Are you eating to feel good or to feel better?

“Thoughts drive dieting plans, but feelings drive dieting behaviour”. We plan rationally what to eat, but we gorge on things which make us feel good.That’s what health psychologists are telling us. No doubt, garlic scallops with broccoli makes us feel good. But after a morning of fighting fires and an string of tedious afternoon meetings involving front line hand-to-hand combat with tiring individuals, we’ll be wanting something that makes us feel better. We’d probably be somewhat receptive to truffle fries and mud pie. We’ll be looking forward to that last slice of chocolate cake waiting patiently for us in the fridge at home.

It’s the same reason why we’re able to sustain a relatively narrow diet of something healthy but quite plain (e.g., a mono-food diet of cabbage soup or a daily regimen of raw veggies and steamed salmon) for only so long. We crave foods which draw out a warm and fuzzy feeling from us in our moments of weakness. I mean, moments of stress, when life throws us challenges. And it’s not something we’ve cooked up. There’s data to show that we’re prone to emotional eating when we experience job burnout and fatigue.

But we need not be slaves to our cravings. Here are seven questions to ask yourself:

1. Are you feeling stressed?
We may not realise it but our emotions are in the driver’s seat when it comes to eating. We reach for comfort foods when we’re stressed. We treat ourselves to something nice after we’ve had to deal with something challenging. This is not just anecdotal evidence. A recent study shows that we’re much more likely to choose tasty but unhealthy food over a healthy but less tasty one after we’ve experienced a stressful event. The reason for this has a neurobiological basis: Our cortisol levels, which are elevated by stress, disrupt the self-control mechanism in our brains, which means that stress can derail our well-intentioned plans to eat healthy. That means that managing your stress levels is one of the key components of eating healthy.

2. Which foods are you emotionally attached to?
Stress is not the only thing we should be concerned about. Anxiety and depression also affect how we eat. At least half of the people who responded to a recent US survey agreed that weight loss was caused by not exercising enough and by the foods they ate. Only 10% considered mental well-being to be a main factor for being successful at losing weight. To cope with emotional eating, it can be helpful to understand why you eat what you eat. Keeping a daily journal can help you track the (unhealthy) foods which you eat to make yourself feel better. Use technology to your advantage: Apps like Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker not only track the nutritional value of your meal, but give you the option to label your foods with say, your emotions.

3. What emotions are you experiencing?
How often have we had lunch but not remembered what we ate? Multi-tasking at lunch or dinner time means that we often inhale our meals without considering whether we should continue eating because we’re still hungry. A 2014 study has shown that those who received training to recognise basic emotions in themselves and others were more likely to choose a healthy snack than the control group. The trained group also achieved weight loss after 3 months, whereas the control group gained weight in the same interval. According to other researchmindful eating — which includes being aware of one’s emotions when eating — means that you’ll be less likely to eat for emotional reasons. To reap the other benefits of being more motivated to exercise and having better blood glucose regulation, ask yourself what emotions you’re experiencing when you’re reaching for your 3rd pineapple tart.

4. Are you in a good mood?
Knowing how you feel when you’re about to eat is one thing. Stopping yourself from finishing all the pineapple tarts and the last of the kueh lapis is another thing. That’s where the findings of a 2014 study come in. Researchers found that people in a good mood more often chose healthy foods than those in a neutral mood. Of course, those in a bad mood more often chose comfort (and unhealthy) foods than those in a neutral mood. But the researchers also managed to get those in a bad mood to make better food choices: Getting them to focus on the future rather than the present made more who were in a bad mood switch to healthy foods. So, distract yourself with music or friends when you’re in a bad mood to avoid indulgent emotional eating.

5. Did you have breakfast this morning?
Breakfast has been linked to various positive health outcomes. Here’s one more! A 2014 study explains the reason why breakfast leads to less overeating during the rest of the day. It turns out that eating at the start of the day regulates your feel-good hormone, dopamine, reducing your food cravings during the rest of the day.

6. Do you really need to eat everything at the buffet?
Given a choice between a cheap all-we-can-eat buffet and a pricier one, which would we choose? The cheap one might be good for our wallet in the short run, but a 2015 study finds that we’re much more likely to overeat and feel guilty for our indulgence at the cheap than pricier buffet. So, practice mindful eating and go for the not-so-cheap option…if nothing less than a buffet will suffice.

7. Are you still feeling hungry?
Proteins, grains and pulses are the secret to curbing our appetite. And not all foods are equal: almonds, saffron, and pine nut oil also help us feel full for longer, according to an 2014 report in Food Technology.

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Your attitude towards ageing matters

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Increasing the amount of physical activity that you do cuts the risk of dementia by as much as 60%, when combined with a healthy lifestyle which includes cutting out nicotine and and cutting down on alcohol.

Recent research now explains that exercise is the key to ageing successfully because physical activity keeps your brain healthy. A 2015 study reveals that older adults (their participants were Japanese men aged 60 to 74 years) are more likely to use the same part of the brain for tasks requiring cognitive control (such as the Stroop test — you can try it here) as young adults if they are physically fitter; those with less fitness use more parts of their brain to perform the same task. Another 2015 study also finds that brain atrophy can be reversed among healthy older adults and those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) through moderate intensity exercise.

