My Mid-Life Food Crisis

Bicycle at Kallang

Update 3 Feb 2013: I’ve switched from the HPB iDat app to MyFitnessPal, which provides a much better food database, nutrition breakdown, user interface and it syncs properly across devices. The problem with locally created apps, especially those from govt. agencies, aren’t very well maintained or designed. But it was a good start and I do thank HPB for it.

Late last year, I got infected by a really bad case of athlete’s foot (that’s foot fungus if you’re not an athlete). It refused to heal despite all sorts of medicine being used, and I had to stop jogging for the whole month of Dec and the early weeks of Jan because it became too painful to even walk. I’ve since ditched the useless Western medicine and am using an ancient method of vinegar soak (50% white vinegar, 50% water for 20min twice a day) and it’s killing the fungus with an unholy vengeance.

The infection forced me to stop eating heavy foods and reduce my snacking, because I knew I couldn’t burn them off with another long run. This was especially miserable during the Christmas season when people are supposed to be making merry and gobbling food.

But that didn’t change my thinking on food, which was to “live to eat”. Two years of running with the Nike+ system gave me more stamina, but I gained about 3kg rather than losing weight. I love my pork lard, dry noodles and curry rice!

Then a few weeks ago, I purchased a digital weighing scale to replace the old spring version which has been showing the wrong readings for years. The new scale came with a fat percentage analyzer, and to my horror, my fat count was over 24% (healthy is 20% or under).

Didn’t help that my BMI was borderline overweight at 25 (it should be under 25). I’ve been mildly unhappy with the gradual disappearance of my jawline over the past few years too, and the weighing machine sparked the decision to change my eating habits for good.

Some fundamentals in adjusting food habits:

1. Data is critical. Most of the time, we make decisions without the right information. Working in journalism and Microsoft has taught me a healthy respect for collecting relevant data before acting. One of the reasons why I never lost weight since my army days is because I haven’t actually bothered to research what I was eating. How many calories was I actually eating a day? What is the trajectory of my unstoppable weight gain?

2. Exercise is unavoidable. Thankfully I have been jogging regularly over the past six years to ensure I don’t fail the IPPT fitness test. But I needed to ditch the rudimentary Nike+ Sportband pedometer because it was always showing a longer distance than I actually covered (due to my smaller strides). And the Nike+ website is a continual disaster with login failures and all sorts of problems. I can’t believe how a great company like Nike can tolerate having such an abysmal online experience for runners. I’ve covered over 900km with the Sportband and I was getting really fedup with the Nike site and my lack of weight loss.

So, I spent a day researching on calorie counting apps, and remembered the Singapore Health Promotion Board folks telling me about their iDAT (Interactive Diet and Activity Tracker) app. I downloaded it and was astounded to find all sorts of local food and their respective calorie figures in the database. It also comes with a basic GPS feature to track your various fitness activities.

The iDAT app's main screen, which shows you a quick summary of your calorie intake versus requirements.
The iDAT app’s main screen, which shows you a quick summary of your calorie intake versus requirements. The green bar shows your daily baseline requirement and the yellow bar shows calories expended by exercise. The orange bar refers to how much you’ve consumed so far in the day.

So I decided to do a simulation of my usual intake of delicious SG food and it wasn’t a good report card. It’s scary how many calories our local food contains. We know they aren’t healthy, but the numbers are sobering. My baseline benchmark is a bowl of minced pork porridge, which is about 320 kcal and not the most exciting meal out there. 

  FOOD CALORIES (kCal)
BREAKFAST Breadtalk curry bun 214
Soya bean drink with sugar 138
LUNCH Chicken Rice 666
Soft Drink 133
TEA Ice Milo 175
Biscuit 150
DINNER Economy Rice with 2 veg and 1 meat 580
Ice Lemon Tea 87
SUPPER Crispy snacks 200
  TOTAL 2343

Give or take, the average SG male needs 1800-2000 kcal a day on average to keep going. Of course, I don’t eat such rich food at every meal but with an excess of 343 kcal a day, one will gain 1kg in just 22 days if you lead a sedentary lifestyle and don’t exercise.

“Calorie In” must be balanced with “Calorie Out” to maintain the same weight. When you take in less calories than you expend, you’ll experience a calorie deficit which then leads to weight loss. Vice versa too. 

According to online wisdom, 1kg of body weight is equivalent to 7700 kcal. To burn off 1kg of weight, you need to have a calorie deficit each day of 500 kcal over 15 days. The reverse is true – overeat by 500 kcal per day and you’ll gain 1kg in 15 days. The advice is not to have a deficit of more than 1000 kcal per day for healthy weight loss. The HPB website has much more info and you should do your research there. 

