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.

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.

 

Trying to help someone lose weight? Here’s what not to say

Healthy eating

Ever wanted to talk to your child, partner, or close friend about their weight and size?

Even if our heart is in the right place, it’s exactly what the experts say we should not do. Research has shown that overweight teens whose parents said that they should try “healthy eating” were more likely to engage in unhealthy weight-control methods (e.g., throwing up) than if parents talked about their teen’s size or weight. But other research has also found that girls who were told that they were fat at 10 years of age were more likely to have a BMI above 30 at age 19.

A 2015 study suggested that teenagers may not be aware of their own BMI and as a result not perceive a need to adopt healthy eating habits. But another 2015 study also showed that having accurate self-perceptions (about being overweight) does not necessarily equate to making healthy eating choices. In fact, labelling teenagers as overweight may in fact be counterproductive.

So what can we do instead? Apart from helping your child, partner, and/or close friend make healthy food choices by eating fruits and vegetables with them and cooking healthy meals with them, experts also advise against using food as a reward for good behaviour.

We suggest 8 useful tips which could help your loved one on the path to healthy eating:

1. Get more sleep. Studies show that lack of sleep is a major determining factor of later risk of being overweight. A 2014 study found that young children who slept less than the recommended duration for their age (e.g., less than 12 hours at 2 years or younger; less than 10 hours at 3 or 4 years of age; less than 9 hours at 5 to 7 years of age) were more likely to be overweight and to have more body fat at age 7 years. A separate 2014 study also found that infants who slept less than 10 hours a day at 16 months of age needed more feeds than their peers who slept 13 hours or more. And it’s doesn’t affect just children. Numerous studies link lack of sleep among adults to increased eating and weight gain, making good sleeping habits a priority.

2. Setting boundaries, warmth and affection matter. A 2014 study showed that children whose parents who set rules without engaging their children in dialogue about their rules and who don’t affirm their children with warmth and affection were at a higher risk of having a BMI above 30: Their risk of obesity was found as early as 2 years of age. A separate 2014 study in Australia found that overprotective maternal parenting during the earlier years (e.g., when children were 6 to 9 years of age) was linked to children having a higher BMI when they were 10 to 11 years of age. That’s why it’s important that your loved one should know that you care for them regardless of their shape and size. And these guidelines for what to say and what not to say apply not just to parents, but partners and friends.

3. Don’t talk about making changes. Instead, it’s more effective to get your loved ones involved in cooking healthy meals and visiting a local attraction or festival.

4. Don’t impose a diet on your child or partner or tell them what they cannot eat. Your good intentions will produce better outcomes if you participate in fun and enjoyable physical activities with them.

5. Don’t say “it’s good for you”. Studies with preschoolers show that a more effective way of getting young children to eat vegetables is to say nothing or to tell them that they’re “yummy”. (It helps of course if they really are yummy!)

6. Say “try this”. Telling your loved one what to eat is more effective than telling them what not to eat. Research finds that positive messages which start with “do” are better received than negative messages which are start with “don’t”.

7. Try and try again. A 2015 study found that children were more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they were introduced to them on repeated occasions and if their parents also ate them with their children.

8. Start a gardening project. There is consistent evidence that children who participate in gardening projects are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables.

 

Talking about change

Over a decade ago, we used to have a campaign in schools which aimed to help children with unhealthy BMIs reach a more desirable body mass index. It was of course a bad idea. For obvious reasons.

That was eventually replaced with a programme which promotes a healthy lifestyle to all children, not just those with undesirable BMIs. Although children who are overweight are still a target for bullies, at least schools aren’t their bit to add to the stigma of being overweight.

These were lessons not learnt, apparently. Because there was a Childhood Obesity campaign in another part of the world a few years ago, which had children talking about their experiences of being discriminated against for their weight. Yes, more airtime to the stigma of being fat.

And if it’s not obvious why these campaigns are counter-productive, there’s research to suggest that it is so. A 2013 study, which asked 1085 respondents to evaluate a number of existing health campaigns, found that the motivation to adopt healthy lifestyle changes and their confidence about doing so was not greater after viewing a stigmatizing campaign compared to a less stigmatizing campaign.

It also doesn’t help that the American Medical Association now considers obesity to be a disease. A recent study found that for people with a BMI higher than 30, this information made them less concerned about healthy eating and more likely to choose a higher-calorie snack, compared to others who were told that obesity is not a disease or given some other unrelated public health information. Giving obesity the disease label, appears to send home the message, “Don’t bother trying to manage your weight through healthy eating or physical activity”.