But exercise is only half the equation. It’s also important to give your brain opportunities to grow new neural connections. The notion that healthy ageing involves giving yourself cognitively demanding tasks (see our earlier blog post) gets more support from a 2016 study. Building on earlier findings, this study demonstrates that mentally challenging activities – such as learning digital photography or quilting or learning both – produces greater improvements in memory than low hanging fruit, like travel and cooking activities for which participants are not required to learn something new.

It doesn’t do any harm to also increase healthy foods, specifically green vegetables, walnuts, curries, and omega-3 foods like eggs, bananas, dark chocolate, avocado, and blueberries, which have been found to reduce the risk of cognitive decline with age.

But it might surprise you to find out that social connections also have a powerful effect on your health. A 2016 study finds that having a larger social network is crucial for health during late, as well as early, adulthood. Seniors not in social isolation achieve better scores on health markers which include blood pressure, body mass index, and a measure of systemic inflammation.

And that your beliefs about ageing can also be impactful. A 2015 study finds that people who hold negative beliefs (e.g., “elderly people are decrepit”) are more likely to subsequently experience brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s dementia.

Just something to think about as the planets line up on this full moon.

Getting into a habit and reaching your goals

Forty-seven days into the new year, you may have made a new year resolution and may be finding it hard to stick to it. Your new year goal may have been to get more exercise and eat healthier. Or it may have been to spend less and save more money. But it’s been an uphill task over the Lunar New Year.

It takes less than a minute to eat a pineapple tart, but much more time and effort to burn all that energy off — 50 floors for each tart to be exact. Bak kwa can be savoured for a wee bit longer, but not as long as the time it’ll take to climb 40 floors for each coin devoured over the weekend (calorie counts for all the various goodies here). Meeting up with friends over brunch, mall and warehouse sales, red packets and late-night games played with square tiles are the highlights of the festive occasion. It’s hard to get away with spending very little or nothing at all.

Our ultimate aim may be to lose weight or to have a healthier bank balance to make the downpayment on a property. But it’s only within reach when we articulate a goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. We make it possible for us to keep our new year resolution when we set a SMART goal.

Rather than saying we’ll eat healthy, we’re setting ourselves up for success if our plan is to “eat a serving of leafy vegetables at lunch and dinner” and “a serving of fruit with breakfast and at tea-time” by the end of the year. Rather than saying we’ll exercise more, we’re much more likely to implement an exercise habit if we were to aim to “do a physical activity for an hour twice a week” by the end of the year. Because really, who has time to exercise every day? Even carving time out to exercise every other day can be a challenge. Instead of saying we’ll spend less and save more, it’s be more effective to “set a monthly budget for dining and entertainment” by the end of the year.

But articulating a concrete goal which you can see yourself marking on your monthly calendar is only the first step. We’re more likely to succeed in achieving our goal when we form habits. Instead of saying we’ll sleep more, we’ll get more and better sleep if we were to cultivate a sleep habit each month. The goal of setting a budget for specific expenses would be within reach if we were first to develop a weekly habit of recording our expenses at the same time each week, say Sunday evening. Similarly, getting into the habit of eating fruits and veggies daily and exercising on specific days in the week makes it that much easier to achieve the goal of losing weight (How do fruits and veggies help? Here’s how), particularly when we’re preoccupied with life (I mean, problems, difficulties, challenges, sources of stress…that sort of thing).

Research reveals that doing a behaviour for the first time requires our attention. If our typical lunch and dinner are wonton mee and fish noodle soup, we engage the part of our brain which is responsible for decisions to add a portion of veggies to our meal. We intentionally seek out places which serve a generous portion of green veggies with our char kway teow and select foods which already have veggies built into the dish like yong tau foo. As we repeat this behaviour, our actions are stored in the area of the brain responsible for memory. Eventually, the mere action of getting lunch or dinner will automatically cue us into ordering a portion of veggies with our meal. And acquiring the habit of daily veggies and fruit makes our goal attainable.

But there are a few more tricks that will help jump-start your habit formation…

1. “Eating healthy” 
A 2013 study found that acquiring both exercise and diet habits simultaneously was more effective than acquiring them sequentially. People who tackled both exercise and diet habits were more successful in achieving their goals than those who changed their diet habits first and then acquired exercise habits.

So, it’s a good idea to implement both exercise and diet habits at the same time rather than one after the other.

2. “Getting exercise”
A 2015 study found that habits which prompted people to exercise were more important than the habit of exercising itself. Setting an alarm which cues us to go for gym class after work makes it more likely that we’ll actually go to the gym. Likewise, setting an appointment in the calendar to cue us to go on a nature walk or bike ride on the weekend, be it with friends or on our own, makes it more likely that we’ll realise our exercise goals. The study found that it could take a month or longer to develop the habits which prompt us to exercise.

Cues, such as having dinner with friends after attending a free mall Kpop fitness or Zumba class, can help you achieve your exercise goals.

