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.

Coping with Kinabalu

Mental resilience for children

One might describe the experiences that the children and teachers from Tanjong Katong Primary School had at Kota Kinabalu during the recent earthquake as harrowing. Their experiences would certainly qualify as traumatic.

Not just because there was a threat to their lives and safety. But because the event was unexpected; because they weren’t prepared for it; and because they were helpless to prevent it. And because these things can happen anywhere, it’s possible to experience a traumatic eventeven without a natural disaster.

We can also be affected by the natural disaster. We also have emotional responses to the event, though our responses may differ from one another. Common responses include being more irritable or moody than usual, feeling anxious or overwhelmed, numbness, sadness, having recurring memories about the event, difficulties concentrating, social withdrawal and changes in your eating/sleeping patterns. Read more about these emotional responses here and here.

So what can you do? Plenty. Here are some ways you can help:

1. As parents
Parents can support their children by letting them know that they can ask questions and express their emotions. The ADAA (US) also advises adults to limit excessive watching and replays of the natural disaster with younger children, and to be available to older children and teenagers who do want to watch or read the news and discuss the event.

2. As teachers
Teachers can play an important role in supporting both the children who have experienced the natural disaster and others who haven’t experienced the earthquake but who are affected by the event. In addition to providing a safe environment for children to share their thoughts and emotions, teachers are well-placed to keep a watch for signs and symptoms of distress among children affected by the event.

3. As grandparents
Apart from explaining the event and answering children’s questions in a language that children understand, grandparents can also help children, younger children in particular, find the right words to express their emotions. More tips for adults can be found here.

4. As family members 
In addition to being available to listen, other adults can provide support by helping families return to familiar routines, including regular meal times and sleep schedulesexercise and spending time with loved ones.

5. As a helping professional
Among the various things which APA advocates mental health professionals do to support those affected by a traumatic event, it’s worth reminding ourselves about two things in particular. First, not everyone who is affected by a natural disaster will necessarily experience a traumatic event. Second, not everyone who needs support is ready to receive help. And one more thing. we can be helpful if we’re also taking care of ourselves. Read more about the importance of self-care and various strategies for self-care here.

6. As a medical professional
Social work and medical professionals can help by being available to listen to their clients and patients when they feel ready to talk. The US CDC has a tip sheet for helping individuals cope with a traumatic event.

7. Everybody
And not everyone who has been affected by a traumatic event wants to talk about it, their thoughts, and their emotions. We can be helpful in just being there, and by providing help in more practical ways. Providing chicken stew for dinner, helping to mind the kids for an afternoon, and helping someone run an errand are all ways we can help. The RCP (US) has other useful resources on coping after a traumatic event.

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!

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.

Managing your family’s finances

While it is widely acknowledged that personal financial problems can be a major source of stress to employees, the provision of financial literacy education at the workplace is typically an area overlooked in corporate wellness programmes.

Concern about personal financial problems explains not only 50% of overall stress levels reported by employees (Bailey, Woodiel, Turner, & Young, 1998), stress from personal financial problems also results in decreased employee productivity through absenteeism and presenteeism. As Garman, Leech, and Grable (1996) suggest, employees may take time out from their workday to deal with personal financial issues, and employ strategies for coping with stress (e.g., smoking) have impact their physical and mental health, and in turn, their job performance. Other findings indicate the prevalence of poor financial behaviours among office workers to be relatively high (Joo & Grable, 2011).

Despite this, financial literacy education has yet to be integrated into local corporate wellness programmes which focus typically on healthy lifestyles. Healthier food (Straits Times, 10 Sept 2013) and exercising at the work station (Straits Times, 16 Sept 2013) are all the rage at the moment. While advice about planning and managing family resources may not be readily available at the workplace, independent financial advice is available at blogs like Dollars & Sense, and financial calculators at Money Sense SG can be useful for sorting out a household budget. And in this day and age, iphone and android apps for managing your money even take the stress out of keeping track of your spending.

With the appreciating dollar, it’s never too late to start making some good financial decisions!

Feeling stressed at work?

A number of national surveys have indicated that US employees experience a high level of job stress (e.g., US National Institute for Occupational Safety and HealthAmerican Psychological Association, 2013American Institute of StressAnxiety and Depression Association of America).

They are not alone. Job stress is prevalent at the local workplace:  Singapore workers report high workloads and high levels of stress, according to a 2012 survey of 2281 respondents conducted by JobCentral. Another recent study polling 150 local respondents by VMware New Way of Life 2013 identifies bosses and the level of work expected are as primary job stressors. As many as 69% of 411 local respondents in a 2011 workplace survey by Robert Half report checking into work, when taking a holiday or on personal leave.

Particularly telling is the finding that relatively few employees in Singapore appear to enjoy their job. According to Gallup research, only 2% report liking what they do everyday, leading some to argue that this explains the unsettling finding that Singapore appears the most unemotional workforce in the world. The 2009-11 Gallup poll results showed that only 36% of local respondents reported positive or negative emotions in a day. Elsewhere, far more people reported having negative emotions such as anger, stress, sadness, physical pain and worry or positive emotions such as feeling well-rested, smiling and laughing a lot, being treated with respect, enjoyment, and learning or doing something interesting, during their work day.

The stressors and coping styles of Singapore employees have been explored previously. Ho (1995) reported work overload, role ambiguity, and co-worker relationships to be the primary stressors for employees working in banking, finance, and insurance, while stress levels did not differ across industry. Clearly, not that much has changed since 1995.

What has changed is employee availability with the advent of mobile connectivity. The unrealistic expectation that employees should work 24/7 is however likely to be costly to the employer in the longer term: A 2012 Hudson report reveals that over 53% of respondents report a 40-to-50 hour work week and another 45% chalk up more than 50 hours of work each week. Not surprisingly, the rate of burnout in Singapore is relatively higher than that in the AsiaPacific region, and more than 60% of respondents have reported an increase in their workload.

So much for a work-life balance…