SINGAPORE: If you are going to indulge in popular Chinese New Year goodies this festive season, for the sake of your health you might want to reach for the cake bangkit instead of salted egg fish skin.
This is because the science has spoken.
Salted egg fish skin ranked the highest in calories and cake bangkit the lowest, in a comprehensive scientific study on festive goodies.
Conducted by food and nutrition researchers from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), the study involving 30 Chinese New Year snacks found that 100g of salted egg fish skin contains 656 calories, about the same as a plate of roasted duck rice.
This is about 40 per cent more calories than the 379 calories in the same amount of cake bangkit.
When it comes to the amount of fat, the disparity between the two snacks is higher – 100g of salted egg fish skin has 52g, five times more than the figure for cake bangkit.
While some snacks may have nutrition labels, some others do not, said Professor Jeyakumar Henry from the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation, who conducted the study. He added that unlike estimation based on the ingredients, which is common practice in coming up with nutrition labels, the results of the study came from using instruments that measure the contents of the snack with precision.
“Knowledge is power, and with power, we can change our lives,” he said in a phone interview with CNA.
“We have to change our lifestyle, our feeding habits.”
Work is underway to analyse snacks popular during other festive seasons, but Prof Henry stressed that the purpose of the study he did with researchers Bi Xinyan and Michelle Yeo is not to stop people from indulging over the festive period, but to provide them information that could help them make better choices. The idea to do the study struck them over Chinese New Year season in 2018 when they were eating some of the snacks, Prof Henry said.
The information has helped him personally, he added. He used to have five or six pineapple tarts and five to six pieces of fish skin previously.
“Now I have three or four pineapple tarts and one morsel of the fish skin,” he said.
The database would also help health professionals advise their patients with diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure better, he said.
Senior dietitian at Gleneagles Hospital Wong Hui Mei said that the study is useful in educating the public and increasing their awareness about the nutrition of Chinese New Year snacks.
“It is important for people to be mindful of what they eat during festive period yet not being overly indulgent,” she said, warning of overeating everyday during this period.
Quoting a study published in American Journal of Physiology--Endocrinology and Metabolism, Ms Wong said that overall weight, fat mass, fasting levels of blood sugar and production of insulin did not change in response to the short-term overeating.
“However, if overeating happens daily during the entire Chinese New Year celebration, it could be a problem, as excessive caloric intake leads to weight gain, increase the amount of total body fat and visceral fat as well,” she said.
Apart from weight gain, the high sugar content in the goodies may cause a spike in blood sugar levels.
“If you have existing medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, ischemic heart disease and others, overeating is strongly not recommended as it will greatly impact on your blood sugar and blood pressure,” she said.
She advised people to exercise portion control, both in the amount and variety of snacks. She also said people should practice mindful eating, focusing on the senses such as smell, taste and texture while chewing, instead of “going for quantity”.
“If a food setback happens, instead of feeling guilty, you should acknowledge your feeling and get ready to get back on track at your next meal,” she said.
She added that other than snacks, people need to limit caloric-dense beverages such as soft drinks, alcohol and sweetened drinks. She urged them to opt for sugar-free beverages or if there are alcoholic beverages, diluting them with soda or sparkling water.
“Avoid visiting on an empty stomach as you may end up overeating. Try to eat some high fibre and low calorie snacks such as fruits and small portion nuts to help keep you fuller for longer,” she said.
Head of Nutrition & Dietetics at Mount Alvernia Hospital Sarah Sinaram said: “If you have chosen to consume these Chinese New Year goodies before your meal, then try to intentionally reduce your carbohydrate intake.”
She said celebrants could focus on filling their plate with vegetables and a serve of protein like skinless chicken, fish, lean meat and tofu when time came for the main meal. She added that they should have sips of plain water or tea in between mouthfuls of food, as the fluids may help to keep them feeling full faster and prevent overeating.
“Chewing food slowly also helps reduce the pace of eating and increases satiety. Satiety signals can take up to 20 minutes to reach the brain and control appetite. Skip seconds and end your meal with something sweet,” she said.
She also suggested that people should plan ahead to accommodate big meals.
“For example if you are planning for big dinner, have a healthier lunch,” she said, giving the example of a small portion of brown rice or multigrain bread with grilled chicken or pan-fried tofu with a serving of vegetables.
“Bear in mind that excessive eating may result in unpleasant consequences like indigestion and even negative feelings like guilt and regret, all of which put a dampener on the festive cheer,” she said.
HOSTS CAN PLAY A PART
On the part of the hosts, they can encourage healthier eating by using small plates and containers to serve high-calorie snacks, and make available lower calorie snacks like mandarin orange, unsalted nuts without sugar coating and sunflower seeds. They can also offer drinks like plain water and Chinese tea, she said.
Ms Sinaram said that putting food and goodies away once meal time is over is also a good idea.
“Those Chinese New Year goodies might look festive on the tabletop, but they’re more likely to tempt your guests to eat more. The more accessible food is, the harder it is to resist,” she said.
They can also consider preparing food using healthier ingredients and healthier cooking methods like stewing and pan-frying over deep frying.
“Divert your guests’ attention from food by planning for social activities like games during their time with you,” she said.