Ten Ways to Lose Weight in Taipei

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. 
  7. 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”.)
  8. 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.
  9. 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. 
  10. 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?

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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12 Responses to Ten Ways to Lose Weight in Taipei

  1. Ivy Chen says:

    Hi Serina,

    Very interesting aspect. My daughter has been kind of addicted to acupuncture for losing weight for a while. This is not my recommendation, too. However, youngsters need experience by themselves rather than following the seniors’ telling.

    Indeed, to eat healthier is a recent trend especially in the city. Small size of plate is also served in the city, mainly Taipei. You can not avoid being treated very generous and hospitality with a large portion in other suburbs, especially South of Taiwan (Tainan’s banquet is surprisingly LARGE!). I went to Penghu island two weeks ago, my breakfast orders are too much to finish.

    I agree with your points about not fast food is bad and not all vegetarian dishes are healthier. These are good issue to discuss further.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Hi Ivy. The acupuncture certainly did work, but I wouldn’t want to do it long term. The diet was very restrictive and there were almost no carbohydrates at all. I think if you are seriously overweight then arguably doing something this extreme for a short time is better for you in the long run (e.g. to avoid the onset of type II diabetes). But it certainly did not teach good eating habits; now was there any talk of exercise at all. And from what I could see many of the people in the clinic waiting for acupuncture did not seem to have weight loss problems … I hope people were not starving themselves in the name of fashion, but they probably were.

      I didn’t factor in the hospitality of southern Taiwan. The secret reason perhaps why I gained 15kg when I lived in Tainan perhaps? I guess even healthy food is bad for you if you eat too much.

  2. Kath Liu says:

    Hi!

    I’m a fellow ‘xifu’ from down under (NZ) living in Taipei. Great post! Loved it. I agree with your tips totally and have recently started a quest to reduce my weight by about 10kg (5 of which I have gained here in TW, woops). One other tip that I would recommend is beware the drinks – loads of fabulous options for a tasty treat but many of them are very calorific. Hello Bubble Tea, my old friend. I’m sure you already know this one but for anyone else reading this who doesn’t google Bubble Tea calories and prepare to be shocked 😉

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Dear Kath, I am so glad to meet another Taiwanxifu. I am discovering that there are a few of us lurking unexpectedly around. How long have you been in Taiwan? And how long have you been married?

      Good luck with your weight-loss quest, and glad I have someone out there who shares the same goals. I love milk bubble tea, and yes given how sweet they are I am sure it is terrible from a calorific point of view!

  3. Giovanni says:

    Hi!
    Your post is really interesting. I found it very complicated to lose weight in Taiwan. I found a way out tough and lost 8 kg :)

  4. Pingback: Waste not, want not | Taiwanxifu 台灣媳婦

  5. January says:

    Hi! I’m going to Taiwan in a few days and am quite concerned about the food being really fattening. Reading your posts kinda give me a positive head-up! The only problem is I can’t speak Chinese. Hope they will understand me somehow. :)

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Enjoy your trip to Taiwan. It is hot at the moment (and a typhoon might be headed this way on Thursday), but still a good time to visit. Taiwan has a variety of cuisine. Of course, you can go to night markets every night and pig out on fried foods and super-sweet pearl milk tea, but you could just as easily feast on tropical fruits, fruit based drinks, seafood and smaller portioned snack foods. The choice is all yours.

      Taiwan has become more accessible to non-Chinese speakers in recent years. Most street signs now use a consistent form of romanisation, and people are generally very helpful and will try to assist you if you look lost. The subway (MRT) system in Taipei is also very foreigner friendly. Still, many shops and tourist destinations have information exclusively in Chinese. But I’m sure you will find a way to navigate around.

  6. Jake says:

    Yeah I visit Taiwan fairly regularly. I have started to eat more wisely on the last few trips. It is hard to stick to the healthy stuff with all the good food around. I agree with the fruit thing it is so good. Ubike is another good way to get around whilst getting exercise. We should have that in Australia. Good post, glad I’m not the only one who loves to eat and gains a few kgs in Taiwan.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      During my first trip to Taiwan, I indulged in all the unhealthy things: deep fried calamari with basil leaves, douhua pudding, milk tea, cafes with milk tea and set meals, pudding ice-creams, fried prawn rolls, shaved ice and all the amazing snack foods that Tainan has to offer. Second time around I was more restrained, and learnt to listen to my body. Often I was actually happier eating fruit than an ice-cream, something that I never thought would seriously ever happen. And yes, the U-bike system in Taiwan is so convenient. http://taiwanxifu.com/2011/11/06/lonely-planet-taiwan-top-ten-country-to-visit-in-2012/

  7. Pingback: Weight: The Difficulties of Losing and Maintaining in Taiwanese Culture | An American in Taipei

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