Mongolia is conducting a nationwide early screening, testing and diagnosis of common communicable and non-communicable diseases based on age, gender and health risks from May 1, last year. It was found that about half of more than 800,000 people examined in this diagnosis have diseases of the digestive system. Doctors and experts explain that the main reason for this is the wrong diet and improper consumption of food. Dietitian, nutritionist and Associate Professor of the Mongolian University of Science and Technology M.Purevjav talked about how to eat properly, especially how to pay attention to food during the upcoming Lunar New Year Celebration, Tsagaan Sar holiday.
People’s food consumption, specifically meat consumption, increases during the Tsagaan Sar. How should people manage their food during the festivities?
For people who are healthy or do not have any chronic disease, if they eat too much for a few days, they will not face any problem other than weight gain of one to two kilograms. During the holiday, people can eat and drink as much as they want. Unfortunately, the health of Mongolians is not very good. If you search healthy people, it is difficult to find them. For people with chronic diseases, if they eat too much, the burden on their body increases and the disease worsens. After the Tsagaan Sar and other festivities, hospital workloads and emergency calls grow dramatically. Therefore, people with underlying diseases should not overeat during the Tsagaan Sar. The average daily calorie intake for adults ranges from 1,400 to 2,700 kilocalories. However, during the Tsagaan Sar, if a person eats 15 to 20 buuz (Mongolian traditional steamed dumpling with meat and onion stuffing), 100 grams of salad and drinks a few drinks, the calories increase to 4,000 to 6,000 kilocalories.
There are many people who drink soda after eating high-fat foods. Buuz and meat dishes are often eaten with salad. In general, what kind of food is appropriate to use together?
It is good to eat meat with vegetables. But what kind of vegetables to eat is crucial. It is not optimal to eat a salad with a lot of mayonnaise. Because the calories of mayonnaise are high and digested slowly. Drinking cold drinks after eating fatty meat is wrong. All drinks are not suitable, not only carbonated drinks. Doctors say that this is likely to affect Mongolians suffering from various diseases, especially acute inflammation of the pancreas. That’s why Mongolians have been saying since ancient times, “Don’t drink cold drinks after a hot oily meal.” It means that Mongolians had great practices and habits to protect their health and organ system. But now the practice has been lost. Therefore, not only during the Tsagaan Sar, but also in the summer, people drink cold water, drinks, beer and alcohol after eating khorkhog (Mongolian barbeque). In other cases, it is important to eat the right amount of every food.
Diseases of the digestive system are increasing among Mongolians, and it becomes clear through early screening, right?
Mongolians are already faced with the need to pay attention to their food. If you look at the statistics of recent years, the growth of liver cancer is slowing down. Stomach cancer is on the rise.
What is the reason for this situation? Is it related to the excessive consumption of meat?
It is a bias to think that digestive tract diseases are only related to meat consumption. The main reason is disordered eating. Most people do not eat breakfast or lunch. Bad habits such as overeating after being hungry for a long time are also the main cause. Mongolians don’t follow a diet, or they do not attach importance to food. However, in developed countries with high life expectancy, food is very essential. For example, in Korean movies, they often ask each other, “Did you have your breakfast?” and “Did you eat your lunch?” Food is the most crucial factor in human health. It’s not just about protecting our digestive system. In specific, nutrition plays an important role in immune support, mental health and intellectual development.
The next thing is the poor quality of Mongolian food. While we don’t eat nutritious foods, we eat a lot of processed, junk and delicious things. Diseases are increasing due to these factors.
It is common for people to understand that eating right means following a strict diet. What is proper nutrition?
Food is a very simple and important concept. When people think of eating right, they think of eating foods they’ve never seen before, or they talk about following a very strict diet. They think they must eat chia seeds. In fact, it is not important to use expensive products and follow a strict diet. But it is good to have breakfast regularly. We can eat eggs, chicken and porridge that we use every day. The most important thing is to limit the products with chemical additives. We always recommend that children should be given as little as possible of chemically added cookies, dyed drinks, candy, chips and ice cream. Of course, children can eat them. Over-restricting what a child eats is complicated. But it is important to make them understand that this kind of food is useless to the body. But in reality, can parents cook hot food for their children? Do they feed their children dairy products, fruits and vegetables? For instance, everyone knows that vitamin C is important for the body. We don’t necessarily need to take it in pill form. But if children eat a medium-sized orange every day, they will meet their vitamin C needs. There are many people who say, “Fruits are expensive”. However, if you consider the price of drinks and chips for your child, its price is almost the same.
