I’ve been in Asia now for many years, but unfortunately, I still had to learn the hard way that DIET is one of the most insulting four-letter word you can bring up in polite Malaysian company.
Usually at functions, when I’m introduced as a nutrition consultant, it is the opening line to a series of questions that break the ice as people are generally keen to hear advice on this much debated topic. In Malaysia, mention the word “nutritionist” and the road blocks go up, and I often find myself treated with the same level of disdain as the biblical taxman! I had to learn, and learn fast: Malaysians love their food, and dieting is a non-negotiable “toxic” topic!
Eating isn’t just about food here, it’s more like a religious movement, a passion that transcends cultural boundaries and brings people from all ethnic backgrounds to share from the same table. And a nutritionist? Well, an expert that recommends eating in moderation is nothing but a false prophet, a naysayer spreading discord and bad omens. The warning bells were ringing loud and clear: If I was going to thrive in Malaysia, I had to change my approach to health and wellness or risk being lynched by the mob and DIET was definitely a word I had to erase from my vocabulary. The final wake-up call for me was when I made plans to visit Penang. Before my trip, I had several friends recommend restaurants, some giving me the name and phone numbers of the owners to make sure I got there OK. One of my clients even offered a driver to take my wife and I to his favourite restaurants, which I naively put down to Malaysian generosity.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. As far as they were concerned, it was their solemn duty to ensure this culinarily clueless foreigner didn’t get lost and defile his taste buds on mediocre fare. If my friend could, he would have come with me and ordered for me!
This was the gist of a conversation when I got back to KL:
“So, how was Penang?”
“Oh, the beaches were excellent and the old town was so beautiful, I really…”
“Don’t talk about trivial matters, which restaurants did you go to? You went to Lorong Selamat right?”
“Yes, the noodles were good.”
Noodles?? Don’t call them noodles…
say after me… Char Kuey Teow.
Why only good?
Tell me you went to the right one, the lady with the goggles… was she wearing the goggles?
I looked at my friend, dazed and foaming at the mouth in equal parts of disgust at my lack of culinary interest and #lauhausoi reliving his own char kuey teow memories. At first, I thought this was one man’s cultural pride getting the best of him, being a Penangite and all, but I ended up having similar conversations with almost everyone I met who knew I’d been to Penang! It suddenly hit me: Cuisine is a passion, and much like a good glass of wine for us Europeans, food is the go to source for comfort after a long hard day.
A dinner invitation or restaurant recommendation is not a casual event or a kind piece of advice from a friend, but a matter of honour not to be slighted with a “no show”. It was time to reevaluate my work strategies and come to the simplest of understandings – for Malaysian’s, food is a movement, the fabric of which entwines all social and cultural groups, and I was standing in the path of the juggernaut. It was time to get on board or get steamrollered. Time to spread a new message of hope and find out how I could use my knowledge for the greater good. Time to give Malaysian’s what they want from a nutrition expert and find the ultimate answer to the question on every set of laksa-wetted lips in the country: Not how to have your cake and eat it, but rather, how to eat your cake and get away with it?
Back to the science lab and back to the basics of nutrition.
The Goal: How to enjoy your food without feeling guilty about it or gaining weight!
If you really love your food, then you have to be able to enjoy at least one meal per day, and so we need a formula to ensure you can eat with gusto.
The first task is to make you hungry, and the only way to do that is either with exercise or by fasting. If you are passionate about breakfast, then wake up early and exercise so that you earn your meal.
If you don’t exercise, then you have to be really careful what you put into your body for the first meal of the day. Any sugars in the form of cereals, juices, breads and pastries are going to cause a sugar spike that will stress your endocrine system and affect your energy levels and appetite for the rest of the day.
To offset this cycle that leads to weight gain and insulin resistance, it is better to have a light dinner the night before and have a gap of at least two hours in the morning before eating.
If you have big dinner plans, then ideally you should exercise for 20-30 minutes before preparing for dinner.
Dinner between 5-6:30pm is by far the best time, in my opinion, to eat your main meal.
The nervous system is set up for digestion and relaxation, and for many of us, it’s the end of a long busy day, so we are naturally more hungry. Eating at this time provides the body with all the raw materials needed for recovery and tissue repair overnight, enabling you to wake up fully recharged and ready to start your day.
If your main meal is in the evening, then make sure you eat sparingly during the day, allowing your body to cleanse and scavenge fuel from its fat reserves.
This will ensure you are hungry in the evening. If you don’t exercise and are over 40 years old, you may only need two meals a day, which can be taken at 10:30am and 4:30-5:30pm.
I realise this is very inconvenient, but that’s only because our daily schedules have been structured for work convenience and not for our best health. If you truly love your food but want to be healthy and slim, then you have to connect with your body and understand its nutritional needs. This means being able to adapt your eating habits based on daily activity and levels of hunger rather than eating three meals a day just because the clock says meal time!
So here is your formula: fast-exercise-eat-repeat!
It is a simple formula that I have used successfully for hundreds of clients. It is simple yet effective, and enables you to enjoy your food guilt-free, though it does take practice to balance the level of exercise with intake of food as everyone’s metabolism is different.
Also there are only two essential rules:
1. Make sure you fast for six hours or exercise 20-30 minutes before every large meal. That may mean you are exercising twice a day or fasting and exercising on the same day.
2. Ensure you are eating good quality, healthy ingredients. This formula isn’t a license to eat processed foods and starches. It is a formula that enables you to enjoy eating without following a strict diet regime, but not to abandon all sense!