Since I moved to Taipei last year, everyone has been telling me how easy it is to gain weight here. My life here consists of ten course banquets (with red wine or kaoliang liquor for toasting), four or five course lunches, snacking at night markets, sweet treats from bakeries for breakfast (or anytime), and the occasional Western-style feast.
When I first arrived here, I was inundated with banquets. Like monsoonal rain, the banquets followed one after another in a never-ending deluge. My boss pointedly told me that I was eating for my country — eating was just part of the culture here and something I would get used to it. (I did adapt, probably too readily because deep down I really love to eat.) But I am determined to prove that I can in fact be a gourmet — and enjoy it — while still losing weight.
Last year, I briefly resorted to an accupuncture based diet. This was very effective, but not something I recommend as a long-term strategy as it makes the Atkin’s diet look easy. I had some moderate success with weight loss this year, but became reacquainted with chocolate during a winter trip back to Australia during the northern summer. But have now refocused, have a goal of reducing a further 5 kg by October.
So, here are my top ten reasons why you can still have your Taiwanese cake, eat it and still lose weight:
- The fruit here is fabulous. Once upon a time I had to force myself to eat a piece of fruit a day, while now I would easily eat three or even four serves. Taiwan is tropical fruit heaven, with famous fruits including bananas, Tainan mangos, guavas, paw paws (papayas), wax apples, pomelos, dragon fruit, pineapples, persimmons, passionfruit and giant Fuji apples to name a few. Many formal meals finish with fruit rather than sugary desserts.
- Serving sizes are usually small. Restaurants serve rice in small bowls, and the average stir-fry dish is about half the size of that back home in Australia. Thankfully, Taiwan has not yet widely adopted the trend of oversized serving plates. And in formal banquets, you will usually have a small amount plated up for each course with an option to top up with more. So long as you pace yourself and avoid filling up on the entree dishes, you can generally avoid over eating.
- Taiwan is a great place for walking. Or hiking, as for the more energetic of us there are plenty of hiking trails in the hills — especially around Taipei. But you do not have to go far to enjoy walking, and it is easy to incorporate a few extra brisk paces into your daily life. In recent years, public transport has improved and urban renewal projects have upgraded the pavements in some areas (notably Xinyi), making it easy to get around on two feet. And it is generally safe to walk around at night, with lots of people out and about in the evening.
- There are heaps of fabulous vegetarian restaurants. I have not yet reviewed many vegetarian restaurants, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. Actually, I always head to my local vegetarian restaurant on those rare days when I forget to bring a lunch box (in Taiwan they are called ‘bian dang’, 便當, derived from the Japanese ‘bento box’). Not all vegetarian dishes are healthy, but there are usually a wider range of options to choose from. Buddhism is the most popular religion in Taiwan, and while not all Buddhists are vegetarian, many people try to eat vegetarian food on the first and the fifteenth of each lunar month.
- Instead of white rice, opt for a serve of brown rice (糙米飯), or even better a recently trendy grain mix such as five grain rice (五穀飯) or ten grain rice (十穀飯). Whole grain combinations are becoming increasingly popular with those seeking to reduce their refined carbohydrates, in part because of a growing diabetes problem.
- When eating out there is no need to finish everything you order, and it is quite okay to ask restaurants to pack up leftovers to take home. Some of the more upmarket restaurants even have custom-made containers for this purpose. Most Taiwanese hate waste — especially food waste — and will understand if you do not rush to eat everything.
- Most Taiwanese food is on the whole not as oily — or salty — as other Asian cuisines. And the use of MSG is not as ubiquitous, either. (This reminds me of a recent New York Times article about mainland Chinese visitors to Taiwan. On arrival, the tour guide advised the Chinese visitors that …”our Taiwanese brothers do not like salt, oil and MSG the way we do”.)
- Desserts are not as sweet as in Western countries, usually feature fruit and are served in small portions. This does not make desserts healthy, but at least it minimises their bad effects.
- Not all fast food in Taiwan is necessarily bad. Of course, you can find major Western fast food chains like McDonalds and KFC, but there are plenty of healthier options as well. Taiwan’s ‘snack’ (小吃) culture means that something to eat is never far away, but the servings are usually small and there is enough variety to ensure healthy choices. Most food courts have several Taiwanese style dishes such as stir-fries and noodle soups, and even night markets will have healthier choices such as fruit juices and lean(ish) grilled foods.
- The Japanese influence means that the Taiwanese diet has adopted many healthy qualities. The traditional Taiwanese diet consists largely of seafood, vegetables, tofu, fruit and rice, with not very much meat in the diet. Taiwanese have also adopted the Japanese (Okinawan) concept of eating until you are only eighty percent full (in Japanese Hara Hachi Bu). Which means that even thought there is a lot of food, people do not habitually stuff themselves full.
So, now I have no excuses for not following my weight loss plan. What are your favourite tips for eating healthy and reducing weight?