There are people who follow different diets. How fruitful are these?
People’s knowledge of nutrition is poor. There are many misconceptions about this. Therefore, people need to filter where and from whom they are getting information. I cannot blame diets. Strict dietary restrictions can be maintained for a certain period of time but we mustn’t continue this for a long time. Alternatively, the nutrients that should be obtained from restricted foods need to be replaced with similar foods. Otherwise, there is a risk of nutrient deficiency and disease.
How can we improve people’s understanding of food consumption?
Systematic knowledge should be provided to citizens. It is difficult to change the attitude of adults. It is said that only people who drink alcohol are addicted. The public is more concerned about alcohol because of the many negative things it causes, starting with domestic violence. But in reality, there are people who say that they can’t sleep without soda, coffee or chocolate. These are also forms of addiction. People don’t pay much attention to it because the side effects are less compared to alcohol. Changing addictions and habits takes a lot of time and commitment. Therefore, according to global standards, it is important to teach children about proper nutrition and nutritional education from an early age. For example, kindergarten-aged children in Japan can diagnose whether they have drunk enough water or what nutrients they are lacking by looking at the color of their urine. However, Mongolians pay more attention to making their children good mathematicians, chess players or dancers, neglecting their health education. In general, people pay attention to food only when they are sick.
Mongolia does not prioritize nutrition education. It is observed that eating is treated only as a family issue only. What is your position on this?
During socialist era, there were stores with only a few types of products and no food with various chemical additives. Therefore, food and nutrition were not discussed much in public. Mongolians instilled habits in their children through family education. That tradition is now gone. There are few grandparents and parents who know good habits and can advise them to their children. Since the 2000s, globalization of food started all over the world, and Mongolia was affected by it because it was not prepared. We did not pay attention to it, and then lost control. Food consumption reached a very dangerous and risky situation.
Health education is taught in secondary schools. However, the schools do not give children much knowledge and information about the importance of food. Did you study the curriculum of secondary schools?
The health curriculum has six main contents: food, exercise, non-communicable diseases, psychology and reproduction. I think that the curriculum is flawed and poorly coordinated between classes. The curriculum has nutrition education content. The most important thing is that only someone who knows the subject should teach it. For example, I cannot teach about mental health. However, in general education schools, the above six subjects are taught by one teacher.
According to a study conducted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Mongolia has limited opportunities for healthy eating. In terms of cost, it was concluded that about half of Mongolians cannot buy healthy food. How to pay attention to the quality of food in such a situation?
It is fully possible for Mongolians to consume quality food. We have livestock, dairy products, wheat, vegetables and forest fruits. Therefore, there is no reason for Mongolian food to be of poor quality. However, we ourselves are making mistakes in the production process. In particular, if meat is injected with antibiotics, it will turn out to be of poor quality. Mongolians also don’t store food incorrectly. If you use low-quality fertilizers in farming, it will be wrong.
On the other hand, due to lack of knowledge and information, people may reduce the quality of their food. For example, some people put their milk in paint cans. Therefore, there must be good control and standards at all stages of the food production chain. There is a need to make children understand this standard from an early age.
You mentioned earlier that excessive consumption of food during the Tsagaan Sar is a cause of illness. Do we need to change the structure and quality of our traditional holiday food?
A holiday should be like a holiday. We can eat buuz. I will explain it in connection with personal awareness. Which and how much to eat is a personal choice. Let me take air pollution as an example. Because of the smog, our respiratory tract and lungs are polluted and we get sick. The blame for this can be placed on air pollution and the government that has not been able to reduce it. But it makes no sense to say that you are sick because of the Tsagaan Sar after eating too much food. This can be regulated by individual awareness.