There’s no sugar-coating it

Food is a national pastime.

We all scream for ice cream!

CNN Travel names chicken rice, char kway teow, wantan mee, chai tow kuay, and chill crab as the top 5 foods locals can’t live without (surprisingly, katong laksa didn’t make it to the top 5; it’s listed at #14). According to a 2012 Mastercard survey, locals spend as much as $262 in US dollars dining out each month. There are more local food blogs than supermarkets and more than just a few food apps (e.g., Hungrygowhere, BurpplePicky). With almost every other person a foodie, that’s quite a lot for a place less than half the size of Greater London and nearly double in its population density.

It’s not the problem of junk food here. Rather, if the National Nutrition Survey in 2010 is anything to go by, nearly half the nation dines out at their local friendly hawker centre more than four times a week (up from 40% in 2004: National Nutrition Survey by HPB). In addition to the problem of too much salt from eating out, which increases the risk of high blood pressure and vascular illness, the most recent data reveal a disturbing trend of overeating. As many as 6 in 10 locals consume too many calories, leaving them vulnerable to the risk of obesity and diabetes, and heart disease.

But there’s a bit more to the story than that. In reality, stress has a bit of a starring role, while sugar plays a vital supporting role.

We typically respond to a stressful situation at work with cortisol (since we can neither fight our co-workers nor flee from our emails, much as we try to sometimes), which encourages our appetite and desire for high energy foods — simple carbohydrates (find the science explained herehere and here). We often think of these as just sugar and honey. But in reality, they often wear clever disguises from white rice, breads, cake, muffins, cupcakes, doughnuts, and biscuits, to hot and cold desserts. And an overconsumption of these lovely, fragrant, heart-warming energy-dense foods increases the risk of impaired insulin function (read this to understand the link between overeating and diabetes).

And while prolonged exposure to stress leads to chronic inflammation, it should be recognized that sugar also contributes to inflammation. In fact, it is sugar in all its various nefarious disguises which is responsible for populating the blood stream with small, dense LDL cholesterol particles. And it’s these small, dense LDL particles which raise our risk of coronary heart disease (read this for a full review of the factors for cardiovascular disease).

So yes, stress and sugar are the bad guys (here’s an earlier blog entry on thwarting the ill intentions of sugar). But there is a simple solution. It’s called exercise.

Take control of your eating

Omega 3 and 6

We just had The Festive Weekend of the year. And it was not a fun time for people who need to watch what they eat.

A practical tip for those with diabetes has been to eat on smaller plates (Mind Your Body, 30 Jan 2014), while a useful guide for those with high cholesterol has been that they should choose foods which are low in saturated fat.

But here are some facts that you may not be aware of.

1. Not all carbohydrates are equal.

It’s always a good idea to fill up on vegetables that are coloured (e.g., broccoli, kai lan, peppers, brinjal, carrots, spinach), and to keep in mind that root vegetables are essentially sources of carbohydrates rather than fibre. But not all carbs are equal. White unpolished rice isn’t particularly diabetes-friendly. But sweet potato and yam have a lower glycaemic index (here’s a chart). And so do soba (buckwheat noodles), beehoon (freshly made rice noodles), steel-cut (Irish) oats, rolled oats, tortillas, lentils, and barley, while russet potatoes have moderate glycaemic index when eaten cold (here’s why).

2. Eat food rich in Omega 3.

Foods with omega 3 are the in thing these days (here’s the science behind it). So it makes sense that you’d want to fill up on oily fish (here’s a list), walnuts, cauliflower, and flax seeds. In fact, there’s evidence that a handful of almonds or walnuts a day decreased the bad cholesterol (low density lipoprotein or LDL) for participants in two separate studies (here’s that data). In comparison, walnuts and brazil nuts have to be eaten in moderation. For a comparison of oils and omega-3 among nuts, check out this table.

3. Don’t blame that bad egg.

The recent advice about eggs has been that what we really need to watch out for is the amount of fat in our food intake, not so much the foods with cholesterol that we eat (here’s why), particularly if our cholesterol levels and triglycerides are in the healthy range. Nevertheless, those of us with elevated cholesterol might want to be careful about eating foods which have relatively higher levels of cholesterol (read this piece of advice and this piece about quail eggs).