With input from nutritionist Charlotte Mei and dietitian Vanessa McNamara, this definitive guide will settle all your queries about what to eat, how to eat, and if there’s such a thing as healthy bubble tea.
Paleo, Keto, Low Carb, No Sugar, South Beach, High Protein, Whole 30, Juice Cleanse…. There seems to be a new diet/nutrition plan popping up every time you think you know what it means to eat right.
We get your conundrum – trust us, we get confused too – and decided it’s high time we put an end to all your (and our) burning questions once and for all. After all, you are what you eat, and eating should really be an enjoyable (not confounding) affair.
To help us make sense of all the diets, food trends and nutrition beliefs floating around, we enlisted the help of nutritionist Charlotte Mei and dietitian Vanessa McNamara to answer a slew of dietary questions to *hopefully* set us on the path of a wholesome, sustainable eating plan for life.
The Amazon is burning, the oceans are overfished. Everyone’s talking about sustainable living. Can adopting a vegan diet really be considered balanced and healthy?
Charlotte: It requires a lot of planning to make sure one’s vegan diet includes a good balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat. It is important, too, to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and good fats, rather than sticking to the same ones, which could be the case for many vegans. Keep in mind that animal-based products contain a host of nutrients that plant foods contain very little of, if any at all: vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Okay, so what about Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods products. Are they healthy?
Charlotte: Firstly, Beyond Meat/Impossible Foods products aren’t lab-grown meats and both are neither healthy nor unhealthy. Take the Beyond Burger Patty and Impossible Burger Patty for example. The numbers on their nutrition labels are comparable to that of a beef patty, in terms of protein, fat and calories. However, their ingredient list doesn’t look as great. The protein in Beyond/Impossible products comes from processed plant sources (e.g. pea protein in Beyond Meat, soy protein in Impossible Burger), whereas the protein in a beef patty comes from beef, a whole food. I would rather Beyond/Impossible products contain natural protein sources, such as legumes, rather than processed vegetable proteins. There is nothing wrong with them, however it doesn’t pass off as eating vegetables, as one would assume when eating a ‘plant-based burger’.
Beyond/Impossible products also contain a high amount of salt, packing in about 20 per cent of our recommended daily intake of sodium (5g) in just one serving. Most Singaporeans are already consuming more than the recommended intake of salt per day, and such a product wouldn’t be helping with that.
Beyond/Impossible are better for the environment because of their low carbon footprint, but they are not necessarily healthy. The healthfulness of a food also depends on our individual needs. Be mindful of the health halo that may come with these products, because they are simply plant-based products, and not actual vegetables.
In short, I’d say it doesn’t hurt to give these products a try. However, eat them in moderation, alongside vegetables.
So what about juice cleanses? Are they healthy and what sort of juices are healthier than others?
Charlotte: Most people go on a juice cleanse hoping to detoxify their bodies. What we forget is that our bodies are great at self-cleansing, and have their own natural detoxification systems: the liver and kidneys. The best way to keep healthy is to care for your body over the long term, rather than letting loose and using a juice cleanse as a quick fix once in a while. It doesn’t work like a spring clean.
For those that go on a juice cleanse to lose weight, any change in numbers on the weighing scale is due to a loss in water and intestinal bulk, rather than true fat loss.
There are benefits of drinking juice, such as the intake of certain nutrients which most people may otherwise be missing out on from their everyday diets. However, juice cleanses are low in protein, amino acids, and fibre, and do not provide enough calories , which can be very dangerous. Furthermore, when we juice, we are removing all the fibre from the fruits and vegetables, leaving the sugars behind, which can in turn lead to blood sugar spikes, and even headaches.
No one juice is better than the other when going on a juice cleanse. If you feel like having a juice on any given day, go for one that includes a mix of vegetables and fruits, try not to have more than one serving, or better still, go for a smoothie as the fibres are still contained in it. A balanced diet built around whole foods beats a juice cleanse any day.
Let’s talk about diets. A new one is intermittent fasting. What’s a healthy way to carry this out?
Charlotte: There are different forms of intermittent fasting. There is time-restricted fasting (e.g. fasting for 16 hours and eating during an 8-hour period), alternate day fasting (fasting every other day), 5:2 fasting (eating 500 to 600 calories on 2 days of the week, and eating normally for the other 5). I’ll assume you are referring to the first (time restricted), as it tends to be more popular in Singapore.
There are some studied benefits, such as weight loss in overweight and obese people, and improved insulin resistance in some. However, our body’s individual response to fasting is very different from one another.
