The lowdown on high-calorie Chinese New Year treats

Overeating can also raise levels of tryptophan - an amino acid found in protein-rich foods such as fish, meat and eggs. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Is it possible to eat - and drink - in moderation during festive occasions?

On my visits to friends' homes over the years, I have seen oleaginous, honey-drizzled bak kwa disappear in seconds; pineapple tarts, their jams dewy and gleaming one minute, scarfed down and reduced to mere crumbs the next.

Add to that list nian gao, kueh bangkit, fried prawn rolls and there you have it - a carbohydrate crisis.

Thankfully, there is good news. You can indulge, but do not overindulge, says Dr Ng Lok Pui, head of the Preventive Care Workgroup at SingHealth Polyclinics.

"Eating a large meal is often associated with gastrointestinal discomfort such as bloating and burping," says Dr Ng. "The stomach becomes distended with the large amount of food pushing hydrochloric acid up the oesophagus from the stomach, causing acid reflux."

Overeating can also raise levels of tryptophan - an amino acid found in protein-rich foods such as fish, meat and eggs, she says. "Carbohydrates enhance the absorption of tryptophan."

Tryptophan in turn enhances the production of serotonin, a chemical that regulates people's mood and sleep cycle, she says. "As a result, after a festive meal that is high in protein and carbohydrates, we often feel very sleepy - 'food coma' as it's called."

She advises opting for healthier foods such as sugar-free wholemeal cookies, unseasoned oven-baked nuts and fresh fruit to avoid post-binge health problems.

There have been reports online highlighting that bingeing for a short spell is okay, as the body adjusts to the extra load and can "bounce back".

But Dr Ng is wary of such claims. "It is not accurate to say that bingeing over a few days will be all right. Although the body will work harder to manage the increased carbohydrates, fats and sugars in those few days, over the long term, all these will increase the cardiovascular risks."

Ms Ng Qing Xiang, 26, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) physician at Eu Yan Sang TCM Clinic @ Harbourfront Centre and Bedok, agrees. She says eating responsibly and in moderation are cardinal rules. "There is no antidote to consuming large amounts of sweet foods," she says. "Prevention is better than cure."

She adds that taking a short walk 20 to 30 minutes after bingeing may help lower blood glucose.

"After consuming large amounts of sugar, the workload for the insulin in the body will be significantly increased, hence potentially increasing the risk of getting diabetes or worsening the condition for diabetic patients.

"Thus, it is recommended to eat small but frequent meals, especially for patients with diabetes, to avoid a sudden spike in the blood glucose level."

Ms Ng says Chinese tea can help when the food intake is high in sugar. Chinese tea contains a substance called tea polysaccharide, which studies have shown helps lower blood sugar levels. It works by inhibiting the enzyme that converts starch into glucose, preventing a glucose spike.

"Foods high in sugar, calories and fats, such as fried nian gao and bak kwa, should be taken only in small amounts. Fried nian gao is mainly made up of glutinous flour and sugar, and is deep-fried."

Ms Ng, who has been a physician at Eu Yan Sang since last year, adds: "Hawthorn berry tea can be consumed to aid in the digestion of fats. This tea is especially useful in the digestion of meat."

However, she says the tea is not suitable for people with delicate constitutions such as pregnant women or those with gastric problems.

Alcohol binge-drinking is another big worry during festive holidays.

A study by the Institute of Mental Health and the Ministry of Health showed that an estimated 13.7 per cent of the population in Singapore engaged in binge-drinking within the last year of being surveyed. The researchers used data from the Singapore Mental Health Study, which was conducted between August 2016 and March 2018.

This is lower than the global average of 18.2 per cent as estimated by the World Health Organisation, but still higher than reported among other Asian societies such as Hong Kong (7.3 per cent) and Japan (12.7 per cent of adult men and 3.4 per cent of adult women).

Dr Ng from SingHealth Polyclinics says the short-term effects of alcohol consumption include poor concentration, loss of coordination and lowered inhibition leading to poor social judgment and risks of accidental injuries. "It also increases blood pressure and may cause vomiting and fainting in some cases," she says.

"The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge-drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person's blood alcohol concentration to 0.08g or above. This typically happens when men consume five or more drinks, or when women consume four or more drinks - within two hours."

If it is any comfort, even seasoned fitness influencers and professionals grapple with bingeing every Chinese New Year.

Ms Roxanne Gan, co-founder of in Joo Chiat, who has more than 120,000 followers on Instagram, is the first to admit to caving to cravings. "I love any, and everything, sweet," says the 31-year-old.

She says any weight gain during Chinese New Year can be managed, through nutrition and exercise. "A lot of people tend to overdo cardio and skip meals to lose the excess weight. As much as we want to quickly get back into shape, doing so will not only cause lethargy, but also ruin your metabolism. Instead, focus on eating whole foods and doing resistance training."

According to Dr Ng, typically, a daily calorie intake of 2,200 and 1,800 calories are commonly cited for adult males and females respectively, but these are just average figures.

For a more accurate recommendation for an individual, age, gender, weight and lifestyle would need to be considered. The daily caloric allowance and the rate of calorie burning varies depending on metabolic rates and different levels of activity.

As a rough guide, you need to walk about 10,000 steps to burn off 500 calories.

At Barry's Bootcamp in Robinson Road, studio manager Derrick Kim, in his 30s, says he has a weakness for treats that are not too cloyingly sweet: "I prefer to spend my calories on snacks that are not too sugar-laden, like love letters."

The popular American gym chain, which boasts A-list celebrities such as reality television star Kim Kardashian West and actress Sandra Bullock as members, opened its first Asian branch in Robinson Road last May.

For those who want to hack their way to losing the post-binge bulge, Ms Cheryl Tay, 33, founder of Rock The Naked Truth, a body image movement, says there are no shortcuts.

"I have a very sweet tooth, chocolates are my Achilles heel. Some of my favourite Chinese New Year treats are honey cornflakes, cashew cookies - the list goes on," says the fitness influencer, who shares her battles with eating disorders such as anorexia and binge-eating on her website

"I don't believe in shortcuts. Drastic measures will only lead to worse consequences. Find some time each day to squeeze a quick workout into your schedule; half-hour Hiit (high-intensity interval training) or even a 30-minute run will do."

All three fitness professionals agree that a top Year of the Rat resolution should be to adopt a more active lifestyle.

Says Mr Kim of Barry's Bootcamp: "Start an exercise regimen and stick to it. Exercise should be a part of one's day-to-day routine."

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