3. “Spending less and saving more”
Because we may choose to shop and spend in order to make ourselves feel better (so say most the 700 women polled in a 2009 study), having a budget can help keep us in check.

But we’re more likely to stick to our budget if we also keep in mind the why of our goal, and if we focus on one goal. A 2010 study found that compared to people who listed 4 ways to save money, those who wrote down why they wanted to save money, actually spent less money when given the opportunity to do so, while a 2011 study observed that people were more successful at saving money when they focused on one goal (e.g., to gain financial independence) rather than multiple goals (e.g., for children’s education, a rainy day, retirement).

So, the first step in financial planningmaking a list of why you want to save money — is far more important than you think. That together with your newly minted habit of tracking monthly expenditure, you’ll be able to set a budget for all the categories of spending (e.g., mortgage repayments, insurance plans, transport, utilities, groceries, phone and internet subscriptions, dining out, clothes, entertainment), bringing you closer to your goal of “spending less and saving more”. To make it even easier, you can take advantage of this budget calculator which will do all the work for you.

 

3 simple ways to keep mentally fit

Sleep is essential in order for our brains to function well as we age. A 2014 study found that those with poor sleep tend to have more memory and problem solving concerns. A local study also found that the less we sleep the faster our brains age.

Exercise is another key ingredient for healthy aging. The authors of a 2014 study report that those who didn’t exercise regularly were more likely to have problems with their memory. Moreover, older adults with have better lung and heart health, which is enhanced through regular physical activity, also tend to have better memory and problem solving abilities, according to another 2014 study.

Being socially active is another cornerstone for optimal aging. And these days social connections includes those through social media: According to a 2014 study, training older adults to use social media helped to improve their mental well-being. It’s clearly never too late to learn!

Our outlook on life can also contribute to our ability to age well. A 2014 study finds that those who are cynical — that is, those who tend to believe that others are “mainly motivated by selfish concerns” — are more likely to have dementia. Researchers observed that depression rates were lower among older adults who used the internet, according to a 2014 study.

It’s of course also important to eat right. A 2014 study finds that one gramme (1g) of tumeric a day improves the memory of those in the early stages of diabetes (and who therefore have a higher risk of dementia). Other research shows that eating baked or broiled fish once a week is associated with better brain functioning among older adults. According to this 2014 study, it doesn’t matter whether the fish that you’re eating has a lot of omega-3 fatty acids or not. That means that including ikan kurau could be just as beneficial for your brain health as salmon is. Fish curry, anyone?

Pursuing mentally challenging activities also plays an important role in determining how we age. A 2014 study shows that having a mentally challenging job is associated with better cognitive functioning later in life, while another 2014 study finds that those who engage in intellectual activities are less likely to experience cognitive decline later in life.

But it’s not actually about playing more majong or playing video games. Rather, it’s important for us to learn new skills. As they say, either you use it or you lose it. And recent research does show that learning a demanding skill pays dividends.

So here are 3 simple ways to challenge yourself.

1. Shop at a different supermarket
Instead of going to your usual supermarket, challenge your brain by going to a supermarket that’s not familiar to you. By going to the a different NTUC, Giant, or Sheng Siong, you’ll be able to find the brands you want, but your brain will have to work harder to locate them. Plus it could save you time, especially if you did your grocery shopping together with your other errands at the same location.

2. Explore a new route
Instead of doing your errands by the usual route that you know, try a different route. It could be using a different MRT line or bus route. It could be finding a different way to walk from the bus stop or MRT station to your office or home. Challenge your brain to add more information to the mental map that you already have for that neighbourhood or area.

3. Learn a new routine
You may already have a hobby that involves learning a pattern or routine. If you already read music, learning to play a genre that’s new to you (e.g., jazz) or learning a new instrument (e.g., the ukelele) will definitely help you make new neural connections.

If your hobby involves movement, try learning a new form. For dancers, this could mean trying something new like ballet for adults, tango, or tap. For those who practise tai chi, it could mean learning another style or form. Instead of cycling, learn to roller-blade or ice-skate. Or try a cycling trail in a nature reserve instead of using the park connectors.

If you like learning languages, it may be time to switch to a new language. If you play chess, challenge yourself with a new strategy game like weiqi (圍棋) or bridge.

If you’re already very practised at solving sudoku and optimizing your Freecell score, you may be surprised to find out that doing more of the same (even if you’re attempting the really difficult stuff) isn’t likely to be helping you delay dementia.

Because if you’re not outside your comfort zone, your brain’s probably not busy making new neural connections and you’re not building up your cognitive reserve.

5 Places to Visit When You’re Feeling Stressed

5 Places to De-stress in Singapore

It’s finally the holidays! Hooray!

You’ve finally managed to get 5 minutes to yourself. To arrange to catch up with some friends. To space out over lunch with your colleagues. To sleep in on the weekend. To enjoy the commute now that the roads are pleasantly clear, even during peak hours.

Right about now, you might be thinking about how you can to reset your balancing act of juggling work and life. And re-charge yourself.

