I had the good fortune of spending the last few days in Singapore. It’s a beautiful place and one which offers inspiration to a host of good ideas. However, for me, the thing I noticed most was how few overweight people I saw. In fact, the whole time I was there, I spotted maybe 1 or 2 overweight people who were not obvious tourists. The fitness expert in me kept wondering; what’s their secret? What are they doing to stay this skinny? We’ve all heard about the French diet or the Med diet, but what about the Singaporean diet? So I paid a bit of attention and this is what I found:
In order to own a car in Singapore you need to win the lottery. Ok, maybe it’s not that drastic, but the various fees for owning a car add up to a lot in Singapore. For example, the certificate of entitlement (the document that says you can own a car) can range from 10 to 30 thousand dollars. That’s right, 10 to 30k just for the right to own a car. This doesn’t even figure in other taxes and the price of the car itself. This leaves Singapore with a car per capita ratio of 12 cars per 100 people. That’s about a car per 8 people. Think about your own household for a second and do the math there to see what the car per capita ratio is in your country.
End result, people walk a lot more. They walk to lunch, to dinner, to go shopping, to school and so on. Essentially, every activity begins with a walk.
In the US, the national pastime is not in fact Baseball, it’s actually watching TV. We spend more time on watching TV than any other activity except sleep and work (neither of which is a pastime). Internet usage is rapidly catching up but for the purposes of fitness there is little difference between watching TV and surfing the web.
In Singapore, the national pastime is shopping. I joke, but only a little. The central district of Singapore is one long street called Orchard Street, which is essentially made up of dozens and dozens of small, multi story malls. Most Singaporeans seem to spend an inordinate amount of time shopping, usually at Orchard street. The place itself teems with people and the sidewalks are packed from 3pm to 11pm with people moving from mall to mall, store to store. Do you know how they get from shop to shop? That’s right, they walk. So while we watch TV for 4 hours after work, they’ve spent 4 hours walking around shopping. Sure, it’s not exercise but it’s far more active than the typical American household at dinner time.
And finally, a word about food. The Singaporean food is not exactly top of the healthy food chain. There aren’t a lot of green salads, nor primal diets, nor low fat dishes. You see a lot of rice, a lot of fried and breaded meats, a lot of sweets and tons of latte drinkers. However, what you won’t see is a large size of anything. I walked into a Burger King and they only had a single whopper on the menu, not the double whopper or the triple. McDonald’s does not offer the double quarter pounder with cheese, nor do they offer 20 piece nuggets. There are no large drinks in Singapore. In fact, you often hear the waitresses apologize to tourists and say “so sorry, no large size, only one size”.
The curry place that I dined at one night did offer two sizes. Being hungry, I ordered the large one. It was about the equivalent of half a portion from a similar US restaurant, and the ice cream I ordered post dinner was a single small scoop. On a different night, my friend and I dined at a Sushi restaurant. The dish we ordered, which was billed on the menu as “dinner for two” contained 12 pieces of sushi. Not 12 rolls, but 12 individual, little pieces. That’s about half of what I would eat on my own in an equivalent American sushi place.
You would think that I’d be hungry but I found out that the Singaporean manner of eating was very much in line with these small portions. Think about a bunch of Americans at a restaurant. They talk for a while and then the food arrives. Conversation usually ceases as everyone focuses on eating their food. Once done, they either order dessert or leave. Singapore doesn’t do things this way. Food is consumed through many small and slow bites, with plenty of conversation in between. Many dinners are consumed family style, with everyone sharing dishes and taking small bites out of multiple items. The dinner is longer but you end up feeling full with considerably less food, plus the conversations are excellent.
The Secret Revealed
I suppose that in the end, what I discovered was nothing new at all. Singapore doesn’t have a magical diet high in this or low in that. They don’t have a morning exercise regime that no one knew about or a secret dish which speeds up the metabolism. All they have is plenty of physical activity (mostly walking) and low consumption of food. No big secret there, just the usual “eat less, move your ass more”. Sorry to disappoint anyone who wanted a magic bullet.