Indulge in moderation
This article was first published in Mind Your Body on Jan 30, 2014.
Eating healthy may be far from your mind during the Chinese New Year period but if you overeat, you may end up with a permanent weight gain.
"A weight gain of ½kg during the festivities might not seem a lot, but in the long run over 10 years, you would have gained 5kg. That is, unless you balance out the weight gain with some physical activity," said Ms Denise Tan, a nutritionist with the Centre of Excellence for Nutrition at the Health Promotion Board (HPB).
"Chinese New Year goodies are often packed with fat and sugar, which means they contain a high amount of calories," she said. Nevertheless, she added that a few days of indulgence for healthy individuals is not much of a concern as long as one practises portion control and make wise food choices.
There are healthier alternatives out there you can buy for your family and guests. Do not grab the first thing you see. Take your time to look around and read the food labels to find out more about the product you want to buy.
Here are some suggestions for items, most of which can be found at the stalls in Chinatown, which we visited with Ms Janie Chua, a senior dietitian of clinical services (allied health) at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics.
1 DRIED FRUITS
Pick up dried fruits, such as cranberries, blueberries, apricots and raisins, to complement your stash of snacks as these are healthier alternatives to say, pineapple tarts, said Ms Chua.
However, not all dried fruit products are created equal. One to watch out for is banana chips. "They are deep-fried and usually coated with sugar syrup or honey," said Ms Chua.
A 100g serving of banana chips has 510 calories and 14.9g of saturated fat, which may raise the level of low-density lipoprotein, or "bad" cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease.
2 SEEDS AND NUTS
Pick up any type of nut and sunflower or pumpkin seeds. This is good news for those who feel the festive season is not complete without seeds and nuts.
When choosing these goodies, Ms Chua said sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds make better options as melon seeds are typically saltier and are either free of or have lower levels of polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. Groundnuts, macadamia nuts and walnuts are all good snack choices.
All nuts contain fibre and some monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats - both good fats that reduce total as well as "bad" cholesterol levels in the blood, said Ms Chua.
Walnuts, in particular, are packed with polyunsaturated fat - 47g in every 100g, compared with 33g in unsalted, dry roasted peanuts and 34g in pine nuts.
"Substitute some of the usual goodies with baked almonds, sunflower seeds or other nuts," said HPB's Ms Tan.
But nuts should still be eaten in moderation as the high fat content means they are also high in calories. A 100g serving of walnuts, for example, contains 654 calories. Typically, a handful of nuts amounts to about 30g.
If you choose nuts that are coated in chocolate, honey-roasted, sugar-coated or salted, you may be adding to your calorie count.
3 TARTS AND COOKIES
It is hard to envision Chinese New Year without pineapple tarts. Go ahead and buy them but dietitians advise portion control when it comes to eating these goodies which are high in fat and sugar.
Three pineapple tarts add up to 300 calories, about the same as one bowl of rice, and they contain five teaspoons' worth of sugar, pointed out Ms Tan.
A less sugary version is sold at Delcie's Desserts and Cakes, which has outlets at Upper Serangoon Road and Fortune Centre.
Instead of refined white sugar, the juice of the pineapple is used to sweeten the tarts, said owner Delcie Lam.
As for other Chinese New Year cookies, kueh bangkit is a relatively better choice than pineapple tarts, as it has less fat and sugar.
For instance, this cookie, which contains tapioca flour and coconut, has 15g of fat per 100g, compared with 18g of fat per 100g of pineapple tarts, based on one brand sold in Chinatown.
Choose baked goods over fried ones, said Ms Chua. Deep-fried goodies, such as peanut puffs or lotus root chips are typically fried in palm oil, which has a lot of saturated fat, she said.
4 BAK KWA AND LAP CHEONG
Bak kwa is calorie-heavy, for it is rich in fat and sugar - a 94g serving contains 43g of sugar - but sliced pork bak kwa is slightly leaner than the minced version, said Ms Chua.
Two slices contain 600 calories - comparable to a plate of chicken rice, said Ms Tan. Most of the energy stems from the fat in the meat and the sugar or honey that is added for flavouring.
Preserved meat, such as Chinese sausages or lap cheong and waxed duck, are generally high in fat and salt. For example, two pieces (40g) of waxed duck contain about 2g of salt, about half the recommended daily salt limit of 5g, warned Ms Tan. And one small link of Chinese sausage contains almost the same amount of fat as half a plate of fried kway teow, she said.
Still, said Ms Chua, "a small link of lap cheong is slightly better than two slices of bak kwa, if you don't overeat."
5 KONNYAKU JELLY AND MOCHI
If you stop by a stall selling these two products side by side, go for the healthier option - the konnyaku jelly products.
Mochi, or Japanese rice cake, may sound fairly healthy but konnyaku jelly is a better option, especially for diabetics as it has more fibre, no fat and less carbohydrates, said Ms Chua.
But do not overeat them as both are high in sugar, she said.
Konnyaku is a jelly-like cake made from a type of yam. An 80g serving has 71 calories, with 17g of sugar and 0.7g of dietary fibre. In comparison, one Taiwan-made red bean mochi cake, a 15g serving, already has 44 calories with 0.3g of fat. It also has 7.9g of sugar and 0.1g of dietary fibre.
Here is what to look out for on a label when you go shopping for healthier food.
For every 100g serving, look for
1. A total fat content of:
a. Less than 10g
b. Less than 2g for dairy foods, such as milk and yogurt
c. Less than 15g for cheese
2. A total sugar content of:
a. Less than 15g
b. Less than 25g for foods with fruits or dried fruit
3. Less than 400mg of sodium and aim for more than 5g of dietary fibre.
Source: National Healthcare Group Polyclinics