There’s plenty of research about what helps us adapt well in the face of life’s challenges. What helps us bounce back when we experience set-backs, things that cause emotional upheavals, even the minor intrusions onto our otherwise happy demeanor. Factors which help include being able to make realistic plans and carry them out, knowing what your strengths and abilities are, being aware and able to manage your emotions, and having problem solving skills (from The Road to Resilience: APA).

But It also helps if you also make the effort on a regular basis to manage your stress levels. That means spending time in green spaces, getting regular exercise and building physical activity in our routine, spending quality time on strengthening social connections with our families and friends, creating time for relaxation routines (yes, even walking around the neighbourhood counts), and investing in creative pastimes, even if it’s a passive appreciation of culture and natural history.

Here are some ideas to kick start your journey! Not only can you do all of the above if you go with your family and friends, but you’ll be glad you went because these gems won’t be here at for very long:

1. Biddadari
This 93ha leafy ex-cemetery, which currently is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna including butterflies, birds, squirrels, and tembusu trees, will become a housing estate with the the first underground air-conditioned bus interchange on the island in a few years. Visit this forgotten woodland to see rarely sighted birds like the Oriental scops owl, Blue-winged pitta, and Indian cuckoo, as well as regular residents like the Lineated Barbet and the Finlayson or variable squirrel, which can only be found in the area.

Getting there: The forest is next to Mount Vernon. Exit at Woodleigh MRT or take bus number 100, 135, or 155 and stop on Upper Aljunied Road.

2. Bukit Brown
An eclectic and fascinating collection of Chinese graves which include those of well-known figures from the early immigrant local Chinese community is just one feature of this 233ha sprawling cemetery. Take a tour through history at this heritage site (maps available at bukitbrown.org), or enjoy the melodious song of the Straw-headed bulbul and White-rumped sharma and agile antics of the Common tailorbird and White-breasted Kingfisher at this urban oasis (find out more the birds at Bukit Brown here).

Getting there: Bus services 52, 74, 93, 157, 165, 852, and 855 will get you to Adam Road. Head for Sime Road and the main entrance is after Lor Halwa. If you’re driving there, Lor Halwa can also be accessed through University Road (off Dunearn Road), which continues as Kheam Hock Road.

3. Pulau Ubin
Current plans to protect the diverse wildlife and eroding shoreline mean that this island should stay a haven for flora and fauna for a while. But the ever-changing landscape in Singapore (including her smaller islands) also serves as a reminder that it’s good to enjoy the kampung feeling at this small island while it’s here.

Seagrasses, coral, and the Horseshoe crab and Fiddler crab are among the natives to be found among the mangrove trees during low tide at Chek Jawa. Visit House No. 1 just inside the entrance to Chek Jawa for a good view of the only remaining fireplace in Singapore. And you might just find a toothless wild boar trying to make friends with your food near Chek Jawa.

Getting there: Take a bum boat from Changi Jetty for $2.50 (each way) and hire a bicycle when you get to the island.

4. Kampung Lor Buangkok
Current renovations are under way for some of the houses at the last kampung on the island. Visit this 1.22ha village to relive a forgotten era with their free-range chickens (although you can also spend all day peering at the freely roaming and magnificent jungle fowl at Pasir Ris Park if you’re than keen on chickens) and idle your afternoon away on a tree swing.

Getting there: The kampung is at 7 Lor Buangkok. Bus services 70, 103, and 854 take you to Yio Chu Kang Road. Stop at the bus stop near Church of St Vincent de Paul and cross the overhead bridge to the kampung.

5. Lim Chu Kang and Kranji farms
The lease for farming land in Lim Chu Kang will expire in a few years’ time. So that means, that the Lim Chu Kang farms may not be there for very long. But you can visit existing ones that have invested in sustainable farming along the Kranji Countryside. Their regular farmer’s market offers an enticing smorgasbord of locally made jams, chutneys, nut butters, sambals, and herb plants and seeds. The trees in the area are also home to industrious yellow-headed Baya weavers during the nesting season, while the otters and kingfishers at Sungei Buloh are only a stone’s throw away in the same neighbourhood.

Getting there: Bus service 975 will leave you at Lim Chu Kang Road. The farms at Neo Tiew Crescent are a bright and sunny 30min walk away. The nature reserve is best accessed on bus service 925 which stops on Neo Tiew Crescent, soon after the bridge on Kranji Way.

So, get out and enjoy the fresh air!

All work and no play makes June very dull

Don't distress. De-stress!

Long-term exposure to work-related stress impacts our mental health. According to a recent report, more young professionals are experiencing burnout (Straits Times, 14 April 2015), while a recent local study reports that as many as 1 in 13 or 14 have depression, if they’re professionals or senior managers, or if they’re from the sales and service industry.

Not exactly a pretty picture. For most of us, it’s a blurry line between work and personal life. But before we roll down the slippery slope of workaholism, there’s a few things we can do to help ourselves. We don’t need to take huge leaps. But we can start instead with small steps:

1. Get inspired to exercise
Exercise is an effective strategy for managing stress. Even a 10-min walk can do wonders for your mood and mental well-being.