On the flip side, intermittent fasting (IF) can lead to hormonal imbalances, disrupted sleep patterns, fatigue, et cetera. There aren’t enough studies assessing the long-term health effects of IF, and whether those under it are able to keep the weight off.
It is important to understand why one is fasting. If it simply represents a short-term weight loss goal, it may not be the best choice. Some people are practising IF without being aware of it. In which case, if it suits you and you feel good, go ahead. It’s advisable to check in with a GP, dietitian or nutritionist before embarking on IF.
What about the keto diet? I’ve loaded up on bacon everything. Am I on the right track?
Vanessa: [With bacon], you will be meeting your fat and protein requirements to achieve ketosis but you will be missing out on crucial components of a healthy diet such as dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals. Without lots of leafy green vegetables in your diet, you will be more at risk of getting that ‘keto flu’ feeling, constipation, exhaustion, and not to mention, heart disease.
So, how can I tell if I’ve reached ketosis?
Vanessa: You can buy ketone urine test strips which can tell you the concentration of ketones in your urine.
Maybe keto isn’t for everyone, but what about sugar? It’s present in everything. Is there such a thing as good or bad sugar?
Vanessa: I consider natural sugars such as naturally-occurring fructose in fruit and lactose in dairy products as suitable forms of sugar. Added sugars are not evil, but they add up very quickly over the day so it’s important to be mindful of how much we are eating. It’s also helpful to remember that the more sugar we eat, the more we tend to crave, so it does help to get used to choosing unsweetened foods and drinks to reduce our reliance on everything sweet.
On that note, I guess there isn’t such a thing as healthy bubble tea?
Vanessa: The main source of calories in bubble tea is the sugar syrup and tapioca pearls. So if you are watching your calorie intake, it’s best to ask for less or no syrup and avoid the pearls. Then again, you may as well just have tea with milk.
What about yong tau foo, can it be considered a healthy meal?
Vanessa: I always recommend yong tau foo as one of the healthier hawker meals. It’s one of the few hawker foods where you can choose plenty of vegetables and get the balance of your plate right with half a plate of vegetables, a quarter plate of protein and a quarter plate of carbohydrates. Avoid the fried foods and go easy on the sauces and soup as they can be high in sodium.
And what about fish soup? Are there any hidden negatives we should consider?
Vanessa: Generally fish soup is a good low-fat, low-calorie option. Avoid the fried fish, ask for less rice or noodles so they make up more like a quarter or a third of the dish, and ask for lots of leafy greens.
What about superfoods such as acai, kale and chia seeds? What’s the lowdown on them?
Vanessa: The term ‘superfood’ is a very useful marketing tool. I believe that any fresh, whole food that contains a variety of vitamins and minerals in its natural form can be considered a superfood.
Help us with this burning question – are carbs necessarily evil?
Vanessa: Not at all. In fact, I believe they are essential in a human’s diet. We just need to treat them with a little more respect than we often do in the modern world – it’s all about choosing the right types of carbs and eating them in the appropriate quantities for your individual goals.
What about low-fat vs full-fat dairy products – can they really make a difference in one’s diet?
Vanessa: I don’t believe it makes a huge difference unless an individual consumes a large amount of dairy and they are trying to lose weight or lower their cholesterol levels. Be aware that sometimes low-fat means the food is either high in sugar or high in salt to make up the flavour. Or it might include chemicals that mimic the role of fat.
And calories? Are they all equal? How should we count them on a daily/weekly basis?
Vanessa: Not all calories are equal. It does help some people to keep track of the calories they consume each day, but it is important to not get bogged down by numbers, and look at the quality of our intake instead.
Singaporeans love having supper. Does it really matter what time you eat?
Vanessa: In an ideal world, we would eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen and dinner like a pauper – as the old saying goes. And this does make sense when it comes to eating around our natural circadian rhythm. It is not always practical, however, so try to fit what you can into your lifestyle. Eating too late at night may impact your quality of sleep.
What are your thoughts on ‘cheat days’?
Vanessa: Cheat days imply that you are breaking the rules and should feel guilty for doing so. But eating should be a pleasurable experience, every single day! It doesn’t mean that we should eat cupcakes for breakfast and chocolate for dinner but we should feel comfortable eating a cupcake at times, even if it’s not a ‘cheat day’, and trust our intuition to know when to stop. Normal eating is about savouring and really enjoying nutritious foods that make us feel good without having to follow the rule books all the time.
Finally, how would you define clean eating?
Vanessa: As a dietitian, I abhor the term ‘clean eating’. It implies that some foods are dirty and should be avoided, whereas I believe that all foods have a place in a normal diet. I prefer to talk about all foods in a positive way, but there are some we should be having every day and others we should have sometimes.