From strategic buffet eating to cooking healthier traditional festive spreads, nutritionist Liza Rowan shares how to successfully eat your way through the holidays – and still enjoy yourself!
Some clients tell me how they can’t wait to get all the celebrations out of the way so that they can focus on being healthy again! To be honest, this saddens me. It’s probably best summed up in my 3 tag lines:
- You’ve one body love it. You’ve one life, live it!
- There’s a healthier version of everything!
- Being healthy should be fun!
What’s the point in seeking to be healthier, slimmer and fitter – if we need to miss out on all the fun things that life has to offer? We’re on this planet for a relatively short time, so surely we want to make the most of it – by joining in all the celebrations that life has to offer, particularly enjoying the wonderful company of family and friends. And yes, part of joining in the fun is of course to enjoy good food and to have a few drinks, but that doesn’t mean we have to jeopardize our personal health goals in doing so.
We can’t continually put off our health kick/weight loss initiative until the next celebration has come and gone – because there is always another reason to party just around the corner. This is particularly the case here in Singapore, where we tend to go on our fair share of holidays, entertain lots of visitors, and celebrate many cross-cultural festivities. We are social creatures, and we need to eat a few times daily to function, hopefully, to thrive, regardless of the day of the year.
So, we need to find that balance of having fun, while enjoying good food, and ensuring we stay healthy. This includes maintaining good energy levels, feeling good about ourselves, having body confidence, and of course maintaining a strong immunity to prevent us from falling ill. So let’s find a way of ‘marrying the two’ on an ongoing basis – being sociable while staying healthy.
We know that diets, or any fads, don’t work – of course, weight is lost when we restrict certain foods or an entire food group (e.g. carbs). However, on diets we feel deprived, become obsessed, and often lack energy – forcing us to throw in the towel. So we end up putting all the weight back on, and then some! Therefore let’s stop ‘dieting’ and focus on being healthy, period. This means no more swings in the state of our health, our energy levels, or our weight.
A word on buffets…
Nowhere does buffets like Singapore! Buffets can be the downfall of any well-intentioned diet, as they usually facilitate overeating, and eating foods we would usually avoid. Again, once in a while is fine, but with the weekly buffet offerings in Singapore, and all the ongoing festivities, best to have a strategy! Bear in mind the tips below, and the usual tip of not arriving at your destination famished – as then we’re likely to grab at the nearest thing available. Once you arrive, my advice is:
- Without a plate in your hand, take a stroll right around the buffet – feasting on everything with your eyes. This avoids filling your plate with foods that you really don’t want or need.
- If you intend to have a starter, remember it’s an appetizer, not the main meal. Take a side plate… choose a salad, with a little sashimi or protein of choice, or a healthy vegetable or broth-based soup. Pass by the bread section, saving yourself for the main event.
- Make a single trip to the buffet for your main course, and take your time to fill your plate (do take a peek at the dessert section to ‘nominate your treat’). Choose selections that you might not normally have at home, like the wonderful range of vegetables and salad dishes – keeping your plate as colourful as possible.
- Sit down, and visualise your “Healthy Plate”. Ideally, this is half filled with colourful vegetables (roasted, steamed, salad), a quarter with a healthy whole grain or complex carb of choice (roasted potato or yams, brown rice, quinoa), and a quarter with sliced turkey breast, or other quality protein. Enjoy some seasonal stuffing, cranberry sauce and other traditional condiments for sure, but keep in mind that less is more.
- Enjoy your food mindfully, putting the fork down between each bit, engaging in conversation and sensing when you are feeling satisfied. Of course, enjoy a glass of wine or tipple of choice with your meal, but keep a glass of water on hand and keep sipping.
- You’ve already nominated your treat for dessert (again, choose something you wouldn’t normally have) – and remember, it’s a treat you’re after, not a dessert-tasting experience. If you can’t trust yourself to come back with only what you intend, then ask someone else to add it to their plate for you.
Trust me, you will feel so much better if you stick to your plan, so make one beforehand, mentally, or preferably, written down. This allows you to enjoy the rest of your day in the company of family and friends, without having to worry about starting a diet tomorrow!
