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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It’s another year already! Happy Chinese New Year!

chinese new year 2015

Bak kwa, pineapple tarts, and love letters are among the things we look forward to this time of year. Ang baos can be a source of cheer (or cheerful pain), depending on whether you’re receiving or giving them. Some of us survive the awkward questions, gossips, and intergenerational social interactions during this festive season in much better form than others.

The two days off this week for visiting relatives and hosting guests at home can actually be more stressful than it should be.

In fact, cleaning the house in time is a source of stress. Clearing out boxes of nostalgia from our dusty cupboards can push our emotional buttons. Stocking up on raw foods in the overfull fridge and freezer or arranging for a place for the family to dine on reunion night can also be another source of stress. Heavy conversations at the table of tense reunion dinners are also things we don’t look forward to.

So here are some tips to enjoy the holidays!


1. Try some cleaning hacks to get it done faster

Try these 36 creative solutions and these other 50 tips for a sparkling house. It also helps to not aim for perfection but have realistic de-cluttering goals for you and your family.

2. Know what you will and won’t eat before hand
For those who can’t have lots of salt, oil, protein, and/or simple carbohydrates such as sugar (e.g., those with diabetes), it’s helpful to know beforehand which foods are on the “okay” list and which aren’t. While it’s wise to indulge in moderation and engage in smarter eating, it’s helpful to look up that information in this list of Chinese New Year foods here and here before visitations start.

3. Try these stress management strategies
If you don’t manage to stick to your food plan on Day 1, you can always get back to it on Day 2. And for getting out sticky situations (though sugary nian gao fried with egg is rather good and is highly recommended, especially at this time of year), try these tips from Drive.SG. Negotiating family members can also be tricky: Try these tips for communicating effectively.

4. Tips for parents
One of the top tips from the experts involves lowering your expectations, while another is about being flexible with schedules. Read more in our previous blog post here.

5. Exercise to de-stress
It’s the New Year. So that means you can’t use the scissors or knife. You can’t clean or sweep anything. But traditions didn’t say you can’t go for a walk, job, a game of friendly badminton, or a swim. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. It can be a walk to the Chingay parade (1 March 2015), the Open House at the Singapore Philatelic Museum (19 to 20 Feb 2015), the night shows in Kreta Ayer (till 18 Feb 2015), goat (kid) feeding and photography exhibit at the Singapore Zoo (18 to 22 Feb 2015), or the floral displays in the Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay (to 8 March 2015).

6. Spend time sharing traditions with the family
Here’s a list of why we celebrate the way we celebrate Chinese New Year! Don’t forget to relax, sleep in, and enjoy the company of your friends and family during the festivities.

Why we eat what we eat

Recent reports about the increasing number of people with diabetes mellitus in Singapore and who need kidney dialysis (and here’s the science behind it) are a timely reminder about the evils of simple carbohydrates. Like white bread and white rice.

Saturated fat used to be the bad guy. Now we point fingers at sugar. But refined sugar (white or brown, does it matter? it’s still sugar) is not entirely to blame. Rather, simple carbohydrates are the reason why obesity is on the rise. They’re the real villains for specific individuals, such as people who have diabetes (here’s why).

Simple carbs are the bad guy?

But knowing that fries, chips, crisps, cinnamon raisin buns swirled with icing, cupcakes, and chocolate croissants are not what you should eat regularly is one thing. Actually not eating them is quite another.

One would think that if people told you that you were large (for want of a better label: see this article for ideas), you would stop eating things responsible for your size. But in fact, it does the opposite (this Dr Oz episode is a good illustration). It has unintended consequences: We’re motivated to eat more of those sorts of things people keep telling us not to eat (presumably for our own good).

Emotional eating is the tendency for us to overeat when we’re faced with negative emotions. It’s when we eat to make ourselves feel better. Research indicates that we are inclined to eat when we feel sad. But less so when we experience positive emotions such as when we’re being included as part of a social group. Eating is also often a strategy for dealing with stress.

It could be worse. We could have non-hostile acquaintances who sabotage our good intentions not to eat things we’re not allowed to have and who put us down for making an effort (read these articles on how to questionidentify, and fix toxic friendships). So apart from putting to good use your assertive communication skills (i.e., saying no), it can be useful to have these strategies in your pocket:

1. Keep a food diary
Tracking what you eat and how you felt when you ate it, can make you aware of whether you’re guilty of emotional eating. Instead of a pen-and-paper diary, take pictures of your meals and snacks for a blog or daily facebook post to save time and handbag (or trouser pocket) space.