  • With the SEA games starting today, it’s a great time to get inspired. Watch the swimming and cycling to get into the mood for a dip in the pool and ride around the park connectors.
  • Get a free workout with HPB’s physical activity programme Sunrise in the City at different locations across the island. Gym classes available include yoga, kickboxing, Zumba, functional and circuit training, and body combat.
  • Take a guided intertidal walk with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum to Pulau Hantu on 5 August 2015 (6.30am to noon).
  • Round up your colleagues for a friendly game of badminton at an Singapore Sports Council court ($3.50/hour on weekdays before 6pm).

2. Culture-up for SG50
Research suggests that creative pursuits are another way to beat stress, even if it only involves appreciating cultural activities as part of the audience. It’s a great excuse for some alone (or not-so-alone) time with your loved ones.

  • The Peranakan Musuem features an exhibition on the lives of 50 influential Babas and Nonyas until March 2016.
  • A huge collection of oil paintings telling the story of Singapore and her late leader Mr Lee Kuan Yew are on show at The Crescent (Level 2) at the Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre until the end of June 2015.
  • Cultural and musical performances, along with kacang putih and ice ball stalls, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on the National Day weekend, 7-8 August 2015.
  • Visit the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at Kent Ridge which features Southeast Asian plants and animals. The Phylogenetic Garden is among the gardens surrounding the museum which is open to the public without an entry ticket to the museum which is open 10am to 7pm.

3. Socialising without food
Spending time with your friends and family without it involving food in Singapore is a tall order. But there are a few things which can bring you and your friends and/or family together:

  • Kranji Countryside Farmers Market just had its quarterly farm festival on 30 and 31 May 2015. But if you missed it, there’s the fortnightly farmer’s market at The Pantry at Loewen Gardens on the first and third Saturday of the month.
  • Original craft and designs are part of the showcase at the Maker Faire which is held in Tampines on the weekend of 11-12 July 2015.
  • Enjoy the music over a beer with friends and family at the Beer Festival from 25 to 28 June 2015.
  • Visit the four new arrivals from Australia at the Zoo and get a 50% discount on a River Safari ticket when you pay for your entry ticket to see the koalas at the Singapore Zoo.

Chew the fact (s)

Back View of Man Running on Stairs
“Chew the fat” is an eatery in the newly hip district, Everton Park. It’s only a 20-min bus ride or 15-min walk from the office. In spite of the lure of a much needed espresso or latte, waffles with maple syrup, traditional ang ku kueh, delectable polish dumplings, and food court prawn mee, it’s much too far in this heat and 84% humidity to walk to for a CBD lunch.

Although these are certainly things which would keep us happy. Social conversation over coffee and cake. A sugar high from ice cream to get us through our post-prandial afternoon lull. A nice walk through the restful Pinnacle courtyard en route to Neil Road. But these aren’t always quite enough to get us through a stressful week at the office. Even though we know the psychological (and physical) benefits of exercise.

We might not be ready for a 50km run for 50 days: But if you’re in the pret-a-ultrathon mode, look here for how to join this SG50 celebration. But for the rest of us trying to get into a fitness regime, here are some new ideas to chew on:

1. Believe in yourself
It’s one thing to know that you should exercise (or start exercising). And it’s another to get started. Especially if you’re self-conscious about your shape or size (read this article). Getting professional help in order to work on issues such as self-esteem, rumination habits, having negative and/or irrational thoughts can do much to help those in such a quandary.

2. Enhance your workout with music
A recent study found that those who listened to music of their choice exercised much harder during a high-intensity work-out than those who had no music to listen to while working out. Put on your exercise shoes and load up your favourite playlist. Music, maestro!

3. Start with small steps
It’s easier when you start with small goals. Instead of aiming to do the whole 5 floors up to your office, you can take the lift up to your office but walk down from your office every day. Or you can get an app (or two) which helps you squeeze in a brief exercise session every day — 5 minutes only. Another prospective study published recently found that those who ran for just 5 to 10 minutes a day were likely to live as long as those who fulfilled the usual 150-min-a-week physical activity requirements. So, exercising for just 5 minutes a day can have huge benefits to your health.

4. Professional counselling
Consider coaching or counselling to help you deal with the stress of trying to get fitter. Weight loss isn’t a walk in the park. It’s often an uphill battle that just gets harder the more we try. And trying to exercise can increase your stress hormones, leaving you feeling stressed about getting fit, says a 2014 study. Ways to manage the stress more effectively can be brought about with one-to-one coaching and through professional counselling sessions.

5. When did you last have fun?
Thinking about a positive exercise experience can be just the thing you need to help you keep at it. A 2014 study found that those who were asked to recall a positive exercise experience were more likely to exercise in the subsequent week than those asked to recall a negative one. Think of a time when you had fun to set yourself up for success (instead of failure).

6. Try paying yourself to exercise
Ever wanted to reward yourself for exercising? Well, there’s an app that does that. This new app PACT pays you to stick to your fitness regime. It’s because we’re motivated by concrete incentives. Try it out!

