You’ve probably come across a gazillion articles and infographics on the Straits Times, on Channel News Asia, or your facebook newsfeed highlighting the calories in Chinese New Year goodies. They would feature shockingly high calories in your favourite Chinese New Year goodies, or highlight the duration of exercise needed to “burn off” that bak kwa, pineapple tart, or kueh lapis. The problem is, such data are not shocking anymore. As a dietitian, I’m aware of what these cookies are made of, and am pretty much desensitised to such sensational numbers. But I’m sure you are too, given how frequently these articles pop up, as Chinese New Year draws near. At the end of the day, we all know these goodies are high in calories. But how can we enjoy these goodies without gaining weight this Chinese New Year?
Today, I’m going to take a different approach. Throw the calorie counts out the window. Instead, simply ask yourself some of these questions as you breeze through the Lunar New Year. They are designed to encourage mindful eating and self-reflection. This way, you watch your diet without conscientiously controlling it during this festive period. In doing so, you can keep weight gain at bay without any stress.
1. Where are you going for the day?
Planning ahead may seem excessive, but that’s how I decide what, and how much I eat at each relative’s place. Having gone through years of Chinese New Year house-visiting, I’d be more or less familiar with the order of houses I’ll be visiting. I would also have developed a good idea of the foods that would be served, or the snacks offered at each house. If I know auntie A has good snacks and uncle B is going to cook up a feast for lunch, I’ll enjoy auntie A’s snacks in small amounts, to save space for uncle B’s lunch spread. If uncle C, whom we visit in the afternoon has average snacks, I’ll politely refuse and say I’ve had a huge lunch, while accepting a drink or a mandarin orange.
Meals during the Chinese New Year period may not seem to be as orderly as regular days, but it’s up to you to find and reinstate order. By planning your day ahead, you manage your eating (note: I did not use the word control), and avoid overeating. You can also set food rules for yourself. They may be things like, “Have only one sweet drink a day”, “Choose three best snacks per house”, “Eat only half a bowl of carbs at meal times”, or “No seconds”. Make sure they’re feasible. When planned well and executed with confidence, you can easily avoid gaining weight this Chinese New Year.
2. Does it really taste good?
Over the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking myself this question. Since I was a child, Chinese New Year has been my favourite festive period of the year. I look forward to it because of the time I get to spend with my family, but also because of the variety of goodies available. However, back when I was less astute with my choices (i.e. younger), I would eat to my heart’s content and realise at the end of the day that I feel bloated, uncomfortable, and miserable. Since then, my more refined tastebuds have come to understand that Chinese New Year goodies are not all created equal. Some taste better than others, which is why I ask myself this question every time I bite into a goodie for the first time, “Does it really taste good?”
I first eyeball it, taking in how it looks. Then, I have a bite of it and feel its texture, followed by its mouthfeel as it hits my tongue. Next, I savour its flavour. If it’s mind-blowing, I might let the taste of the goodie sit on my tongue for a bit more – perhaps engage in some conversation – before reaching for another one. If it’s average…then I won’t even bother with another piece. To find out more about how to savour food with all five senses, check out my post here.
There are so many goodies out there. To avoid gaining weight this Chinese New Year, you have to be discerning. Make your calories count. If it’s not tasty, it’s not worth it. This goes the same for cooked food at the dinner table.
3. How full do you feel?
This is another good question to ask yourself. On a scale of 1 to 10, how full do you feel? Are you eating because you are hungry, or because you merely crave the taste of a particular food? By checking in on your body’s level of satiety, it’s easier for you to decide whether you want to go for seconds, or take your plate to the kitchen and have it washed up. Getting rid of your cutlery helps put an immediate stop to eating beyond your needs.
Sometimes, I find myself hanging around the dining table not because I’m still hungry, but because there are people around me who are still eating. If that’s the case, I may nibble on low-calorie options at the table such as vegetables. Or, if I’m really stuffed, I’ll keep my plate away but grab a glass of iced water that I sip on while I socialise with friends and family around the dinner table.
4. Can you share it?
If you share your food, you share your calories. This is especially useful when eating something for the first time. It may be a piece of cake, a really large pineapple tart, a bowl of dessert, or a cocktail. Sharing a dish allows you to try it first before deciding if you want a full portion of it—whether it’s worth your calories. If it tastes really good and you think it’s worth it, go for it! If not, then you’ve saved half the calories, since you didn’t commit to a full serve.
Find it hard to reject relatives who slide desserts, sweetened drinks, and the likes onto your hands? Try asking them to leave it on the table for you to have later (sometimes they’ll forget about it), politely declining it because you feel quite bloated, or acknowledging it’s delicious but asking for a smaller portion because you’re too full (honesty may be the best policy).
5. Can you eat it another time, or somewhere else?
This basically puts off the act of eating to another time or place. For example, your grandma may have whipped up some deep-fried chicken wings for reunion dinner. However, you know she makes them when you visit at other times too. So, instead of having 10 pieces like you usually do, just have two or three, while making a mental note that you can enjoy her chicken wings another time.
We all know Singapore is a small country, so it’s likely that you can find a particular food at other places. For example, you may enjoy the sugee biscuits from Bengawan Solo, but you can have them any other time, or possibly at another house. If you feel like you’ve exceeded your calorie intake, or are excessively full that day day, consider where you may eat the same foods at another time or place instead. Spread your calories out wisely instead of pile them into one day and it’ll be easier to watch your weight this Chinese New Year.
6. Are you subconsciously over-compensating?
This is a common mistake that I’ve seen many times. I have fallen prey to it too. I may cut down on the amount of rice I eat at meal times, thinking that that would free up some space for snacks. What ends up happening is that I’ll have more snacks than the amount of rice I’ve cut out, probably because I get so hungry for not feeding myself right in the first place! Cutting down on your usual serving sizes at main meals can free up some space for snacks, but not much. Chinese New Year goodies are small but energy-dense. Don’t over-compensate! (This is where one of those CNY-goodie infographics will come in handy.)
7. Are you being too hard on yourself?
Having said all these, sometimes being too hard on yourself may backfire. When you over-restrict, you may end up with cravings, and succumb to them eventually. The whole point of this article is to encourage people not to blindly restrict food intake. Instead, be clear about your goals, selective about what you eat, and confident about managing your hunger and cravings.
Losing weight this Chinese New Year doesn’t have to be a big thing.
Listen to how your body feels, and understand that you don’t have to eat everything that’s sitting in front of you. Afterall, Chinese New Year goodies have a fairly long shelf-life. You don’t have to have them all at a go. During this festive period, focus on the relationships you form, and the memories you create with the people around you. Let food only complement that!