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What stressed Singapore bankers should really be eating at hawker centres

It’s 12pm in the Singapore CBD: you’ve just left the office, you’re on your way to a hawker centre, and you have 45 minutes to eat and get back to work. If this sounds like a fairly inconsequential lunchtime scenario as a busy banking professional, think again. What you choose to eat during your break could potentially affect your performance at work for the rest of the day.

“If you don’t have lunch on time, your blood sugar could drop, and this could affect your productivity and ability to make sound decisions,” says Dr Menka Gupta, a medical doctor who worked in obstetrics and gynaecology in UK and Singapore hospitals before training as a nutritional therapist and functional medicine practitioner. “Bankers and traders often suffer from anxiety and stress – and it’s possible for the right kind of foods, including lunches, to help with these problems,” adds Gupta, whose clients at Singapore’s Nutra Nourish clinic include many finance professionals.

While Gupta and other nutrition experts recommend bringing in your own healthy homemade lunches a few times a week, she says central Singapore’s food courts and hawker centres also offer plenty of great options to fuel you for the afternoon ahead. “It’s unrealistic to expect busy banking employees to always pack their own lunches, but we’re lucky in Singapore, because even the cheaper places to eat here often have a lot of vegetable and healthy dishes, if chosen well,” she says.

To eat more healthily at a hawker, some nutritionists say you should reduce the amount of carbohydrates on your plate. Eating excess carbs can leave you feeling lethargic after lunch and can potentially contribute to weight gain. “Most hawker meals are heavy on carbs: rice, noodles or wheat-based breads,” says Bonnie Rogers, a functional medicine certified coach at The Nutrition Clinic. Your exact carb requirements depend on factors such as your genetics and your current levels of stress and physical activity, but as a rule of thumb you should ask hawker stalls to cut their normal carb servings by about 50%, she adds.

“A balanced meal is different for everyone, but generally speaking it means at least half a plate of vegetables, a good mix of protein and healthy fats, and a smaller amount of carbohydrates,” says Rogers. “Avoid anything that looks very different from that rough visual guide – such as a lunch dominated by noodles, naan bread, or pizza slices,” she adds.

If you regularly go to the same hawker centres, you’ll get to know the stalls that offer more vegetable options and allow you to ask for less rice and more veg, says Josephine Ng, a nutritional therapist, functional medicine practitioner, and founder of The Nutrition Mentor clinic. “You’ll pay a dollar or two more to have more variety of meat (or other protein foods) and vegetables, but this will make a meal more balanced than eating lots of rice and noodles,” says Ng. Vegetables already contain carbs, making it unnecessary to eat lots of rice or noodles – “a fist size amount is enough”, adds Ng. Gupta recommends paying a small premium for brown or red rice, which some CBD hawkers are starting to offer as a wholegrain alternative to white rice.

It may also be worth reducing your intake of the high-salt processed sauces that hawker centres use to flavour some of their meals. “A Korean bibimbap, for example, has loads of veg and tastes great without sauces,” says Gupta. If you want a replacement for a hawker’s salad dressing, simply carry a small bottle of cold-pressed, organic, extra-virgin olive oil with you to lunch, she adds. Similarly, reduce-salt tamari sauce could be a bring-your-own replacement for soy sauce. “Unless you have a specific medical problem, you could follow an 80/20 rule: be health conscious in your food choices 80% of the time, and more relaxed 20% of the time,” says Gupta.

Ng is an advocate of “eating mindfully”, even at a busy lunchtime food court or hawker centre. “Remember to focus on the act of eating and avoid using your phone while eating,” says Ng. “You should chew about 20 to 30 times per mouthful, because it will help your digestion and is a simple way to avoid overeating. Digestion starts in the mouth as there are digestive enzymes there,” she adds.  

The nutrition experts we spoke with say that some popular hawker foods are already fairly healthy or can be made more so with minor tweaks. Ng is a fan of yong tau foo, because the dish allows diners to select large amounts of different vegetables before they are cooked in clear broth soup, typically alongside stuffed tofu. “Chicken rice and Vietnamese pho are firm favourites of mine, but I half the rice/noodles and ask for more greens,” adds Rogers from The Nutrition Clinic.  

If you’re eating Indian, Rogers recommends skipping wheat-based parathas and naans and opting for a plate containing vegetable-based curries, a portion of protein (i.e. chicken tandoori), and a small rice serving if you want one. Idli is another good Indian choice, says Gupta, because the puffy savoury cake is itself partly made from protein-rich lentils and is served with a delicious lentil-based vegetable stew called samba. If you like dosai, go for one without potatoes, but enjoy the coconut chutney, which contains healthy fats, says Gupta.

Gupta also says busy finance professionals should try thunder tea rice, a meal of Hakka origins that is gaining popularity in Singapore. The dish is not as rice-dominated as it sounds and is also packed with vegetables and topped with a soup made of tea leaves, nuts, seeds and herbs. A Japanese bento box  of vegetables, miso soup, seaweed, meat or tofu is another good hawker or food court option, she adds.

When ordering Malay or Indonesian food, choose curried dishes (alongside vegetables) because they are typically cooked with anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric, says Ng from The Nutrition Mentor clinic. “And if you don’t mind spending a bit more and not eating at a hawker, there are many poke-bowl places springing up. They make a nice change from the standard salad bars, and let you pick from Asian and western ingredients, including plenty of vegetables and whole grains,” she adds.

Whatever option you choose, having a healthier lunch should help to “sustain you and help you avoid wanting to snack in the afternoon,” says Ng. “The aim of a good lunch is to balance your blood sugar and thereby stop you craving sugar and binge eating cookies in the afternoon,” adds Gupta. Moreover, once you start experiencing the benefits of a better blood-sugar balance at work – including improved clarity of thought and higher energy levels – eating well can become a “way of life”, says Rogers.

Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash

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