SINGAPORE - The most challenging thing about Chinese New Year isn't the spring cleaning, or the visiting, or the small talk I have to make with distant relatives I see only once a year.
The most challenging thing about Chinese New Year is losing the weight I gain. It's a hazardous time of the year for people (like me) who watch their weight.
Two days before the start of the Year of the Horse, and already I had consumed thousands of CNY calories I really shouldn't have.
The bingeing started more than a week earlier, when I went to the CNY food fair at Takashiyama Square.
Of all the fairs that are held at the huge atrium there, the Chinese New Year one is my favourite. I love the colour, the noise, the jostling and the aunties standing in front of their stalls hawking their cookies.
Most of all, I love how generous some of the stallholders are with their samples. Squeezing your way through the crowds, you can eat your fill of love letters, peanuts, kueh bangkit and pineapple tarts - which I do, unashamedly.
I'd dropped by the fair three times this year, and left feeling full each time. (I wasn't just a freeloader; I did buy some goodies, including the perennially popular kueh bahulu from the Warisan stall.)
Every year, a friend at work gives me to-die-for pineapple tarts which she and her sisters make. The pastry is light and buttery and the jam sweet and crunchy. The day she gave me the tarts (straight from the oven), I gobbled up 10 at one go. The next day, I ate five.
I also made my way to the Chinatown Chinese New Year bazaar one Saturday and bought, among other things, nian gao. We panfried it with egg the next day. Delicious.
In between, I snacked on unusual white coffee cookies I'd found at a smaller CNY food fair inside Takashimaya, and sesame- speckled, deep-fried beehive cookies ("Don't worry, not oily," the woman at the stall assured. "Put inside the oil for two, three seconds only.")
And so, even before CNY arrived, my calorie intake had shot to frightening levels. According to the Health Promotion Board, one slice of bak kwa (barbecued pork) is 370 calories. To burn that off, you need to jog for 47 minutes.
One love letter is 60 calories (seven-minute jog) and one pineapple tart is 80 calories (10-minute jog). A slice of kueh lapis is 240 calories, a slice of nian gao (non-fried) is 46 calories, and a tiny piece of kueh bangkit packs 23 calories.
Those beehive cookies that I like and ate at least 10 pieces of? They are 149 calories. Each.
Even the seemingly healthy dish of yusheng, replete with carrot, cucumber, pomelo and raw fish, weighs in at 145 calories a serving, because of the oil and sauces.
CNY food is sweet, salty and full of saturated fat, which makes them really unhealthy. Two slices of bak kwa contain about half a teaspoon of sodium, or half the recommended daily level of salt.
Health guides will advise you to eat in moderation during CNY and to choose healthier snacks such as sunflower seeds over salted peanuts. But watching your calories on New Year's Day is such a drag.
Part of the fun of the new year is feeling fat and bloated at the end of two days of feasting, and vowing to go on a diet and back to your old weight once life returns to normal. For me, alas, my weight has hit a new normal in recent years.
I blame it on marriage. Ever since I tied the knot three years ago, I've packed on the pounds. I am now nearly 3kg heavier than I was before I met H, and I'm convinced there is a link between being wed and putting on weight.
I eat out a lot more than before, and hawker and restaurant food is high-fat, high-salt and unhealthy. I go on holidays more and, again, that's me stuffing my face. As a married person, I visit the supermarket an awful lot, and we invariably end up buying snacks we shouldn't eat.
Instead of only me in the house having food cravings (anything crunchy and deep-fried), there's now also him (durians, glutinous rice, nuts). Giving in to two cravings also equals more calories. The first year of marriage, I was stressed out by the changes in my life. The result? I ate more. The second and third years were better and I was happier. Again, this led me to eat more.
Marriage has also made me lazier. Where once I was motivated to wake up early to go for a run, I now prefer sleeping in. When I was single, I felt the pressure to look my best, which in my case was to be as thin as I possibly could. That pressure has since eased. I don't have to suck in my tummy anymore.
You would think that in a world beset with so many problems, obsessing over fat grams - especially when you aren't facing life-threatening obesity - must be one of our most superficial concerns. It is. But I can't help it. I grew up in a feminine household where weight was a constant topic of conversation. My mother, sister and I critiqued each other's body parts openly.
Losing weight was a family mantra, no matter where on the weighing scales we were at that point, and diet was a much-tossed- about four-letter word. From the age of 18, I've been weighing myself first thing in the morning, before breakfast. My day is made if the scales show I've lost weight. For a time in my early 20s, I was anorexic and bulimic. But I got over that and although I was no longer sick, my body mass index was always in the underweight zone.
In my 20s and 30s, I could easily put on and lose 1kg in a matter of days by going for a run. Even in my early 40s, I weighed the same as I did in my 30s, through vanity and sheer willpower. But my weight has since hit a new normal, and I am not comfortable with it. I console myself that skinny is not a good look when you are older.
Sunken cheeks and wide thigh gaps may look stunning on a 20-year-old, but on an older woman, it screams wrinkly and scrawny. Still, I yearn to be trimmer, leaner. As they say, new year, new start. I'll diet in the Year of the Horse. Just not today.
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