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Health alert as even more eat out

  Wednesday, 01 l 12 l 2010 Source:  The Straits Times   
By: Poon Chian Hui

There’s too much salt and calories in ‘healthy’ hawker favourites

SINGAPOREANS are eating out more often than ever, and the bad news is this: Even so-called healthier hawker food is not really that healthy. From yong tau foo to soup noodles, many quick meals have too much salt, or are high in calories and low in fibre. 

Latest figures from the Health Promotion Board (HPB) show that the median number of times people have their meals outside their home each week is eight, up from seven in 2004. That means half of those surveyed ate out eight or more times a week. An earlier HPB check showed about 60 per cent of Singaporeans ate out each week this year, up from 49 per cent in 2004. 


Too much eating out has been cited as a reason Singaporeans are becoming fatter. One in 10 – or 10.8 per cent – is now obese, up from 6.9 per cent in 2004, the latest National Health Survey shows. Most people eat at food centres, and dietitians pointed out that hawker food – even soupy dishes supposedly more healthy – may not be entirely good for the health.

Salt is one problem. A bowl of sliced fish soup, for example, packs 70 per cent of the daily recommended salt intake while a teriyaki chicken rice bowl has about 50 per cent. HPB nutritionist Seah Peik Ching said:

“Soupy dishes such as fishball soup are considered lighter as they have fewer calories compared to dishes that are fried or come with heavy gravy. However, soupy dishes tend to be high in sodium.” Other so-called healthier choices contain paltry amounts of fibre, which is important for a healthy digestive system. For example, a Japanese salmon bento rice set has 560 calories but only 3g of fibre,

or 12 per cent of the daily recommended intake. To eat healthily when eating out, Ms Seah suggests asking for more vegetables and less oil, salt and gravy. But even vegetables may not be free of danger. Dietitian Bibi Chia, director of nutrition consultancy Eat Wise, pointed out that many vegetable dishes may be stir-fried with palm oil which is high in saturated fat and flavoured with highsalt condiments like soy sauce. “I will still recommend eating vegetable over meat dishes, but try not to drink the sauce that comes with it,” she said. Also, she added, avoid vegetables that look overcooked, which strips them of vitamins.  

Aircraft technician Johnny Lee, 37, who eats 20 meals a week outside, including breakfast, said hawkers do not seem to care much about serving healthy food. He said he was concerned about food with too much salt and monosodium glutamate (MSG), as well as lard. But he never asks the hawkers to cut back on salt or oil, saying it would be too troublesome, given that most hawker food is pre-prepared. 

Most hawker dishes also come with too much rice or noodles, said Ms Jaclyn Reutens, a clinical dietitian at Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants. She said dishes such as fish soup are considered healthier because they are lower in fat and calories, but people should still be mindful because “portion control is important”. 

The HPB has been encouraging food courts and restaurants to offer healthier options. Its healthier dining programme, which began in 2003, now has more than 2,000 hawker stalls offering healthier versions of dishes. Examples include chicken rice with rice flavoured using garlic and pandan leaves instead of chicken fat, and fried carrot cake topped with beansprouts instead of only spring onions. 

Since October, HPB has started tracking whether people ask for healthier choices at food courts and restaurants. Mr Michael Tan, chairman of Albert Centre Hawkers’ Committee, said more customers are asking for healthier fare. “The economical rice stall is now offering more vegetable dishes because of customers’ demands,” he said. “Even for dishes like fishball soup, people are asking for more vegetables.”

Related article: Healthier food cheaper at hospitals

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