Given the fact that younger children have difficulties distinguishing children’s TV programming and advertisements, it’s a good thing that fast food advertising is now a thing of the past here. It will not be possible for ads with foods containing too much salt, sugar, and/or saturated fat to reach children aged 12 years and below (read about those guidelines here). Happy meals might have to turn into healthier meals in order to reach their target audience.

There are however other ways to tackle childhood obesity. Here’s advice from the experts for talking to children and adults:

1. Don’t talk about healthy eating
It seems like a good idea to help by talking about healthy eating than body size or weight. But research suggests the opposite. A 2013 study found that overweight teenagers whose parent(s) talked about healthy eating, were more likely to use unhealthy weight-control methods (e.g., throwing up) and to binge eat, than if their parent(s) had talked about their size or weight. In contrast, those whose parent talked about body size or weight, were likely to “diet”. Instead, it might be good to talk about what foods to eat, not healthy eating.

2. Affirm their feelings and provide emotional support
Having a one-time “You can eat more fruits and vegetables. And why don’t you exercise more?” conversation with someone you care about could instill in them a negative attitude about food and exercise. It could make them conscious about their body shape, size and/or weight. It’s crucial that your children know you love them regardless of their shape, size, and weight. Here’s a list of what to say and what not to say for parents.

And telling them that they’re fat (shock tactics) are likely to backfire. Results from a recent study demonstrate the self-fulfilling prophecy: Girls who were told they were fat when they were 10 years old, were at a much higher risk of having a BMI above 30 nine years later. So don’t threaten, judge, and nag. Ask your teenagers and close friends how you can help.

3. Start with small lifestyle changes
Rather than talk to children and teenagers about healthy eating habits, it’s easier to help them be healthy by walking the talk. Parents can feed their families more fruits and vegetables, and store fewer sugared drinks at home (more tips here). Fruits and veggies don’t need to be eaten plain or raw. There are many food ideas to make fun meals with fruits and veggies: try this website for more ideas. Preparing meals together is a great way to introduce healthy ingredients to loved ones. Getting your kids to try everything (at least once) isn’t easy. But it’s worth the effort.

4. Do it together with them
It’s easier to help children and loved ones adopt healthy eating habits and incorporate physical activity into their regular routine if it’s a collaborative decision. This guide for parents advocates making changes as a family. It’s easier to persuade someone to eat healthy and be active if you’re also doing it together with them. Try shopping together for healthy food options. Make the visit to the Bird Park or River Safari a family day outing (it’s more effective than if you sell it to them as fun rather than a chance to exercise).

5. Assess their readiness for change
Making healthy lifestyle changes isn’t as easy as it sounds. Being ready for change can make things easier. But not everyone is equipped for conversations about the motivation for change and how to make those changes. But there are tools to equip health professionals for such conversations. One such tool is motivational interviewing — a “collaborative conversation for strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change“. And in fact, there’s a free app for practicing such conversations. It’s called Change Talk.

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).

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.

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).

No time to eat right?

Why not cook your own meals?

Eight meals a week were eaten at a hawker centre, food court, or restaurant in 2010 (figures reported from a HPB survey in this article: ST, 1 Dec 2010), not far away from the 2004 median of 7 meals (more details in a 2004 HPB report). Even those who have fresh produce readily available haven’t got time to make healthy meals, as this report suggests: “Kale, Kale Everywhere, But Only Cheetos To Eat” (Huffington Post, 9 Jan 2014).

There’s research evidence that eating at home is not only a way to eat more healthily—as the findings from a 2012 10-year follow-up study on 1,888 participants from Taiwan indicate (“Eating at home could give you a longer life“, Yahoo! News, 23 May 2012).

But it’s so hard to find time to cook, you say. Actually…slow food need not be slow to cook. The website for the author of the fast recipes Rachel Ray offers a zillion fast recipes. Okay, not a zillion, but there are certainly a lot of things that can be done in no time at all. Here are some more from the foodnetwork and food and wine.

And then, there’s no time to do grocery shopping. NTUC does free deliveries with the OCBC Plus! card, and the delivery charge is only $7 if purchases amount to more than $60. Cold storage and Sheng Siong have online grocery shopping and delivery options. Giant offers free deliveries for purchases above $200 (or $100 if shopping at Sembawang). There’s even wet market e-shopping.