2. Cook your own meals
Research indicates that doing our own cooking encourages healthy dietary habits. Make a batch on the weekend and bring a portion for lunch. Or bring the constituents of a sandwich, assemble it at the office, and stick it in the toaster for a few minutes.

3. Get your RDA of fruits and veggies
Stash crunchy fruits like jambu, guava, and apples on your desk. Snack on Japanese rice crackers instead of biscuits, and stock your desk with only a few at a time. Keep a facebook diary of healthy snacks and meals to inspire others around you.

4. Make instant oats in a cup
Irish and steel-cut oats retain the whole grain benefits of rolled oats but provide a time-saving convenient snack, as long as your office pantry has a microwave. Add honey, dried cranberries, flax seeds, almonds, and normal cornflakes for crunchy texture.

5. Drink water
Buy disposable tea filters from Daiso and make your own tea bags from loose tea. Keep a stack nearby at work so you can add a tea bag to hot water, if you don’t like drinking plain water. It’s a quick fix for the “itchy mouth” syndrome. Get into the habit of saying “o sosong” or homemade barley at the coffee shop. Soon, you can order unsugared hot drinks on autopilot.

6. Sharing is caring
Share your dessert and cake with others, instead of having the whole thing to yourself. Or bring your tupperware so you can keep half of it for another day. Birthday at the office and leftover cake is calling out your name? Box it up and offer it to a colleague with many little ones to feed at home or offer it to another department!

Don’t just stand there gawking at the cake (and eat it). Do something about it!

Stressed about eating?

Stressed about eating

It’s well-established that eating saturated fat raises our risk of coronary heart disease. The American Heart Association advises us to eat more lean meat and poultry and less saturated and trans fat. Our Health Promotion Board identifies polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats as the good guys, and saturated and trans fats as the bad guys (there are no ugly guys but one could consider sugar a strong contender).

But recent research findings suggest otherwise. The study in the spotlight, which was a meta-analysis of data from 72 studies, found that unsaturated fat consumption was not associated with an increased risk of heart disease. This appears to suggest that we can start working on that saturated fat deficit, by stuffing our faces with beef rendang, massaman curry, laksa, chendol, goreng pisang, and bubur cha cha. But actually, no. Not quite.

The results in fact indicate that the type of fat consumed is likely not as important as previously thought (read this article for details). Apart from one bad guy. Trans fats remain guilty for their contribution to heart disease (here’s a fact sheet about trans fats). Which means that we still need to look out for biscuits and crisps which are made with partially hydrogenated oils, and not going all out on doughnuts or coffee creamer.

That said, the real issue is about what drives us to eat.

One reason is of course stress. When we experience a stressful event and negative emotions, we might get a doughnut (or two, especially if it’s a Krispy Kreme) and we feel much better afterwards. We know this as emotional eating. There is actually a physiological basis to our behaviours.

As explained in this Harvard Mental Health Letter, a situation which we perceive as alarming causes us to produce a fight or flight response, resulting in the release of epinephrine (adrenalin) or norepinephrine (noradrenalin). These hormones allow us to flee the scene or defend ourselves. In response to the same situation, our brain introduces another hormone, cortisol, to the blood stream, particularly if the stressful situation persists.

As explained here by these academic authors, exposure to chronic stress leads to elevated levels of cortisol, which is in turn associated with increased appetite. One study in particular has shown that women who respond to a stressful situation with more cortisol tend to be individuals who say they engage in emotional eating; they also tend to have relatively more abdominal fat (the link between cortisol and abdominal fat is explained here).

This simply means that when we perceive a situation as stressful, we’re more inclined to want foods which provide us with energy quickly — sugary foods. Otherwise known as simple carbohydrates. Doughnuts are a perfect example. Which means that, to combat stress, we can learn to perceive stressful situations as being less threatening than they initially appear to be (except in the face of real danger like a fire or a grizzly bear). Or we can reduce our exposure to stressful situations (like saying no).

But conditioning ourselves not to eat in response to negative emotions and providing ourselves with non-fried complex carbohydrate options at our desks will likely make that journey easier (and less costly to both our physical and mental health).