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.

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).

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).

Recipe for stress management

Mental wellbeing at the workplace

Corporate programmes which promote workplace wellbeing typically muscle in on environmental and systemic changes. These include providing healthier food options in the staff canteen and at catered office and business events, as well as populating open-plan offices with gifts of apples (and promises about keeping doctors away, all the while keeping an eye on pressing insurance premiums, staff medical bills and days of absenteeism down and propping immune systems and worker productivity up).

Such advocates also typically make persuasive arguments about the health benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and foods which lower low density cholesterol (LDL) levels (read: foods cooked in low levels of polyunsaturated fat, but let’s not get into that fatty debacle). And promotion of incorporating moderate to vigorous exercise into one’s weekly routine completes the equation in the corporate framework.

But nagging people into a healthy lifestyle clearly has its limits. Diabetes has a one in ten prevalence rate (MOH), while almost one in eleven has a BMI higher than 23 (MOH; see also HPB). That hasn’t changed in recent years: one in ten could be classified as clinically obese in 2011, according to this news report.

We can provide people with lots of information. The right kind of information. The internet and media together with workplace health programmes are saturated with information about how fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and chasing a ball round the field (substitute: swimming pool, garden, park, court, gym class) with other sweaty individuals, are effective ways to lower blood pressure and LDL levels and for normalizing blood glucose levels, thereby squashing the risks of a heart attack, stroke, dementia, and specific cancers. Robust effects exist for both eating and exercise.

We can provide convincing reasons for making a shift to a healthier lifestyle. Rather than just knowing that fruits and veggies are good for you, it could be better to know that increasing one’s intake of peppers, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, brinjal, broccoli, kai lan, tau geh, watercress, spinach, bayam, bitter gourd, apples, pineapple, papaya, watermelon, mango, chiku, and bananas cultivate good gut bacteria, the kind that’s associated with healthy metabolism and discourage bad gut bacteria, the kind associated with obesity (and science types interested in the fatty debacle can read this journal article). While live culture yoghurt has probiotics, eating fruits and veggies can put you at least a few steps ahead of the game. There’s also talk of a poo pill (“‘Poo pill’ the new way to better health?“, Today, 8 Jan 2014: A Daily Telegraph article).

But that’s not the one that really speaks to us. It’s the elephant in the room. Our stress levels. We tackle the hotpot of our workplace stress with longer work hours. We add flavour and seasoning to the pressure cooker by saying yes to more jobs, more meetings, more responsibilities. And then we let things simmer. Not surprising that we end up with tenderized employees who holiday with their blackberry (“S’pore travellers can’t do without Internet”, Straits Times, 8 Jan 2014).

Here’s our recipe for keeping stress on the backburner:

– a tbsp active coping behaviours
– a tbsp of assertive communication style
– 150g fruits
– 450g vegetables
– a really small pinch of low-nutrient high-calorie comfort foods
– a liberal seasoning of in-the-office exercises
– a tbsp zest for life (exercise helps; better if you find something you like doing!)
– a string of time out moments to reflect on how stress is affecting you (tips here)
– 3 cups of regular walks and bike rides along park connectors (or any of these)
– 3 cups of rubber band stretching exercises (or get a bike like this)
– (optional: seek professional help when things start to boil over)

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?

Complex carbs (not clothes) make the employee

In addition to reducing the risk of diabetes and obesity (Anderson, 2003), eating whole grains lowers the risk for cardiovascular disease. A 21% lower risk of cardiovascular disease is documented in 7 prospective cohort studies (Mellen, Walsh, & Herrington, 2008). In fact, the benefit of eating whole grains is independent of other contributing lifestyle factors (McBurney, 2008). While eating whole grains improves insulin response and blood pressure, some grains like oats and barley specifically lower LDL cholesterol levels (Harris & Kris-Etherton, 2010).

Eating whole grains has also been associated with a lower risk of gastrointestinal cancers (Slavin, 2000), with a recent systematic review and meta-analysis of 25 prospective studies by Aune, Chan, Lau, Vierira, Greenwood, Kampman, and Norat (2011) indicating dietary fibre to be protective against colorectal cancer. Dietary fibre is thought to contribute to the protective value of whole grains, but recent explanations also take into account the contribution from antioxidants, which are found in the bran and germ of whole grains (Fardet, 2010; Slavin, 2000).

That complex carbohydrates or low GI foods create a greater sensation of satiety through the production of gut hormones (Bornet, Jardy-Gennetier, & Jacquet, 2007) — thereby reducing overeating (Roberts, 2009) — is well established. Pre-lunch hunger is reliably lower when participants eat a mid-morning snack containing barley than when it contains wheat or rice (Schroeder, Gallaher, Arndt, & Marquart, 2009). Similarly, lower glucose and insulin levels, and higher ratings of satiety result 90 minutes after a breakfast of complex carbohydrates, compared to one containing simple carbohydrates (Pasman, Blokdijk, Bertina, Hopman, & Hendriks, 2003).

Having oats for breakfast and brown-with-white rice for lunch will not only lower medical costs and days of sick leave among employees, but will ensure employees don’t fall asleep at work!