5 tips on enjoying Chinese New Year the healthy way

It starts tonight: The hearty reunion dinner followed by two hectic weeks of snacking, visiting, decorating, tossing yusheng and exchanging hongbao.

Unless you plan to hightail it out of the country for Chinese New Year, being caught up in the festivities is unavoidable.

For many of us, this is the time when our new year's resolution to eat less and exercise more is put to the test.

While many people would rather watch all that food go to their waist than to waste, overeating does not have to be de rigueur.

Mind Your Body scours the best of East and West to bring you the Chinese New Year Survival Guide: Health is Wealth.

1 Don't binge

Overeating causes indigestion... and is sometimes associated with gastric acid reflux. The latter is often described as "heartburn", a symptom that can be quite agonising, says general practitioner Dr Chang Tou Liang of Chang Clinic. So what can be done to avoid binge eating?

"Moderation is the key," says traditional Chinese medicine physician and trainer Chin Chew Seng, who works with Eu Yan Sang's retail arm.

While this is certainly much easier said than done, it is not impossible. Here are some pointers to keep those cravings in check:

Get rid of "festive forgiveness", or making excuses for overeating. You may tell yourself that the kick-a** diet plan starts tomorrow, but you're making things harder for yourself now.

Load up on the healthier foods such as vegetables and fruits so that you have less space left for that last deep fried spring roll.

Out of sight, out of mind. When the guests are gone, stow the pineapple tarts and egg rolls away so that they will not be a constant temptation.

Dr Chang also suggests that if you are visiting many households, limit yourself to a certain quota of tidbits at each place in order to control the amount you eat.

2 Pick your eats

It's not just quantity. Quality matters too.

Too much "heaty" food such as bak kwa and mandarin oranges can be harmful to one's health.

"Heaty" foods are those which are associated with certain physical and emotional reactions, such as fever, irritability, ulcers, dark yellow urine, indigestion and constipation.

Also, "opt for foods with less oil and that are not deep fried", says Mr Chin.

But what can you do if you've already had one too many drinks or pieces of bak kwa?

You can also consume "cooling" drinks, such as ginseng tea, chrysanthemum tea, barley and honey drinks, adds Mr Chin.

The "cooling" effect of these beverages will then counter the "heaty" effect of the foods, leaving you feeling more balanced.

3 Don't stop moving

The hectic schedule of Chinese New Year may seem like the perfect excuse to shirk exercise.

After all, what time is there to go for a jog in when you're preparing drinks and food for a constant stream of visitors?

Perhaps the feeling of bloatedness and your waistline expanding will get you up on your feet.

"Take adequate rests between meals and, if possible, do some light exercise, like taking a stroll," says Dr Chang.

Exercising not only helps you burn calories but it also alleviates some of the stress of the Chinese New Year period.

4 Get some sleep

Chinese New Year is a time for visiting, eating, congratulating and asking unwed relatives when they are going to get married.

But in the madcap whirl, it is crucial not to forget one important person: You.

The hectic Chinese New Year schedule may "lead to lethargy due to a lack of sleep and rest and an increase in blood pressure", says Mr Chin. "So get sufficient rest and sleep."

While it may not seem worthwhile to sacrifice a jaunt in Chinatown for a few hours of sleep, those few hours can be precious.

"Exhaustion... runs the body down and, with inadequate rest, it is difficult to summon the energy for the next activity... It also causes impaired judgment and irritable behaviour, not the best way to celebrate the new year," says Dr Chang.

5 Plan, plan, plan

Part of the exhaustion and stress of Chinese New Year is not knowing what is going to come up next and getting blindsided by unplanned visits.

Plan your Chinese New Year timetable way beforehand in order to accommodate enough time for hosting people, visiting people, the preparation of meals... so on and so forth, says Dr Chang.

Also, try to avoid last-minute shopping and last-minute crowds.

Armed with this guide, Chinese New Year should no longer be a daunting experience.

But if all else fails, there is always Dr Chang's advice for "the ideal situation".

E-mail: lting@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on Feb 6, 2008.
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