And with supermarkets staying open till 10pm and 11pm (and many NTUCs are open 24 hours), grocery shopping can be a breeze without the crowds obscuring all that produce from your view, grocery carts in the aisle, and queues at the checkout counter. In any case, the speedy option of self-checkout are common at NTUC, Giant and Cold Storage outlets. Apparently quite a few people don’t really like this self-checkout and pack-it-yourself malarkey: But think about all those calories you’d be burning by doing all the packing yourself. And all those plastic bags you’d be saving on with your own grocery bags. Anyway, you can use the force: Delegate away!

Then the problem, you say, all this ang mo chiak is not really you. So cook a batch and freeze it. Take it out in the morning and defrost it in the fridge. By the time you’re home to have dinner, you can zap it in your favourite kitchen appliance. Soups, fried rice and mee goreng, rendangs and stews all survive wonderfully the process of being nuked. Or if you’re into slow food in no time, marinade your chicken or fish fillets in the fridge before you go to work, and watch it cook in the oven when you get back. Pressure cookers and crockpots were invented to make one-dish meals (less washing, hooray!). Let the rice cooker do its thing. Voila! Amazing dinner.

Oh yes, washing the dishes. There’s this invention called the dishwasher. But also you can always fall back on the force: Delegate (the kids will thank you when they’re all grown up later; other grateful recipients of your delicious dinner can be reminded about the calories they will burn from washing up pots and pans).

Have no one to share your amazing cooking with? Invite your friends and extended family over. Posting all your lovely food on facebook regularly should get them coming over in droves and falling over themselves to wash the dishes for you. Emphasizing the healthiness of your meals should scores some points with them (of course, attractive food goes along way). Or you can make your healthful food cute.

The only drawback here is that cleaning up the kitchen surfaces fall squarely on you. But look on the bright side: kitchen cleaning and dish washing (should you have mostly free riders) help you fulfil your weekly 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity. And if you can’t delegate, there are ways to do this efficiently.

Such a lot of effort lei, says the small voice in your head. Cooking and thinking up different things to make for dinner does take up brain power. But after doing it a few times, it will become a more automated process. Anyway, it’s good for fending off dementia. And if you’re too tired to do any of the above, it might time to review the stressors in your work and home life.

Why bother? Well, there’s a good reason for getting into cooking. Research suggests that interest in cooking as well as gardening cultivates healthy food habits and food consciousness. Yao et al. (2013) found that those given the recipe for a whole- grain-pasta-and-chicken dish to try at home after sampling it, perceived whole grains more positively than those not offered the same opportunity. A cooking and gardening programme in Los Angeles (LA Sprouts) also resulted in healthier BMI among 10- and 11-year-olds. Similarly, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden project Green Reach produced more food conscious youngsters (Libman, 2007).

Lots of ways to eat right, right?

Take control of your eating

Omega 3 and 6

We just had The Festive Weekend of the year. And it was not a fun time for people who need to watch what they eat.

A practical tip for those with diabetes has been to eat on smaller plates (Mind Your Body, 30 Jan 2014), while a useful guide for those with high cholesterol has been that they should choose foods which are low in saturated fat.

But here are some facts that you may not be aware of.

1. Not all carbohydrates are equal.

It’s always a good idea to fill up on vegetables that are coloured (e.g., broccoli, kai lan, peppers, brinjal, carrots, spinach), and to keep in mind that root vegetables are essentially sources of carbohydrates rather than fibre. But not all carbs are equal. White unpolished rice isn’t particularly diabetes-friendly. But sweet potato and yam have a lower glycaemic index (here’s a chart). And so do soba (buckwheat noodles), beehoon (freshly made rice noodles), steel-cut (Irish) oats, rolled oats, tortillas, lentils, and barley, while russet potatoes have moderate glycaemic index when eaten cold (here’s why).

2. Eat food rich in Omega 3.

Foods with omega 3 are the in thing these days (here’s the science behind it). So it makes sense that you’d want to fill up on oily fish (here’s a list), walnuts, cauliflower, and flax seeds. In fact, there’s evidence that a handful of almonds or walnuts a day decreased the bad cholesterol (low density lipoprotein or LDL) for participants in two separate studies (here’s that data). In comparison, walnuts and brazil nuts have to be eaten in moderation. For a comparison of oils and omega-3 among nuts, check out this table.

3. Don’t blame that bad egg.

The recent advice about eggs has been that what we really need to watch out for is the amount of fat in our food intake, not so much the foods with cholesterol that we eat (here’s why), particularly if our cholesterol levels and triglycerides are in the healthy range. Nevertheless, those of us with elevated cholesterol might want to be careful about eating foods which have relatively higher levels of cholesterol (read this piece of advice and this piece about quail eggs).