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Banquet blowout - Don't pig-out, binge or gorge

SPRING Festival is a 15-day food blowout, starting with nianyefan when everyone throws healthy eating to the winds. But you don't have to stuff yourself - and cooks and hosts shouldn't encourage you, writes Zhang Qian Wang Qin is busy preparing for the big nianyefan or Chinese New Year's Eve dinner, which the 53-year-old cooks for the entire family, as usual.

Wang plans 12 dishes for six people this Sunday night. She has already started making the cold dishes, such as beef slices seasoned with soy sauce.

Nianyefan is the most important family dinner of the year, rather like Christmas dinner in the West. It celebrates the Lunar New Year, family reunion and unity, and the rich abundant foods carry a wish for luck, prosperity and plenty to eat in the year ahead.

"It is a tradition to have lots of food, and no body wants to break it," says Wang. "I always prepare many dishes for the big dinner and I'm always afraid it's not enough."

Though many families now enjoy nianyefan at restaurants, it still has to be a rich feast. The richer the better. A simple dinner on this special night is out of the question - it would not be a good omen for the year to come for many Chinese.

And they have to keep on eating during the half-month-long Spring Festival from the 1st to the 15th day of January in lunar calendar when Chinese people keep visiting their relatives and friends.

"I was always full in the seven-day vacation last year," says 22-year-old Zhao Zhiying. "My stomach could only take a break in the morning and went back to 'work' as soon as I arrived at relatives' homes."

Those with acute digestive problems often come to the hospital in the festive season and patients with heart disease and high blood pressure are not rare, says Dr Xia Xiang, vice president of the Shanghai Dietary Therapy Seminar.

Huge, rich dinners usually accompanied by alcohol are the main culprit.

"A balanced diet is a key to healthy living for modern people, yet many seem to forget about it during the festivals. Eating right should be a habit."

Daily meals should include protein, carbohydrates, fiber, fat, and basic vitamins and minerals.

Grains are the main source of carbohydrates that our bodies burn for energy. Vegetables and fruits provide fiber and are rich in vitamins. Meat, fish, eggs and beans provide proteins. Calcium comes not just from milk and dairy products but from green leafy vegetables.

A balanced diet does not mean equal portions of everything.

"Many people have enough, sometimes too much, protein, fat and carbohydrates in their bodies, so eating equal portion of each category won't help rebalance," says Xia. "In general, I advise eating relatively less protein, fat and carbohydrates and relatively more vegetables and fruits."

Fruit and vegetable juices are good, but if you make your own, don't forget to eat the fiber.

Eating more fruits and vegetables and less fat, carbohydrate and protein is even more important for diabetics, those with high blood fat and high uric acid. They also need exercise.

Diabetics should avoid rice, flour and sweet fruits; people with high blood fat should avoid fatty meat, people with high uric acid should drastically reduce eggs.

Eating some nuts that are rich in unsaturated fatty acid every day can help delay aging and decrease blood fat. But don't overdo the nuts, 50-100 grams a day is enough, otherwise it can burden the stomach.

Use less salt and less MSG because they raise blood pressure and too much of these can dry the skin and deprive it of nutrition - thus it ages prematurely, darkens and wrinkles.

Soy sauce and MSG are also high in sodium and should likewise be controlled.

Vinegar is the best healthy seasoning, rich in amino acids and organic acid. It is a natural anti-bacterial and helps protect vitamins B and C, and microelements like cooper and zinc that can be destroyed by cooking. Again, use moderation in adding vinegar, since it is an acid.

"I know it is a tradition to prepare rich food during the Spring Festival," says Dr Xia, "but people should still exercise some control, especially those with high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high blood fat."

Preparing a healthy and more balanced dinner doesn't mean it's less delicious. With so much food around, don't stuff yourself, eat smaller portions, eat balanced meals and cut down on fats and sweets.

Note: We didn't say eliminate entirely. Use your good judgment.

Advice for the cook

? Avoid fried foods to cut down on fats.

? Prepare smaller portions.

? Prepare more vegetable dishes.

? Use less salt, soy sauce and MSG.

? Use less oil and sugar. Add TCM herbs and flavorings. Foods high in oil and sugar are not good for the elderly.

? Replace alcohol and sweet sodas with tea which helps break down fats.

? Replace fried desert with fresh fruit.

Recommended dishes

Each of these foods has its own nutrition; when they are paired the nutrition can be absorbed even better.

Fish and tofu soup

Function: Adds calcium and helps prevent osteoporosis.

Tofu is rich in calcium, but absorption of calcium is low when tofu is eaten alone. Eaten with fish that is rich in vitamin D, the calcium becomes much more bio-available.

Pig's liver and spinach

Function: Reinforces blood and prevents anemia.

Pork liver is rich in folic acid, vitamin B12 and iron, which help build rich blood; spinach is also rich in folic acid and iron. Eating both together aids absorption.

Mutton and ginger

Function: Reinforces energy in winter and helps relieve pain in lower back, rheumatism.

Mutton helps reinforce energy and blood and nourishes the yang energy in the kidneys. Ginger helps dispel cold and dampness and reinforces the "warming" function of mutton when they are cooked together. It also reduces the strength of the mutton flavor, which some people find too heavy.

Duck and yam

Function: Helps nourish yin energy and lungs.

Duck's meat nourishes yin energy, dispels heat and relieves coughing. Yam is even better at nourishing yin energy. Eaten together they are more effective in nourishing lungs, relieving cough and breaking down fats you have eaten.


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