7. Four wheels good. Two wheels better.
A 2014 study found that those who cycled to work were happier than other commuters. It’s no wonder given the commuting traffic we confront every day. It might be that cyclists have the opportunity to focus on things which provide a therapeutic break from stressful thoughts about work. And being in a green environment makes us feel better. Whatever it is, try cycling to reduce your stress.

8. Hitting the sweet spot
Once you’re having fun, you can always have more fun! Although squeezing in 5 minutes of exercise a day is a great start, you’ll want to do more once you enjoy it. Recent research involving an overwhelming large number of participants through national databases indicates that going beyond the minimum requirement (150 minutes a week of physical activity) has long-term benefits to our physical health. Here’s that research explained.

And think about what that does for your mood and mental well-being! Chew on that (not just the fat)…

Drink up! It’s good for you!

Champagne

We usually think only of food. Should we reduce our intake of saturated fat? Are whole grain carbs better for us? Is too much sugar a bad thing? Will eating half a plate of vegetables at each meal reduce our risk of heart attacks and cancer? (The answer is yes, yes, yes, and yes).

We’re usually stressed about what we eat. And what we eat often adds to our stress. But our drinking habits may not be helping us. Here’s a closer look at the health benefits (or lack of benefits) of what we drink:

Alcohol
Previous studies found that moderate drinking reduced the risk of heart attacks and strokes. This has lead us to think that having a drink a day helps. A 2015 prospective study which followed 15,000 middle-aged adults for 24 to 25 years found that heart failure rate was lower among moderate drinkers, those who drank up to 7 drinks a week, than heavier drinkers. But the same study also found that heart failure rate was highest for former drinkers.

There’s a reason why they stopped drinking. Not everyone can have just that one drink. Which is why mental health professionals argue that “there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption” (Guardian, March 2011). Drinking impacts our sleep, immune system, our ability to think, remember, and make decisions, and most importantly, our mental health.

Moreover, research indicates that it’s exercise not wine consumption which improves cardiovascular health. Both red and white wine lower undesirable cholesterol levels (LDL), but only exercise increases desirable cholesterol (HDL).

In fact, health experts advocate cutting down on alcohol. Why? Because it doesn’t actually protect against heart attacks or stroke. A 2015 prospective study of 53,000 people found little or no health benefit to drinking alcohol. And two other recent studies confirm the benefits of drinking less: Researchers who studied those who get easily flushed from drinking and who therefore drink less over time, have better cardiovascular health.

Need help? Read this.

Soft drinks
It’s getting more and more difficult to recommend diet soft drinks. A 2012 prospective study which followed over 2,000 adults over a decade found that drinking diet soft drinks every day increased the risk of stroke and heart attacks.

recent study found that those who drank diet soft drinks ate more than those who drank the regular version if they were overweight or obese. Another recent study showed that diet soft drinks increased the risk for diabetes.

Diet drinks don’t help us save on calories. Sugar substitutes tell your body to expect energy-rich food but when none comes, your body goes into energy preservation mode: It stores fat.

What about having the real thing, but in smaller amounts? Some nutrition experts suggest a mini can of Coca-cola to be a good snack (more about that here). But beware the 90 calories in that teeny weeny can of sugar.

Here are the figures (http://cspinet.org). Know the facts (http://hsph.harvard.edu) and make up your own mind.

Coffee
Coffee drinking has a number of known health benefits, but can we have too much of a good thing?

2014 prospective study which followed health professionals found that increasing coffee intake by 1 cup a day over a period of 4 years reduced the risk of diabetes, while other studies show that coffee consumption helps our cardiovascular health. Moderate coffee intake — 2 to 4 cups a day — reduced the risk of heart disease by 20%, while drinking at least 1 cup of coffee (or 3 cups of green tea) a day reduced the risk of stroke by 20%.

Coffee increases our stress hormones and raises our blood pressure, but the current consensus is that drinking up to 6 cups of coffee a day doesn’t spell bad news for our heart (read this article). Research finds that coffee increases the risk of fatal heart attacks, but this is because more smokers drink a lot of coffee. A 2014 prospective study which followed 131,401 Paris residents for 3.5 years found more smokers among heavy coffee drinkers (e.g., 4 cups a day) than moderate and non-drinkers. When the researchers took into account the effect of smoking, they found that coffee was not a risk for heart attacks.

So, have your cup of java. But don’t be fooled into thinking that it’ll give you immunity.

Black tea
Surprisingly, black tea may be better than green tea for slowing the glucose absorption, thereby being of benefit to people with diabetes.

But the cool thing is that our stress response recovery improves with black tea consumption. In a 2006 study where the smell and taste of tea were masked, elevated stress hormones induced by a stressful event returned to baseline levels more quickly in those who drank tea four times a day for 6 weeks than those given a placebo. That sounds like a lot of tea, but it’s not an unusual amount for those who live in the land of scones and clotted cream, fish and chips, and overcast skies.

Cuppa for me, please.

Green tea
A 2014 study found that green tea improved cognitive functioning through improved neural connectivity, while a 2013 study found that green tea enhanced frontal brain activity.

