New Year, New Figure

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This post was written by Sarah Rees

As we all recover from the Christmas binge, Sarah Rees has some simple tips for cutting the calories this month without having to shun the yummy Asian dishes

It wouldn’t be New Year without the same old lament about trousers not fitting after the Christmas gorging session. How many of you out there will have started 2012 with a determination to ‘healthy-up’ your eating habits and get yourself into shape?

This is always a depressing prospect, but it is a challenge that looms even larger because we inhabit what must be one of the foodie capitals of the world, where everything that tastes good is usually laden with calories. But fear not, the prospect is not as gloomy as you think! With a few tips under your belt, you can still head down to the mamak stall and, by making a few smart decisions, cut the calories. You are not yet doomed to survive on nothing but lettuce while your friends chuck down the nasi.

Firstly, there are certain things that should ring alarm bells in the mind of the healthy eater. Anything that is deep-fried is a no-no – the calorie count is monstrous – as are noodles that are fried in oil. Try and go for things that have been roasted, baked or grilled, and try to encourage your servers not to slop ghee over everything before they bring it out, as ghee – or clarified butter – is pretty much pure fat.

When it comes to meat, beef is by far the most calorific, so opt for healthier chicken and fish options. Try to avoid eating the skin or fat visible on the meat, and at the mamak stall opt for tandoori meats, as they are much healthier than fried meats. Also, just try not to eat so much meat – it actually has a high fat content full stop and our bodies don’t always need as much meat as we throw in them. Why not make one meal a day a vegetarian one?

On the topic of vegetarian food, banana leaf rice is actually one of the more healthy options of cheap local food. Not only is it meat-free and so automatically lower in fat, the vegetables are fresh and subsequently contain less ghee, which mamak places often use to preserve dishes that sit there all day. An added bonus is that vegetables fill you up more than meat so you won’t eat as much.

Food here in Malaysia is rice-heavy, and rice has a nasty habit of adding padding to your waistline if you eat too much of it. Try to eat rice at lunchtime rather than in the evening – then your body has more time to digest it – and opt for a lighter meal at night so it doesn’t sit in your belly while you slumber.

Opt for ‘lighter’ carbs with your meal, such as choosing Indian breads over rice with your banana leaf. Thosai is one of the healthiest, closely followed by chapathis, while our beloved roti is the worst of the lot – one piece has 10g of fat and 300 calories; ouch. Try not to have roti too often (you can’t cut them out all together; that would be sad) and if you can hunt down one of the places that serves roti cooked in olive oil then that is even better!

While people tend to be conscious about fats, don’t forget that sugar can add to your waistline too, as any energy that you don’t burn off gets stored as fat. In Malaysia, it seems they can’t serve a drink without piling it full of sugar and syrup, and the phrase you need is kurang manis: less sugar. A no-no drink is anything with condensed milk in, such as teh tarik, as condensed milk is super sweet and fattening: one cup of the nation’s favourite tea time treat has 5g fat in it. Creamer is also a hidden menace – go for real milk and not the nasty powdered, high-fat stuff.


Sugar is loaded into most of the puddings and kuih that you see on stalls, so try and cut down on these. Opt instead for Chinese buns or pau as they have less sugar in them. Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that rojak is healthy because it has fruit in it: 51g of fat in one plate! But before your head starts spinning with all the things you can’t eat, remember that a balanced diet is the key, and you can eat anything you want as long as it is in moderation. There is no point spending the month living on celery sticks as you will probably just make yourself ill! Eat a varied diet and treat yourself to things you like once in a while.

There are also other things you can do to help you along the way. Try to eat slower, as it takes your body about half an hour to realise it is full up and we often eat past that point and end up stuffing ourselves. And though it may sound obvious, only eat when you are hungry. Sometimes we end up eating just to be social, especially if people around us are nibbling away.

If you are dishing up your own meal, try to put a little less on your plate to avoid falling into the trap of eating more just because it is there. Eat until you are full, and then stop. You don’t have to waste the left-overs, you can always tapau and have the rest later! Another nifty trick is to drink a glass of water each time you feel hungry. If our bodies are thirsty and they haven’t been watered, they will often start craving food, knowing that they can get water that way.

Last, and by no means least, is the advice that no one ever wants to hear: the key to losing weight is, as well as being conscious of what you eat, is to exercise. That doesn’t have to mean sweating for hours at the gym; try going for a walk in the evening, or have a swim at the weekends to cool off after a hot day.

But most importantly of all, don’t worry about it too much. You are certainly not as ‘big’ as you imagine, (no one ever is!) and a few careful choices can make a big difference without preventing you enjoying your food. If you go for an all-out crazy diet then you are much more likely to fail. Little changes and smart choices can makes a big difference, and even better is that your friends won’t even realise you are doing it!

So let’s make 2012 a year when we actually stick to our resolutions! At least until February.

Source: The Expat January 2012 
This article has been edited for
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