You can get oodles of flavour from hawker food but not this one thing, according to endocrinologist Dr Ben Ng from Arden Clinic.

Singaporeans love their hawker food because it is tasty, cheap and readily available. Generally speaking, many food sellers and hawkers try to keep the prices down on Singaporean favourites such as nasi lemak, hor fun, laksa, mee goreng and paratha. In order to do this, there is a tendency to bulk up the dishes with refined carbohydrates such as noodles, rice and breads so that they can use less of the more expensive ingredients such as fresh vegetables and meat. Using plenty of seasoning and flavour enhancers such as MSG in soup dishes instead of making stocks from scratch with fresh seafood or parts of chicken, beef or pork also keeps food prices low. All of which means that although they are tasty and satisfying, many food favourites may be short of essential nutrients such as protein, fibre, vitamins and other essential minerals.

The nutritional value of the ingredients in hawker food — especially if they are not fresh to start with — can deteriorate further if they are left on display in hot and humid conditions or in vats of soup for long periods or taken home to be refrigerated and consumed at a later time.

Despite the many available resources available to the public, many of us are not as aware as we should about our dietary habits and if these habits help us meet our nutritional needs. We are bombarded by articles claiming the next great cure for this disease and that condition which more often than not, confuses us to what we should actually be eating. As a result or in spite of this, we find ourselves eating more non-nutritious meals in hawker centres for convenience’s sake rather than taking the time to prepare balanced nutritious meals at home.

However, we can choose to be more mindful when eating at a hawker centre or a food court. Simple things like asking for less rice, more vegetables and increasing our portion of lean protein can help increase the nutritional value of our meals. In addition to this, we should also consider taking multivitamins to supplement our meals if nutritious meals are not readily available at our office canteen or food court and especially if we do not have the skill, time or commitment to pack our own lunches. This is especially true for those of us who skip meals frequently.

We should also exercise mindfulness about when we eat as well as what we eat. Many of us skip breakfast and just have a cup of tea or coffee before leaving home. However, skipping breakfast by lunch time our blood glucose levels are low which can cause us to over-eat during lunch and dinner.

The saying goes that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. There is truth to that statement. Eating breakfast daily improves our metabolism and helps energise us for the rest of the day. Studies have found that eating breakfast everyday can regulate blood sugars in people with diabetes for the rest of the day. Of course, this principle of eating breakfast and its benefits are true only if one has a healthy breakfast! The refined carbohydrates in hawker food are very easily and quickly broken down by the body to into simple sugars which causes sudden peaks in blood glucose. The body tries to cope with the excess glucose by producing more insulin. More insulin causes the blood glucose to crash, causing that mid-afternoon lethargy and sleepiness that some people call food coma. Because we are feeling sluggish and lethargic our bodies send us signals – in the form of cravings for sugar – to eat something sweet to bring our glucose levels back up. Which is why many of us find ourselves indulging in sweet treats mid-afternoon. However the more we indulge, the greater the swing between the peaks and crashes and the stronger and more frequent our cravings – the makings of a vicious cycle that can lead to overeating, obesity and diabetes.

The way to prevent these large swings between peaks and crashes in blood glucose is to swap the refined carbohydrates found in white rice, pastas and breads for the more complex carbohydrates and fibre found in vegetables, fruit and whole grains like brown rice and wholemeal bread and pasta. These take much longer for the body to break down so that instead of a peak and a crash, there is a slow and steady release of glucose into the system so that the body can maintain steady energy levels and experience fewer cravings.

Dr Ben Ng

Dr Ben Ng

Dr Ng Jen Min worked as a full time consultant endocrinologist in Changi General Hospital, Singapore, for three years. In that time, he was appointed Assistant Adjunct Professor in research DUKE-NUS and also acted as a clinical tutor under the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, Singapore. Currently in private practice, Dr Ng is active in the area of community diabetes and acts as the Programme Director for the Eastern Community Health Outreach (ECHO) program, a 3,500-participant pilot health intervention programme aimed at reducing the incidence of diabetes in East Singapore.

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