A recent study indicates that an active ingredient in green tea may be responsible for suppressing the growth of pancreatic cancer cells. In addition to the potential use of green tea for lowering the risk of pancreatic cancer, flavanols known as catechins consumed from a daily dose of green (or black) tea have been shown to reliably lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

Unlike black tea which is usually brewed at temperatures near boiling point, green tea is best brewed at about 80° Celcius. And it’s not just about taste. A 2011 study that finds the best way to extract catechins is to brew green tea at 80° Celcius for half an hour. So it pays to wait for your water to cool (or you can pour it into cups and back again, especially if you’re the kind that stands around and impatiently paces or taps the kitchen floor).

So now you can’t say that you don’t know how to get a nice cup of longjing (龙井).

Herbal tea
You might already know about the sleep inducing benefits of drinking chamomile tea. But you might not realise that the same properties which induce sleep also relieve muscle spasms, suggesting that chamomile tea can be helpful for getting us to relax.

Two other teas also have calming properties. Peppermint tea and ginger tea are known to help with digestion. Peppermint tea soothes inflammatory pain in the gut, providing relief from irritable bowel syndrome which can be related to stress, while daily intake of ginger reduces muscle pain.

Fresh juices
Along with red wine and tea, citrus juices which are high in flavanones have been found to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. But watch out for that delicious thing known as fructose – it’s easy to consume more than the recommended serving size when you’re drinking juice out of a bottle.

So, the moral of the story is you can have more coffee and tea. But beware of the sugar-laden condensed milk that you’re adding to your kopi-kosong or teh-siu-dai!

Ways to promote healthy lifestyles at the workplace

Someone in HR usually has the good fortune of having job of promoting a healthy lifestyle to the rest of the office. It may even fall on the shoulders of an interest group or a recreational activities committee. In other organizations, these brave souls have an official title – the workplace health committee.

But whatever their title, they will want to impress upon others the merits of eating more fruits and veggies. They will want to persuade their colleagues to switch from polished to unpolished rice. And they will aim to get everyone to chalk up 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. They will cheer them all to get an annual basic health screen and goad others into the lecture theatre to learn more how they can manage their stress.

There are of course national campaigns with prizes to help these fortunate employees with their cause. And there are resources to fund workplace health endeavors. But the path to slow food and an active lifestyle is often paved with good intentions. With many a detour to the fast food restaurant and a back alley shortcut to chilli crab, Hokkien mee, and char kway teow. So, they could probably always do with more help.

Here are some lessons to be learnt from consumer research:

1. Some things are best seen in black and white
Some messages are best presented in monochrome. A 2015 study found that participants made more rational decisions when information was presented using black-and-white images than colour. In fact, researchers suggest that monochrome could be useful for situations concerning a distant future. Promoting a healthy lifestyle for the benefit of the family or a healthy retirement, may be best made in black-and-white, not in colour.

2. Don’t shortchange your employees when serving healthy food
We’re likely to enjoy the food more if we pay more for it, according to a 2014 study. Customers who participated in the study rated the food to be more enjoyable when they paid $8 for a all-you-can-eat high quality buffet in upstate New York than when they paid $4 for it. Those who paid less were more likely to say that they had overeaten, to feel guilty about the meal, and to say that they liked the meal less and less in the course of the meal. So don’t undercharge your employees for good quality healthy meals at the staff canteen.

3. Help us make good decisions with fewer choices
Having too many choices can lead to poor decision making. A 2015 study shows that participants don’t make optimal choices when they have to consider all 16 options together. Rather, they make better decisions when they use a strategy called sequential tournament, where they pick one of four options, until they make a final choice from the preliminary selections. Giving fewer options (and dietary information) at the canteen can help employees make healthier food choices.

4. Lighting affects our eating experience
We appear to experience emotions with more intensity on sunny days compared to overcast days. That we perceive food to taste more spicy and judge others to be more attractive when these are presented in bright light, are among the findings of this recent study. It seems that emotional messages are best received in bright lighting, whereas rational decisions may be better done with subdued lighting. That means it may be a good idea to turn up the lights for healthy lifestyle posters in the lift and lobby, and turn down the lights at the office canteen.

5. When to use questions and when to use statements?
Participants in a recent study responded more positively to ads with statements when they were in a state of higher excitement, but preferred ads phrased as a question when they were in a lower state of excitement. In the study, respondents were listening to music that was either stimulating or calming. It seems that when we’ve got a lot to process, we prefer to be told what to do; when we’re not so preoccupied, being asked a question will pique our interest. So poster campaigns in a busy lunch canteen will fare better as statements, whereas poster campaigns in a boring corner of the office may be better received as questions?

Just some food for thought.

Are you eating to live? Or living to eat?

Raspberry Pancakes

Eating is one of our national hobbies. So says the Rough Guide. It has to be true.

This guide in the Guardian introduces our top 10 street foods. Wonder how many UK tourists would come to Singapore just for chilli crab. Or does the guide aim to make homesick Singaporean undergrads dream about char kway teow?

