Last updated on 23 February 2021
Can food from a hawker centre be healthy?
Local food and its culture are part of our national identity and provide shared memories and experiences across generations. However, with most of us working in desk-bound environments, we are leading a more sedentary lifestyle today. As such, eating too much high-fat and carbohydrate-loaded meals might be detrimental to our health. This isn’t to say that we should stop eating at hawker centres, but rather that we should be more mindful of what is in our food and if our diets are suited for our lifestyles.
Here are some tips on what foods to watch out for and the healthier options to make when dining at hawker centres.
Unhealthy food ingredients to avoid
Certain ingredients can be bad for your health, especially if you don’t exercise often. These foods usually contain:
Trans-fat found in processed and convenience foods
- This type of fat is not essential and provides no known benefit to our health. Trans-fat consumption has been found to have an impact on our cardiovascular health, as it increases LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol.
- Deep-fried foods such as fried-chicken, fries or curry puff are high in trans-fat and you should avoid consuming them too regularly.
Saturated fat from animal fat
- Eating foods that contain saturated fats raise the level of cholesterol in your blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Dishes like Hokkien mee, char kway teow, fatty cuts of beef, pork or lamb, and animal skin (chicken skin and crispy part of the roast meat) contain high saturated fat and should not be consumed in excess.
Added sugar to food during processing for sweetening effect.
- A diet rich in sugary foods and beverages can lead to obesity, which significantly raises your risk of heart disease and cancer.
- Sweetened drinks like kopi, teh, bandung, or even canned drinks contain lots of sugar and calories while offering little nutritional value. Consuming too many sweetened drinks can also lead to weight gain.
Added sodium or salt to foods for flavour and as part of some food preservatives and additives
- When you eat too much salt, your blood pressure increases as the salt holds excess fluid in the body, putting an added burden on the heart. This can lead to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
- Gravy-based dishes like mee rebus and lor mee, or soup noodles tend to contain high sodium content and we should limit our consumption.
Healthy hawker foods
It is definitely healthier to opt for natural and unprocessed foods. There is significant evidence to show that whole foods are great for your health.
Here are some healthier food options you can find at hawker centres:
- Meat (especially lean meat) is rich in protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids needed for the growth and maintenance of your body.
- Instead of getting that fried chicken wing, opt for some steamed or roasted chicken breast with the skins removed, as chicken breast is a good source of healthy, unprocessed meat.
- Fish is a high-protein, low-fat food that has a multitude of health benefits. White-fleshed fish is much lower in fat than any other source of animal protein. Oily fishes like sardines, salmon and tuna are high in omega-3 fatty acids which are important in preventing heart diseases.
- Sliced fish soup (non-fried version) is one of the healthier hawker dishes you can eat and is a great way to incorporate fish into your diet.
- Eggs are an excellent source of protein, with 1 large egg containing 6 grams of protein. The yolk contains loads of vitamins and minerals to keep your body strong and healthy.
- Eating toast with soft boiled eggs can be a healthy and delicious way to start your day. Just make sure you stay clear of the soy sauce.
- Vegetables are important sources of many nutrients, including potassium, dietary fibre, folate (folic acid), vitamin A, and vitamin C. Those who eat vegetables as part of their daily diet have a significantly reduced risk of many chronic diseases and cancers.
- You can always ask for extra vegetables in your order (such as your soup noodles or economy rice) to make your dish healthier and more nutritious.
- Like vegetables, fruits are another great source of many essential nutrients that are usually under-consumed. They can be eaten raw, are easy to prepare, and taste good. However, fruits do contain a good deal of sugar, so eat in moderation if you need to watch your weight.
- Almost every hawker centre has a fruit stall. However, fruit juice contains a large amount of sugar which raises blood sugar levels very quickly. Therefore, people with diabetes should try to limit their fruit juice intake and choose fresh fruit instead. Limit yourself to 2 portions of fruits per day.
Low-fat, low-calorie hawker foods
Yes, you really can find low-calorie hawker food. All you need to do is look for dishes that are steamed rather than fried, or served in clear soups rather than thick sauces. Here are a few examples:
Fish slice mee hoon soup
- Fish slices cooked in a clear soup offers lean protein with little oil or fat. Usually served with tofu, tomatoes and other ingredients such as seaweed and lettuce, this offers you a balanced meal with fibre and other nutrients.
- To reduce your intake of carbs, you can request for a smaller serving of mee hoon and more vegetables instead.
- Teochew porridge contains no oil or fats, but what you add to it can make a big difference. Choose steamed meat, fish or egg rather than fried, with lots of dark green leafy vegetables to make it a balanced and nutritious meal.
- Resist the temptation to add too much soya sauce or gravies which are high in sodium.
- Chinese-style herbal soups are usually double-boiled to preserve the nutrients. With ingredients like lean cuts of meat and vegetables like lotus root, it offers a satisfying and mix of protein and fibre, on its own or with a small portion of steamed rice.
Thunder Tea Rice (Hakka lei cha)
- Served over a bed of rice, you can request for less rice or swap white rice for brown. Go easy on the peanuts and fried anchovies (ikan bilis) as these can add calories to your diet.
- Served over a bed of rice, you can request for less rice or swap white rice for brown.
Eating in moderation
Hawker indulgences can be enjoyed from time to time. Everyone has different dietary goals, and you should find the right balance and know what works for you.
Generally, the average person consumes about 1,800 – 2,200 calories (females and males respectively) per day. However, the recommended calorie intake can be affected by many factors including gender, height, physical activity levels, and age.
If you are having a hard time figuring your diet out, you can always seek the advice of a dietitian. They are specially trained to adjust your diet based on your medical condition and your individual needs.
Article reviewed by Eunice Chan, senior dietitian at Gleneagles Hospital
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