In my original Chinese New Year Goodies post, I gave a brief look at the differing caloric density of various foods. This post is the long version. It is for the people who want a deeper discussion into the vagaries of holiday eating.
What I want to talk about today is not the traditions of this particular festive season, but the very common phenomenon during festive seasons which is evident in many cultures of the world: the phenomenal binges which many people partake in their time of fun and laughter.
This post comes with a message and value judgment, but the key goal I would like readers to leave with is some added perspective. I will be talking about the problem of portion sizes, and some philosophies on eating during any festive season.
A Short Introduction
It is customary for the Chinese to go visiting during the Chinese New Year. Friends, family, distant cousins and the like fall under the list of people to visit. Children are especially happy, for it is customary for them to receive a red packet containing some money from the man and woman of the house. And of course, our topic for the day, the abundance of snacks and other goodies.
The danger here is obviously consuming more calories than one can expend, and this is made much easier during the Chinese New Year season due to 2 major factors in my opinion: the abundance of high caloric density foods, and the constant social pressure to consume them.
What I mean by high caloric density, is that a food contains many calories per unit weight. 1 tablespoon of peanut butter may weigh only 25g, but it can easily pack on more than 100 kcal (kilocalories). Compare that to an apple, which may weigh 200g, and have the same 100 kcal.
Given that most people eat ad libitum (basically, eating any which way they want) during festive seasons, we are going to eat to a level of temporary satisfaction.
This is a problem, because satisfaction has to be placed in its context, in this case, a highly social one. Basically, every visit to a relative’s place brings with it a new set of expectations to be satisfied, often with New Year treats. Multiply that over the number of relatives and friends to visit, raised to the power of the variety of treats available (and some must-try home-made ones), and you get a very large number of calories.
Let’s make this a little easier to understand. I was sent a link to an article from the Singapore Straits Times just on this issue. It presented the average caloric values of some common Chinese New Year treats, presented as calories per 100g portion. It then gives some recommendations to prevent holiday weight gain.
Let’s look at the caloric values first, quoted here directly from the AsiaOne source:
|Roasted cashew nuts (salted)
Calorie count: 611
Calorie count: 506
|Kueh lapis (layer cake)
Calorie count: 490
|Pork bak kwa (barbecued pork)
Calorie count: 410
Calorie count: 430.8
|White Rabbit candy
Calorie count: 412.5
|Kueh bangkit (tapioca flour cookie)
Calorie count: 383.3
Calorie count: 258
|Kueh baulu (mini sponge cake)
Calorie count: 377.8
Calorie count: 410
I must say that they are fairly accurate. However, the pictures in the article do not represent 100g of the food item in question. That leads to confusion; a lack of comparison between the different food items. So I decided to do my own side-by-side comparison of the food items.
What you see above is 100g of each food item. Now we got some perspective, and can easily see that 100g of kueh lapis (layered cake) is much “less” than 100g of love letters. From there we can draw the conclusion that it is likely easier to put down 100g of kueh lapis as compared to 100g of love letters. Therefore, you would consume more calories if you were eating kueh lapis.
A simplistic recommendation would then be to avoid eating kueh lapis, and other calorie-dense foods during your visits. That is one way. But it requires conscious effort that very likely compromises the spirit of the holidays (what is X festival without Y?).
In other words, given that most people eat however they like during the holidays, this strategy isn’t going to work.
Instead, let’s try to put eating during a holiday in it’s proper context. Namely, how much of each food would you consume on a regular visit to a relative. To answer that question, take a look at the picture above again and try to imagine eating all of one type of food. Then try to think about how satisfied you would be after eating it.
I know I can’t. I can’t imagine eating a 100g serving of whatever food item at X relatives place at Y time on the second day of Chinese New Year (There are 15). The caloric values serve as arbitrary units of measurement which do not take into account the context of the eating. At the same time, numbers are absolute, and therefore need to be counted, not something I’d wager people want to be doing during the holidays.
That brings me on to the standard recommendations for dealing with holiday weight gain: (Quoted from the online version of the Straits Times Article @ healthexchange.com.sg)
- Do not leave home on an empty stomach as this may lead to overeating. Have a healthy snack such as wholemeal crackers or a low-calorie barley drink beforehand.
- Spend your time chatting with others rather than focusing on the food.
- If you cannot resist the goodies, sample a little and put the rest away.
- Try healthier snacks such as oranges, which are especially beneficial for the immune system, and pistachio nuts, which may help lower the risk of heart disease.
- Ask for low-calorie drinks such as tea without sugar or diet soft-drinks.
- When meal-time starts, watch the fat by limiting fried foods and avoiding rich sauces, gravy and salad dressing.
- Load your plate with vegetables, which are high in fibre and low in calories.
- Keep your first helping small, especially if your host expects you to have seconds.
- Eat slowly – putting your utensils down between each bite helps – to know when you are full.
- Always leave some food on your plate so the host does not top it up.
- Watch your alcohol consumption – keep within the recommended three standard drinks a day for men and two for women.
- Finish your meal with fruit or fruit agar agar.
Basically your standard run-of-the-mill recommendations which we know work for some and fail for many. The reason they don’t work is simple, they are someone else’s recommendations, trying to be imposed on your diet, your visiting schedule, your social context, your eating habits, and your desires.
I’ve shared my way of dealing with huge caloric intakes in my Christmas post, whereby I state my opinion that we should eat and be merry during the holidays, and deal with the fat later (I mean REALLY deal with the effects later, not put it off for another month – and another holiday). Martin Berkhan also wrote to a similiar theme in his post “How to Look Awesome Every Day“. You’re welcome to try these approaches out, but the only one that will work without friction is your own.
But please, don’t think in Black and White and use this to mean that you should eat “however you want”. That isn’t going to solve the underlying problem anyway. Always ground your actions in basic principles first; consuming more calories than you expend will lead to weight gain.
As I said before, this post was simply written to provide some perspective. I gave some examples of how portion sizes and caloric values are just arbitrary values, bent to the vicissitudes of the individual’s holiday schedule.
I also gave a terse reminder that, despite arbitrary portions sizes, total caloric intake is objective, and if you consume more than you expend, be prepared for weight gain. In other words, do what you may, but you’re not going to cheat the laws of physics.
Finally, I briefly shared my philosophy on dealing with the holidays, and with it now comes my message. How likely is it to maintain weight (not over-eat) during the holidays? What does that say of any strategy which tries to achieve that? What is your strategy? How likely are you going to stick to it?  And finally, what result will you be satisfied with?
 A rule of thumb I live by: Take the worst possible scenario that you think is possible, and remember that what will happen is going to be worst than that.
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