There are over 250 local food blogs and a food blog to compile all food blogs. The handmade coffee hipster cafe scene is ‘shrooming pretty much one new cafe every other month. We have more than a few apps dedicated to food locations and reviews.

There’s a food festival pretty much all the time. There are two food fairs coming up: the Food and Beverage Fair 2015 on 19 to 22 March and Savour on 26 to 29 March 2015. As if there wasn’t enough lo hei and pineapple tarts at the recent Lunar New Year celebrations to nudge your BMI to the next level. And if you wait a bit longer, there’s the Singapore Food Festival from 10 to 19 July 2015 and the World Food Fair from 10 to 13 September 2015. And between Oktoberfest and log cakes at the year end, there’s the Asia Pacific Food Expo 2015.

It’s pretty clear that we love our food.

In fact, getting us to reduce our risk of colorectal cancer by eating less bacon, canned sausages, ham, spam, corned beef, and salted fish (more about that here) will be a walk in the park. Compared to getting us to eat less. That’s an uphill task. But a task that the Health Promotion Board (HPB) has to accomplish all the same. They’re going all out to help us get with the healthy programme. They have a National Healthy Lifestyle campaign, a Scratch and Win contest for drinks ordered siew dai (with less sugar), and even exciting prizes for worthy individuals able to shed 3 kg on HPB’s Million kg Challenge.

Recent research however does have things to say about how we can help ourselves stay on track with our food choices, portion sizes, and BMIs. Here are some ways to tip the scales in the right direction:

1. Drink water before your meal
Drinking water before a meal can be the key to sticking to a meal plan or portion size. A 2010 study showed that drinking 2 cups of water before a meal resulted in individuals losing 4.5 pounds more on average than the control group.

But water may not be for everyone. A recent randomized trial showed that consuming diet drinks produced more weight loss than consuming water. Those who drank water while following a 12 week weight management programme lost on average 9 pounds, while those who drank diet drinks on the same programme lost 13 pounds.

But before you start your water parade, know that drinking water without an accompanying plan to eat a healthy portion of veggies and fruits isn’t going to get you very far. Not convinced? Read this article.

2. Manage your stress
Are all calories equal? Not quite. As it turns out, it’s easier to lose weight by cutting down on carbs than fat. But cake, ice cream, and cupcakes are the things we crave when we’re feeling stressed. So it’s important to manage your stress (and to read our earlier blog on stress management and emotional eating).

3. Don’t snack with your favourite TV programme 
A 2014 study found that viewers ate more M&Ms, cookies, grapes, and carrots while watching the film, The Island, on TV than when watching an interview programme. Apparently, we eat more when we’re distracted. So watch your K dramas without the snacks. Or swap out the cookies for apples and pears to save on unnecessary calories.

4. Focus on the fun stuff and lose weight
If you think “exercise”, you may find yourself eating more than you should later on. But think that you’re having fun, and you’ll won’t. Just getting people to think that they were going on a scenic walk rather than an exercise walk made them eat fewer M&Ms after the walk. Thinking that you’ve “exercised” may lead you to consume more calories than if you weren’t so focused on the fact that you were exercising. Instead, concentrate on having a fun experience (read our earlier blog post about having fun)!

5. Get the right kind of social support
When our family and friends provide reassuring comments about our size, we’re likely to maintain our weight or even lose weight. When they don’t, we put on weight. That’s what a 2014 study of women participants found. Pressure to lose weight from concerned friends and family, didn’t bring about the desired effect. In fact, it did the opposite. Participants put on weight, even when they weren’t concerned about their size to start with. So don’t let your loved ones nag you. Instead, get them to support your healthy food choices.

6. Assess your hunger before the meal
It appears that we’re less likely to stick to our health goals when we’re dining with someone who has an unhealthy BMI. In a recent study, participants ate more pasta when dining with someone wearing a prosthesis (adding 50 pounds to his/her weight). It didn’t matter whether that person ate more salad or pasta. But if that person did have more salad, participants themselves ate less salad! It turns out that it’s important to decide on our meal choices and portion size before the meal so that we’re not distracted into eating more food than what we would otherwise consume.

7. Choose wisely from the menu
It turns out that we tend to order anything on the menu that attracts our attention. Menu items in a different colour font, bold and italics, probably set apart in a box, are precisely what we’ll order. They’re likely to be the tastiest thing on the menu. But you need to ask yourself if it’s healthy choice…

8. Don’t automatically finish everything on your plate
On average, children only finish almost 60% of what’s on their plate. In contrast, adults typically finish over 90% of what’s on their plate, according to recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity. Researchers of this study suggest that children eat according to how full they feel and whether they like the foods on their plate. It appears that we, on the other hand, eat whatever we’ve put on our plate. We may therefore need to be wise about how much food we pile on our plate!

9. Distract yourself at night
recent study of participants on a weight management programme found that people were most tempted to cheat at night and when there were other people around. When you have those late night cravings, try meditation or relaxation techniques. Getting into the routine of regular physical activity could also reduce food cravings (here’s why).