods, salad dressings and many other processed foods. Partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) were commercially introduced in the early 20th century. This process through which liquid vegetable oil could be made solid or semi-solid at room temperature won its inventors a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1912. Now, this has turned out to be a boomerang for the mass consumers.
Even a small amount of this trans-fat can be harmful if not lethal due to its unique chemical properties as compared to other fats. It is made by a process called hydrogenation whereby vegetable oils are converted to solid fats simply by adding hydrogen atoms. Since trans fats solidify at room temperatures it also hardens in the coronary arteries raising bad LDL and decreasing good HDL cholesterol, causing heart attacks, a leading cause of deaths worldwide. A high consumption of trans fat can closely be associated with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that have taken 5.8 million lives in India alone, a WHO report says.
The removal of trans fats is in the best interest of everyone, but the process itself could take place only in a phased manner, due to the overdependence of the food industry on them. Today, there is a constant exchange of dialogue between the manufacturers and the regulators in this regard, yet the binding regulation on manufacturers for limiting the amount of trans fats in the food items is still a work in progress. The replacement of trans fats with healthier alternatives might require a multi-dimensional approach that works in favour of each stakeholder. Subsidies on edible oils with healthier nutrient profiles could be an industry-friendly approach. Also, the trans-fat switch must be contemplated thoroughly as many food manufacturers are shifting from trans-fat to alternatives rich in saturated fats. As the consumption of saturated fats in higher amounts is also associated with many health ailments, this approach needs to be reviewed for avoiding a ‘cycle repeat’ situation.
The Foods Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) launched ‘Heart Attack Rewind’, an awareness campaign to educate the consumers that foregoing trans-fat will not compromise either the taste or cost of food. The FSSAI also initiated the ‘Trans Fat Free’ logo, a voluntary labelling exercise to educate the consumers and encourage food manufacturers to limit the trans fats in their food products to attract health-conscious consumers.
The elimination of trans fats from the food environment has become a global health agenda. The WHO’s ‘Replace’ campaign launched in 2018, emphasizes the discarding of trans fats that is being produced industrially and aims at the global elimination of trans fats by 2023. In India, the elimination is taking place in a phased manner. In 2016, the FSSAI halved the upper limit on trans fats by weight in edible fats and oils in India from 10 per cent to 5 per cent. In keeping with the global agenda, the FSSAI in its draft resolution in 2018 proposed the limiting of the presence of industrially produced trans fats in India to 3 per cent by 2021, and 2 per cent by 2022.
Elimination of industrially produced trans fats has many socio-economic benefits, too, like reduced health expenditures and increased productive hours at work. To eliminate trans fats from the food environment, it is also important to educate the masses on the handling of edible oil. For example, there is ample evidence that repeated reheating and frying of cooking oil can increase the trans-fat content of the edible oil. The consumers should also be warned about the methods of cooking that lead to the formation of more trans-fatty acid. Interestingly, stir-frying increases the formation of trans-fatty acids, relatively more than any other method! The recently released Global Nutrition Report 2020 underlines the increasing demand for cheap and aggressively marketed ready-to-eat processed food in upper-middle and lower-middle income countries. All these foods are loaded with salt, sugar and trans fats.
But, there is no need to be afraid of fat, we all need fat in our diet! Start by reducing saturated and trans fats found in fatty animal foods (sausages, burgers) and biscuits/confectionary. We should swap for more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, oily fish, and seeds. Getting at least 1 portion of oily fish a week is crucial for the over 70s and will aid in the protection of heart health. Foods that are high in protein help to make new cells and keep muscles healthy. Eating a variety of protein-rich foods each day can help maintain muscle mass and can aid a person’s ability to stay fit and mobile! Great sources include lean meat, poultry and fish such as salmon, sardines and fresh tuna which are packed with heart-healthy omega 3 fats. Pack your diet with beans, lentils, eggs, and nuts. These are a great way to boost protein in your diet which eventually reduces hunger and may gradually stop you from snacking on empty calories.