Feature

“I used to be fat”

Tips for fighting obesity, from a pageant queen – who once almost tipped the scales at 100kg – and a health communications researcher

By Chrystal Chan
Kylie Yuen shops for groceries differently from most of us. Whenever she picks up an item, she flips it over to study the ingredients list, and if she sees something that isn't naturally-derived, she puts it back on the shelf.

"I make sure I check the nutrition labels of everything I buy. As long as there is an ingredient I don't recognise or can't pronounce, I don't touch it," says the svelte business student, who was crowned Nanyang Business School Queen last year.

Kylie hasn't always been this meticulous, however. Just four years ago, she was twice her current size and ate whatever she wanted. This meant she spent most of her teenage years hiding in baggy polo tees and bermudas.

The wake-up call came one day in 2010 when she stepped on the weighing scale and noticed that her weight was dangerously close to hitting the 100kg mark.

"I got a shock when I saw I was 99.7kg. I decided I could not allow myself to reach 100kg, so I set my heart on losing weight," recalls the first-year undergrad.

Rather than relying on slimming products, Kylie researched online to find the most efficient way of losing weight and began recording her progress on a piece of paper that she pasted in front of her weighing scale to keep her on track.

Kylie credits most of her 45kg weight loss to her diet, which includes lots of vegetables and no processed food. She abstains from candy, junk food and fast food, opting for healthy alternatives like fruits when she craves something sweet.

"If you freeze a very ripe papaya, it will taste like ice cream," she says.

Good moves
Regular exercise also helped tremendously when she was trying to lose weight. Every day, after school, she would take a half-hour jog around her home.

"I think every little bit counts when it comes to exercise. I climb the stairs instead of taking the lift, or walk to school from my hall instead of taking the bus," she says.

Her dramatic weight loss has changed her life for the better. Not only did she clinch second place in The New Paper New Face 2012 contest, which has launched the careers of many models and celebrities, she is more confident now, and unlike before, not self-conscious about her looks.

"I feel people are kinder to me now, but that's probably because I am more sociable and receptive to others, so I feel that people are friendlier," she adds.

Kylie admits that she should have started adopting healthy habits at a younger age.

"I was a fat kid because my grandparents loved to spoil me and would give me all the good food," she says.

"I think, for kids these days and even many of us, it is easy to put on weight, because we lead such busy lives. Many of us eat out often and don't really have time to exercise."

Her sentiments are echoed by Assoc Prof May Lwin, who has conducted numerous research projects on childhood obesity and health communications.

"Childhood obesity is a growing issue in Singapore and worldwide, because the sedentary lifestyle is getting more prevalent amongst the young. And with so many digital distractions, kids have less reason to go out and play," says Assoc Prof Lwin.

The Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information professor has made great strides in her research, recently developing a mobile game application called My Pet Fitness that can motivate kids to go out and exercise.

To bring up their virtual pet, players have to raise in-game money for pet food and other necessities by doing physical activities such as walking or jogging, which creates and sustains the motivation to work out.

"You can't force kids to exercise, so any way to get them moving should be encouraged. What's more, these days, there are a lot of processed ingredients and junk food in meals, which unfortunately, contribute more calories and less of the good stuff, like vitamins and minerals," she says.

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Read before you eat
Assoc Prof Lwin has also done extensive research on health education and communication, such as studying how food packaging can influence eating decisions.

"When grocery shopping, it's best to read the labels of the products you are thinking of buying carefully, to find out what's actually in them, as food packaging can be deceiving," she advises.

"For example, a packet that has a picture of strawberries may mislead you to think that the food item inside it has strawberries when it merely contains pink food colouring," she explains.

Assoc Prof Lwin's research on deceptive food packaging has been shared with the Health Promotion Board and Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore.

"By identifying the types of misleading or unhelpful devices used by food companies out there, the authorities can determine effective labelling guidelines and hopefully reduce the incidence of these kinds of food packaging," she says.

The next time you shop, don't be swayed by the pictures on food packaging or the discounts offered, and instead be proactive about selecting healthier options, suggests Assoc Prof Lwin.

If price is a factor, consider the long-term gains. Says Kylie: "I believe that the future health benefits will definitely outweigh the grocery expenses you incur now, and it really isn't too difficult to check all the labels of what you buy."