Runners. Beware of snacking on pineapple tarts and Bak Kwa during CNY.


Runners should maintain their fitness regime during the Chinese New Year (CNY) and not use the CNY holidays as an excuse to slack off – this is what Dr Derek Li, 34, a medical doctor and a sub 3-hour marathoner, recommends, in order to prevent unwanted festive weight gain over the New Year season.

And this is especially so, with the unhealthy nature of many of the common CNY snacks – such as pineapple tarts and bak kwa – that tend to be very easily accessible in most Chinese households.

Chinese New Year snacks are not the most healthy things to eat.
[Photo credit to Marcus Chan / Flickr]

Low intensity higher mileage runs burn calories 

Said the family physician with the Raffles Medical Group, “If you are taking in a lot of CNY snacks, then chances are that you are taking in too much unrefined sugar and saturated fat into your diet on the day. Therefore you should make sure that your regular meals should have as little fat as possible, and have more complex carbohydrates, lean proteins and vitamin rich vegetables to compensate. It is also a good time, from a training perspective, to do more low intensity higher mileage runs, to burn more calories.”

This analogy also applies to runners who may already have gained weight during the Christmas and New Year festive season and are trying to burn it off. Said the doctor, “The best way to burn calories is to reduce the intensity and do higher mileage. If possible try and do longer, slower runs to maximise the calorie expenditure and within 2-3 weeks you should be back at your previous weight.”

The doctor added “If you eat X amount of excess calories and burn off X calories through exercise, your weight should stay the same – in theory. But in practice, excess calories are stored as fat, and exercise almost always burns a higher percentage of carbohydrates than fats, so you would take longer than you think to burn off those excess pounds.”

Prolonged eating of such foods may lead to a drop of energy levels and running performance 

Over the short term – such as a few days over CNY, though, Dr Derek does not feel that these CNY foods will lead to a massive drop in running performance. He said, “The main problem with a lot of the snacks is that they are highly processed and do not contain a lot of complex carbohydrates or high quality proteins which form the main staple of a distance runner’s diet. Prolonged eating of only these festive foods will eventually lead to a decline in your energy levels and running performance. In the short term, however, it is unlikely to make a significant impact on running performance.”

Dr Derek Li and his loved ones celebrating CNY.

He added “But with that in mind, I would say it is better to eat normal meals as much as possible, to get the nutrients that your body needs to exercise, while supplementing the excess calories with CNY snacks. After all, CNY visiting only starts after the morning run, right? But most importantly, keep up the exercise during the CNY period. It is much worse to eat the same amount and stop exercising, than to eat more CNY snacks and continue to exercise.”

Sinful and healthy types of CNY foods

The types of foods that are the most sinful in terms of sugar and fat content, the doctor points out, are pineapple tarts, Bak Kwa and fried shrimp rolls. He said, “Bak Kwa has an extremely high fat content. Pineapple tarts are very calorie dense due to the butter and sugar content. Fried shrimp rolls have high cholesterol content.”

He added that personally, he usually sticks to the preserved fruits on his CNY rounds. Said Dr Derek, “Honestly I do not eat much of these snacks. I try to stick to the preserved fruits and dates. Even though they have fairly high salt and sugar content, at least they have zero fat.”

Added the doctor, “In fact, to maintain healthy eating habits, runners should focus more on eating snacks that are lower in fat content, that is, fruit based snacks or sweets, and drinking teas, while staying clear of the fried or oily CNY snacks as much as possible. Always try to have a proper balanced meal at least once a day, with complex carbohydrates and high quality proteins.”

Keeping overeating at bay

To prevent overeating of these snacks, the doctor also shared a few tips. He said, “The best strategy is not to be around the food. CNY is all about catching up with friends and family. Stay on your feet and mingle and chat. Always have a drink in your hands so you do not feel the urge to pick up a snack with an empty hand.”

He added, “If you do eat, take small infrequent bites and punctuate with conversation, so you do not end up gobbling the snack very quickly. As a point of reference, too, I never buy CNY snacks for personal consumption in my home.”

Dr Derek advises runners to stay away from Bak Kwa.

Tips to make CNY foods healthier 

For simple modifications to many of the common CNY foods, Dr Derek also had some suggestions – in order to make them healthier. He said, “The bulk of the butter and fat in pineapple tarts are in the biscuit base. Try to find tarts that have thinner bases so there is less fat in this snack. Bak Kwa is always going to be high in fat because they use parts that are not lean to BBQ – as lean meat burns more easily. It is best to minimise the oil in this snack by blotting with a paper towel before eating.”

He continued, “Most reunion dinners, however, are steeped in family tradition so it is hard to modify much. As a rule though, I add little or no oil to the Yu Sheng but instead substitute with more plum sauce. This is to keep the fat content down. Soup based dishes are healthier than fried dishes too.”

***Any interviewee comments may not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of PrisChew Dot Com.

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