Now what puzzles me is – why didn’t I know all this facts on weight management before? Why is it nobody teaches this in school or provide such advice when dishing out gems on healthy living? My suspicion is that most people never bother to find out until they meet a nutritionist or read a blog post like this.

Anyway, armed with this data, I reworked by daily diet to look something like this:

  FOOD CALORIES (kCal)
BREAKFAST Gardenia Softmeal Bread 2 slices 137
Cheddar cheese spread (thin) 30
Kopi O Kosong 5
Apple Raw 96
LUNCH Wanton noodle soup 290
Cordial Drink 88
TEA Wheatmeal biscuit 110
DINNER Economy Rice with 2 veg and 1 meat 580
Ice Lemon Tea 87
SUPPER Nestum 3-in-1 drink 110
  TOTAL 1533

Overnight, I would have shaved off 800 kcal from my usual unhealthy diet. Even with a baseline calorie requirement of 1800 kcal, I would have a deficit of 267 kcal. This would theoretically lead to a loss of 1kg over 28 days. I don’t stop myself from eating my favorite mee pok or fried rice though, I just eat half a portion and substitute the rest with colorful fruits to ensure I don’t feel hungry. 

Here's another day's reduced diet mix.
Here’s another day’s reduced diet mix.

Now all my friends know I’m an impatient guy and I like to see quick results, so when you add exercise to the mix, the calorie deficit increases even more. To cut the long story short, jogging about 6km at a moderate pace (say within 35 min) will burn about 400 kcal, or roughly the equivalent of a bowl of dry wanton mee.

So if you choose to exercise every day, you can still stay slim even if you eat like most Singaporeans do. However I personally think that exercising everyday at that rate is dangerous as your body doesn’t get enough time to recover, so I do it every alternate day.

My current goal is to lose 3kg so my BMI goes down to about 23, and with the above focus on diet, data and exercise, I’ve lost about 1kg in the first week (which is deemed the safe limit for healthy weight loss). This is the first time in my life that I’ve actually bothered to lose weight seriously, and it’s not as hard as it seems. My jawline has redefined itself and my jeans are already looser.

However, there was a day I cut back too much (about 1200 kcal deficit) and I spent the whole day feeling a little faint and sleepy, so don’t go to the extreme and go bulimic on me please. Once I reach my desired weight, I will recalculate my daily requirements so I can maintain the weight.

This is the park connector route that I take to work. There are several traffic lights to cross though.
This is the park connector route that I take to cycle from Bishan to work in the Marina Bay area. There are several traffic lights to cross though. Thanks Jerry and Dom for figuring this route out for me!

And last week, I finally got a bicycle (has it been 12 years since I last cycled on my Giant?) so that I could keep up with the cycling goblin kids. Also, it’s a great way to get together with the AC dragonboaters who are all now in the same phase of mid-life crisis, going on SG park connectors like we are primary school kids again. I cycled to work for this first time this morning at a casual pace along the Kallang canal route, burning about 285 kcal over 11.7km and 51min, and I tell you, it’s lovely not having to worry about hell drivers in the rear view mirror. It’s also great to be able to cycle with the boys you grew up with over the past 30 years!

On the flipside, this means I’ll be riding my Ducati Monster less now :(

Now I know I’ve been annoying my Facebook friends by posting all sorts of calorie information on various foods (do you know one cup of roasted salted peanuts has 1000 calories?!?) but really, once you start getting into the data, you can’t stop. After one week of reading the iDAT app, I can tell you offhand the calorie count of most local food.

The younger version of me will pooh-pooh this and say “one should enjoy life and your food”, but I’m not young anymore and my metabolism is really slowing down. Strangely, my palate has also changed – I don’t really hanker after char kway teow or other oily food anymore.

Gone are the days when we used to be athletic dragonboaters or gung-ho army officers, and there’s no point trying to relive the days of the past. Aging is inevitable and if we choose to ignore reality, there will be a price to pay in days to come. Good food can be had in this food paradise, but just in moderation (and I really mean in moderation) while keeping the discipline to not over-eat or snack unnecessarily. I’ve stopped adding milk to coffee and take Coke maybe once a week. No more regular snacking on Collon or Cheezels too.

I must caution you though – once you embark on this path I took, you’ll never look at local food the same way again.

I have compiled my writings on weight management into a free book called “Anyone Can Lose Weight”. Download it for free now.

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Ian Tan

Ian worked in the media industry for a decade, focusing on communications, photography and technology. He now works in the IT industry, permanently plugged into his PC and Facebook.

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