Other simple ways to manage the holiday feasting
These general guidelines can help you keep healthy throughout Singapore’s year-long festive season!
Start each day with a good breakfast: I’d suggest some fresh fruit, followed by complex carbs and protein – think oatmeal with nuts/seeds, homemade no-sugar granola, breakfast porridge, eggs with wholegrain toast, or an omelette with vegetables.
Cut out ‘white’ foods: This includes white carbs (sugar, bread, pasta and flour) and white oils (refined processed oils and hydrogenated fats). These are termed ‘white poisons’ and do not contribute to our good health. Seek out recipes that offer healthier replacements for refined sugar and flour; consider making your stuffing with wild rice rather than bread crumbs. If dining out, see the tuffet Tips above, and focus on what a healthy plate should look like.
Increase your intake of whole grains: Experiment with the wide offerings of wild rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, wheat berries, bulgur, and amaranth. Each has a unique flavour and offers varied nutrient content.
Savour a ‘rainbow’ of vegetables with meals: Whether in salads, soups, curries, stir-fries, stews, or roasts, these are our true powerhouse of nutrients, and critical for our better health.
Enjoy a few portions of fruit daily: Berries offer high anti-oxidants and fibre while being sweet and low in fat. Bear in mind that fruit is rich in natural sugars, so limit to 2-3 varied portions daily.
Monitor intake of saturated fats from animal meats, poultry and dairy: Understand the source of these foods, as animals are often treated with hormones and antibiotics. Organic versions are certainly not cheap, especially here in Singapore, so perhaps consider choosing other options – e.g. replace some of your milk with non-dairy sources – this also brings a wider variety of nutrients to your diet.
Increase your intake of beans and legumes: These are a great source of protein and fibre and are very versatile while being inexpensive. Aim for a few meatless days during the week, and invest in quality meats/poultry when you do consume these foods.
Add essential fatty acids (EFAs – Omega 3 and 6): These are so important for our immunity, rejuvenation and mental health. The best food sources are seeds (flax, chia, pumpkin), walnuts, leafy greens and cold-water fish (wild salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel) – ideally consume these fish two or three times a week.
Liven up your dishes and taste buds with herbs and spices: These also provide specific health benefits; e.g. cinnamon helps control blood sugars, and turmeric acts as an anti-inflammatory.
Avoid artificial flavourings, additives and preservatives, along with artificial sweeteners: These are chemicals, many of which are irritants, and some are implicated in hyperactivity, ADHD, cancer and other diseases.
Grill, steam and roast foods without added fats, or use just a little butter or coconut oil: When stir-frying, use a little oil and add stock or water as required. This also keeps temperatures down, preventing the oil from reaching the smoking point. Roast potatoes and vegetables by tossing them in a little oil, and add lots of flavour by way of garlic, herbs and spices. Your turkey has plenty of fat in its skin, so there certainly is no need to add more. Rub the skin with lemon juice and spices rather than added fat.
Only stock healthy food in your fridge and kitchen: Also, keep pre-prepared healthy snacks on hand. You can eat only healthy food if you purchase and stock only healthy items.
Experiment with healthier substitutes when cooking and baking: Use natural yoghurt in place of mayonnaise, and soaked dried fruit syrup for sweetness when baking.
Cook in bulk to save time: Boil extra eggs, and roast extra salmon – to have on hand for quick lunches or snacks. Make extra marinades and sauces, and store them in your freezer to use at a future date.
Freeze fruits: These can be turned into fruit juices or paired with yoghurts for quick healthy desserts.
Limit caffeine intake, particularly if you are sensitive: A few good quality espresso-based coffees can be enjoyed, along with black, green and herbal teas.
Save your alcohol units for special occasions or meals out. When you do drink, stick to wine, or a quality additive-free beer.
Dine at home or take a packed lunch, as often as possible: This keeps you in control of the quality and quantity of your food intake.
Eat mindfully: Take your time to enjoy meals so that foods can be digested properly and minimise the risk of overheating. It takes 20 minutes for satiety to register, whereas we often rush a meal in much less time.
Plan and indulge mindfully in your treats: Be that some good quality chocolate, a glass of wine, or a shared dessert. We all need a little ‘sweetness’ in our lives.