Grinding away at the game of life

It takes a lot of discipline to walk past hawker stalls offering delicious, but unhealthy, food and deliberately make a beeline for low-calorie options such as fish porridge or fishball soup.

This week, I restarted my diet plan after regaining the 8kg I lost more than two years ago. With age catching up, frozen shoulders and a flabby tummy, I know I have to do this again and again.

So I am going back to how I succeeded two years ago. The only way, I reckon, is to treat this as a game in which the objective is to consume less and exercise more. I believe that input contributes to 70 per cent in the weight-loss equation, with the remainder being exercise.

To help me resist choosing char kway teow and fried chicken wings, I am using two calorie-tracking apps, My Fitness Pal and iDat.

After you have keyed in your age, weight and weight-loss goals, the apps will tell you how many calories to limit yourself to each day.

Stick to these daily limits and the kilos will drop off. It never fails.

The reason that I use two apps, not one, is that they complement each other. The Health Promotion Board's iDat tells you the calorific value of many popular local dishes, even fast-food options.

It tells you, for instance, that a single piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken breast meat will set you back 381 calories. Going for the Zinger is a choice that is laden with 633 calories. At 745 calories, char kway teow is even worse.

The numbers that iDat provide are useful, but it does limit your food choices. My Fitness Pal, on the other hand, lists many food items with corresponding calorific labels created by end users, so it lists more foods.

Studying these numbers and making deliberate choices to keep my daily intake under 1,840 calories is an effective way to lose weight. After a while, it does feel like a video game. Instead of trying to score points by slaying more monsters, I win my daily battles by aiming for low scores on the calorie counter.

Counting calories allows me the occasional guilt-free indulgence. If I treat myself to two fish burgers and a chocolate milkshake (totalling about 1,000 calories) for lunch, I can make up for it by having a bowl of fish soup (136 calories) for dinner - and still have calories to spare.

The other part I have to work on is, of course, the exercise. Many people now rely on fitness trackers such as Fitbit and Jawbone Up. But for me, old app faithfuls RunKeeper and Cardio Trainer still work best.

Cardio Trainer monitors my progress as I take hour-long walks around the neighbourhood. It counts my steps, shows an overlay of my path over Google Maps, records my pace, distance travelled and the time it takes me to complete the route. Last, and certainly not least, it tells me how many calories I have burnt. It is all saved to my smartphone and my Facebook account so I can easily check my progress. Or lack of it.

Game or not, the exercise part is hard work. Walking an hour at 4kmh burns just 300 calories. It takes a lot more effort to exercise than to eat less. Substituting fish soup for char kway teow saves 600 calories, and that is worth two hours of walking.

It's a long road ahead for me as I embark on this journey once again. It is especially tough when I go back to Kuala Lumpur for the holidays, because I have to avoid my hawker favourites, which include wanton noodles, black Hokkien mee and bak kut teh.

Fortunately for me, much of what passes for Malaysian food in Singapore does not measure up, so staying here is definitely a plus in helping me to succeed in this challenge - though I am less satisfied gastronomically.

The game has started. I know I will grow to enjoy it, like many of the video games I have conquered. But in this game of life, there is no Game Over. The price of freedom, as they say, is eternal vigilance.

This article was published on Sept 3 in Digital Life, The Straits Times.

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