From The Straits Times    |

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Singaporeans love their hawker fare, it’s the easiest and satisfying option for a delicious meal.

But with rising obesity and high blood pressure incidence rates, can we have our hawker food and eat it too?

Try your hand at selecting a combination of breakfast, lunch and dinner, using 18 of the most commonly found hawker dishes here. Let’s see if you’ll bust the recommended nutritional limits.

There are 1,140 possible daily meal combinations for this game.

Taking as its basis a 2,000 calorie a day diet – which can generally meet the nutritional requirements of a wide variety of people – ST’s analysis found that only 5 per cent of the possible daily meal combinations in this game would not bust the recommendations for intake of sodium or fat, among other criteria.

Of course, this does not take into account factors such as gender, age, weight and life circumstances – for instance, only 3 per cent of the possible daily meal combinations would be possible following the same criteria above for a young woman (21 years old, 60kg, 160cm); for an elderly man (60 years old, 70kg, 170cm), it would be 6 per cent.

Do speak to a health professional for advice on your dietary requirements.

What’s healthy?

It is clear that hawker centre meals on their own can be rather unhealthy. But can we modify the meals so that they are nutritionally better for us?

Over the course of five days, reporters from The Straits Times attempted to find the healthiest hawker dishes possible while dining out for at least two meals a day.

The reporters ate according to the Health Promotion Board’s My Healthy Plate guidelines.

This means for each meal, we should strive to have…

  • 1⁄2 plate with fruits and vegetables, which is about 2 servings of vegetables or 1 serving of vegetables and 1 serving of fruit
  • 1⁄4 plate with lean protein, which could be a palm-sized serving of fish or poultry, 3 eggs, or 2 small blocks of tofu
  • 1⁄4 plate of wholegrains, which could be a bowl of brown rice or wholegrain noodles

Tips from nutrition experts

  • Plain rice can be the better choice than flavoured rice like chicken rice, duck rice, nasi lemak or nasi briyani, as such carbohydrates are cooked with salt and fat, said Ms Bibi Chia, Principal Dietitian, Raffles Diabetes and Endocrine Centre.
  • For noodle dishes such as fishball noodles and ban mian, opting for the soupy version is often healthier than choosing the dry version, as dry noodles are often mixed with a myriad of sauces that may contain chilli sauce, oil, lard and gravy. Soupy noodles like mee soto or beehoon soto are healthier halal alternatives to fried noodles, said Changi General Hospital senior dietician Fionn Chua.
  • Are wholegrain options harder to come by in the hawker centres or coffee shops near you? Try bringing your own brown rice or noodles and ordering the other ingredients from the stalls instead, suggested Raffles Hospital’s Ms Chia.

Meal analysis rated by Changi Gneral Hospital Senior Dietician Fionn Chua

Sweet potato porridge with two vegetable dishes and braised chicken drumlets

Price (Dec 2023): $4

From: Mixed-rice stall at 203 Toa Payoh North coffee shop

Reporter’s comments: This was one of my first few meals, and it was a very late lunch at around 3pm. Options were limited and all the meat dishes left were either braised with heavy gravy, deep-fried, or worse, deep-fried with a sauce like sweet and sour pork.

I took the best option I could find – which was braised chicken drumsticks. There were no brown rice or wholegrain options, so I opted for sweet potato porridge, along with two vegetable dishes – which gravy I avoided ladling all over my porridge like I usually would.

Dietician’s rating: 4/5

Dietician’s comments: Good choices. Although there are no wholegrains, the addition of sweet potato does increase the fibre content of this meal. Braised meat is less oily than deep-fried options. However, it is advisable to make an effort to remove the skin and fat of the drumsticks as much as possible. For the vegetables, having the dish on a separate plate helps, as the gravy is not directly added to the porridge.

Brown rice with two portions of vegetables and chicken breast meat

Price (Dec 2023): $2.70 for brown rice and two veggies at mixed-rice stall, $6 for chicken breast from chicken rice stall

From: Two separate stalls at Market Street Hawker Centre

Reporter’s comments: Office workers who work in the Central Business District have no lack of healthy options – with various salad bars and cafes catering to the health conscious. But I wanted to see if I would be able to get something healthy at a hawker centre.

After circling the two-storey hawker centre twice, I found wholegrains only at the mixed-rice and the vegetarian stall. Disappointingly, the vegetarian stall was sold out, and there were no more lean protein options at the mixed-rice stall.

I thought it would be a stroke of genius to mix-and-match my meal by ordering brown rice and vegetables from the mixed-rice stall and chicken breast from the chicken rice stall. But alas, there was a minimum order, and I ended up having to pay for a $6 portion of chicken breast – which could last me two meals. I decided to save a portion for my dinner.

Dietician’s rating: 4.5/5

Dietician’s comments: Overall, a well-balanced meal. It was a smart move to mix and match dishes from various stalls at the hawker centre to try to hit the proportions recommended by Health Promotion Board’s My Healthy Plate. Alternatively, for those who eat with colleagues, friends, or family members, this could be applied when sharing food.

Braised chicken in Chongqing-style broth, with spinach and kailan and sweet potato noodles

Price (Dec 2023): $14.30 in total – $9.80 for small chicken hotpot, $1.50 each for two portions of vegetables and one portion of sweet potato noodles

From: Jing Chicken Pot at Kopitiam @ Plaza Singapura

Reporter’s comments: I had a busy day and felt quite grouchy at the thought of having to hunt for wholegrains at a foodcourt. The only stall that had brown rice was, as usual, the mixed-rice stall, but again, only deep-fried options were left. I tried to buy just a serving of rice itself, but they would not sell it to me!

At this point my stomach was rumbling loudly in protest – and I caved to the delicious scent of herbal soup that wafted over from the chicken pot stall. It is not the healthiest choice, but my willpower has been weakened. Instead of rice, I opted for sweet potato noodles because a quick Google search told me that it was a low-calorie option. I also added toppings of vegetables.

The dish turned out more gravy-like than soupy, and I honestly felt a little guilty for ordering such a sodium-laden dish and avoided drinking the gravy.

Dietician’s rating: 3.5/5

Dietician’s comments: Considering that the previous meals were mainly rice with dishes, I understand why you opted for a more exciting dish. Kudos for making a conscious effort to limit consuming all the gravy due to the sodium content and adding more vegetables.

There are always small tweaks that we can make to our meals to make them healthier and to ensure more fibre, less sodium, less fat, or less sugar. Over time, this can become a habit and one would no longer have to struggle with negative emotions like guilt.

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.