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Guide To Dieting in Singapore

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Dieting in Singapore – you can have your cake and eat it you know. Just know how many calories are in each slice. (About 100kcal)

When I first started counting my calories, I got quite a few responses from my friends. Some feigned mock horror, others said they couldn’t be bothered as it was a chore. To amuse myself and to annoy my Facebook friends, I posted regularly on the horrors of high calorie content in our local foods, and what do you know, some of them started calorie counting too. Sadly, most gave up after a while.

Anyway, in the past four months, I’ve dropped about 5.5kg from the time I swore to change my diet. On the bright side, I can see my jawline again, most of the spare tyres around the tummy and chest has disappeared and my waistline has contracted by over an inch, reversing a 15-year trend.

The bad part is now most of my usual work and casual clothes are now baggy and I have to buy new clothes.

To some people that isn’t a bad thing at all.

Anyway, some friends have asked me to share my diet plan and other tips, so you read this earlier post (My Mid-Life Food Crisis) first on the science behind dieting, and my new learnings as follows:

1. Be completely honest about yourself first.

We’ve heard it all before – “Muscle weighs more than fat!”, “Don’t believe the BMI chart, doesn’t apply to everyone”, “It’s ok to be bulkier when you age.” I’m sorry if this hurts you, but they are all rubbish excuses. If you fall outside of the healthy BMI range, you have to accept that no matter your body shape or bone density.

Now our Health Promotion Board has pretty harsh BMI benchmarks compared to the West. Where healthy is up to 24.9, our SG standard is up to 22.9 (which means I have one more kg to lose)

BMI (kg/m2) for Adults Health Risk
27.5 and above High Risk
23 – 27.4 Moderate Risk
18.5 – 22.9 Low Risk (healthy range)
Below 18.5 Risk of nutritional deficiency diseases and osteoporosis

Unless you are a bodybuilder, below 18, a senior citizen, pregnant or suffering from illness, you can’t run away from this objective chart. The biggest hurdle in dieting, in my opinion, is our perception of what our ideal weight should be.

2. Dieting doesn’t mean bland food.

You can have your cake (butter or pandan?) and eat it. Really. The only condition is that you need to moderate how much of fatty, oily and rich food you are going to take in a day. It’s common sense, you know it lah, but the only way to know is to count your calories religiously. I still have regular treats of ice-cream, cakes, Twisties and some chocolate weekly, and I’m still losing weight.

I walk into foodcourts today and feel like a war refugee. There are so many stalls that I don’t wish to eat from, because my palate has changed permanently. Once your new dietary habits kick in after a few weeks, you don’t even need to avoid the rich foods – you will have NO DESIRE to eat them at all. This is because Singapore is a food paradise, yet we have sinned too much from the time we are young. Switching to a healthy diet is like a baptism of fire, suddenly your eyes are opened and you see the truth of our country’s unhealthy living.

3. What to eat.

It’s very simple, just think of the following key words – Soupy, High Fibre, Less Fried, Low Gravy and try not to bust 500kcal per meal. For guys, don’t bust a total of 1800kcal a day (to maintain weight) or look to have a deficit of 300kcal (ie. eat 1500kcal a day) to lose nearly 1kg in 25 days. Every kg of weight is worth 7700kcal, so you can calculate from there.

Be it wanton soup noodles (300-350 kcal), economy rice with more vegetables and some meat (500kcal), porridge (400kcal), fish soup noodles (300-400kcal), it’s all ok. Now some of you might think it’s boring and bland, but you don’t have to eat from lousy foodstalls. Eat from good foodstalls and a simple wanton noodle tastes terrific.

This doesn’t mean you can’t eat slightly higher calorie food like fried rice (600-700kcal) or dry minced meat noodles (400-500kcal) regularly. You can have it once a day but make sure your other two meals in the same day are healthier dishes. Once or twice a week, you can treat yourself to fatty chicken rice (666kcal and up) or roti prata (200kcal per prata).

One problem is the prevalence of carbohydrates. We need carbs for energy, and you shouldn’t go on a carb-free diet. But if you want to lose weight fast and not feel hungry all the time, shave off 1/3 or 1/2 your rice or noodles and replace with fruits in the same meal. Trust me, your weight disappears really fast this way, and you won’t faint at work.

4. What to stop eating

There are some foods that are definite red flags and you need to consider if you should eat them even once a week if you aren’t exercising regularly. They contain too much calories per dish, and some of them don’t even make you feel full.

  • Char Kway Teow (over 900kcal)
  • Nasi Lemak with the works (over 1000kcal)
  • Any fast food burger with two or more meat patties (easily over 1000kcal)
  • Chocolate bars like Snickers (300kcal per bar)
  • Nuts (Cashew nuts are 1000kcal per cup!)
  • Duck Rice (Such fatty birds lah, over 700kcal for roasted versions)

Yeah, you can say “How can we not enjoy good food in Singapore?” Yes you can, but many of us have gone overboard on a daily basis and it’s become the norm. Yet we are less active than our forefathers and the food industry spends billions convincing us to spend on unhealthy food.

The other killer in our diet are sweetened drinks. And I’m not even referring to soft drinks like Coke (150kcal per can)

The only healthy coffee is plain coffee without sugar (5kcal). Any other combination of sugar and milk (evaporated, condensed, less or more, whatever) adds unnecessary calories immediately. Depending on how much milk and sugar are added, a regular kopi can have the same amount or even more calories than a bigger can of Coke!

I love Milo (150kcal) but I’ve stopped drinking it regularly too, since I’m no longer a sportsman and I don’t need to win races :) What I did was to buy several waterbottles and place it at home, at work, in the bag and just keep drinking good old zero-calorie tap water, or succumb to Diet Coke/Coke Zero at work (0 calories, but may be carcinogenic according to some sources).

And where you can, reduce the amount of gravy they add to your food – be it chicken rice, duck rice, vegetable dishes etc. They contain too much fat and MSG, which in turn makes you thirsty and retain more water later. I love my curry, so it’s a regular sin on my economy rice…but not too much!

5. Exercise will accelerate weight loss, obviously.

I would say 60-70% of the weight loss comes from changing your diet, and the remaining 30% comes from exercise. You can always lose weight without exercise, but it’s going to take much longer and you don’t exactly become the toned looking person you desire to become. Rapid weight loss without exercise may just lead to saggy skin, low energy levels and sallow circulation (that’s my theory). Exercise also clears up the complexion rapidly and removes toxins from the body regularly (that’s true).

I’m used to exercising, since I used to be a dragonboater. But that’s not to say I enjoy running three or four times a week. I do it purely out of habit, and it’s not fun in this weather.

One thing to note about exercise, whether you run, swim or cycle – it’s not just the intensity, but the actual duration. You can run a 2.4km route at top speed and nearly burst your heart, but it’s only 150kcal, or the equivalent of a can of soft drink. It’s better to take a slow jog over at least 35min and burn about 400kcal, or the equivalent of one meal.

And make sure if you burn 400kcal from exercise, eat another 400kcal on top of your regular healthy meals to ensure you aren’t under-eating. See my earlier post to understand how to calculate calorie deficit healthily.

We are who we eat, and unfortunately, as Singapore has gotten more affluent over time, we’ve piled on the calories without understanding that our bodies don’t need the excess. We go for high teas, regular restaurant meals and fast food, only because we think it’s the middle/high class lifestyle we should aspire to. We appreciate good tasting food, but we don’t measure their impact on our bodies.

Like I said, it’s ok to enjoy good food while we are alive.

But moderate yourself and suddenly you’ll find yourself looking and feeling much better. (Cue cheesy late night TV ad music!)

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

Published by

Ian Tan

Ian Tan is a former journalist and photographer at Singapore Press Holdings, and a former marketer and consumer business leader at Microsoft. He now works in an e-commerce startup called Andios. He gets easily distracted by beautiful motorcycles.

8 thoughts on “Guide To Dieting in Singapore”

  1. Could I ask you what are the calories for the Singapore Fish porridge (rice porridge/porridge/congee – i dont know which one), but it is the one that we always order from the fish soup stall where they add slightly less than a bowl of rice and pour the whole fish soup inside, just without the tofu and some tomato?

    I have been rather puzzled because most of the calorie content that I looked up on, I believe that they are referring to the fish congee the one that is watery and not the one that I usually eat, with rice grains that are visible? Are they higher in calories in that sense?

  2. Agree with you Ian , especially on “Soupy, High Fibre,
    Less Fried, Low Gravy and try not to bust 500kcal per meal.”

    I do recommend reducing on sugar / sodium. I reduce my carbo intake generally. This guidelines help
    the waistline and weight lost faster.

    I do daily workouts and calorie count, adhering to the above
    principle on type of food in sg, and never starve myself – I lost 25 kg, 8
    inches off my waist within 5 months after changing the type of food I eat. I am still loosing weight (and fats count
    occasionally) every week even though I am around HPB “BMI healthy guideline”.

  3. Love this post! Was nodding my much! Especially about the baptism of fire and ermine my change of palate parts.

    Great that you preempted many reader reactions throughout the post. :)

  4. Great post! I’m starting my first week here but am having trouble finding breakfast options cause I start work at 4.30am… Any good suggestions? Appreciate any help!

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