May 14, 2009
Get your basics right - Cover story
Shopping for health
Choosing healthier versions of staple food can have far-reaching consequences. Here's how to overhaul the contents of your grocery basket
By June Cheong
Get your basics right and gain an edge. This applies to most things, from choosing your toddler's first school to putting together that perfect outfit.
This is why you should consider giving your grocery basket a health makeover.
Basic food items like rice, milk and cooking oil are the building blocks of your everyday diet. So, choosing healthy options for these staples will have far-reaching consequences for your health.
Mr Lim Meng Thiam, manager and dietitian in the adult health division at the Health Promotion Board, said a healthy diet is rich in plant-based foods like wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and legumes.
It is also moderate in total fat, with a higher proportion of unsaturated fats and low in saturated and trans fats.
'Diets based on these guidelines generally help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers by about 20 to 30 per cent,' he said.
Mind Your Body checks out what body-beneficial foods you can switch to for eight meal essentials.
Brown rice is tops when it comes to heart health.
Mr Lim said that compared to polished grains like white rice, wholegrains like brown rice contain more fibre, nutrients and phytochemicals (beneficial plant compounds).
Studies show that a diet rich in wholegrains reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and diabetes.
Brown rice also gives you 50 per cent more fibre than white rice.
To get white rice, the refining process removes much of the bran and germ of a wholegrain, leaving only the part of the grain called the endosperm, which is mainly starch.
Bran is rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals while germ is rich in vitamins, phytochemicals and unsaturated fats.
White is best when it comes to soya products.
Pure tofu is better than egg tofu as it is cholesterol-free.
Other soya products like beancurd and soya bean milk are also good sources of plant-based protein although you should watch out for added sugar.
Ms Ng Hwa Ling, a dietitian at the department of dietetics & nutrition services at Singapore General Hospital, said: 'Beancurd is usually served with syrup. The healthier way is to ask for less syrup.'
She added: 'Generally, the soya bean milk at food stalls has less protein and calcium than that which comes enhanced in tetra packs.'
Chicken breast is a better choice than chicken wings or drumsticks as it is lower in fat. Removing the skin will raise the health ante as chicken skin is high in saturated fat.
Ms Ng said it is also important to reduce the amount of fat when cooking. So chuck out the deep fryer and bring in the steam cooker.
Fortification equals eggs-cellence.
Go for designer eggs such as those lower in cholesterol or those enhanced with lutein or Omega-3.
Not only are these good sources of protein and contain more than 13 essential vitamins and minerals like normal eggs, they also boast extra health-giving properties.
Such eggs are usually modified by feeding egg-laying hens a special diet rich in certain vitamins and other nutrients.
Still, dietitians Mind Your Body spoke to recommend eating no more than three to four eggs a week.
Keep the milk moustache but skip the fat. Opt for low-fat or skimmed milk.
Mr Lim said full-cream milk contains more than three times the amount of fat and saturated fat found in low-fat milk.
Saturated fat tends to raise LDL - the bad cholesterol - levels in the blood. A diet high in fat, especially saturated fat, increases the risk of heart disease.
Adults should have half a serving of dairy products every day. This is equivalent to one glass of milk or one tub of yogurt.
Fatty fish trounce lean fish in the health stakes.
Lean fish like plaice and cod contain less than 5 per cent fat while fatty fish like salmon, sardine, mackerel and fresh tuna have more than 10 per cent fat.
While all fish are good sources of protein, zinc and iron, fatty fish have an edge in being especially rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
Ms Ng said a regular intake of fatty fish, or two servings a week, has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack. One serving of fish is roughly the size of one palm.
Fruit and vegetables
Colour is key in differentiating the super-foods from those that are merely good.
Vegetables that are dark green or brightly coloured, like spinach, kang kong, broccoli, capsicum and carrots, are the better picks.
For fruit, choose the brightly coloured ones like papaya, mango, orange, kiwi and strawberries.
Mr Lim said these types of vegetables and fruits contain more nutrients and phyto-chemicals compared to pale coloured ones.
Phyto-chemicals, together with the fibre and nutrients found in vegetables and fruit, help protect against heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer.
Do not worry if your vegetables come in frozen bags. Most of the nutrients are retained during the freezing process.
Ms Ng said that all kinds of oil will have similar energy content. One gram of fat gives 9kcal.
The type of oil is a more important factor for consideration.
Pick cooking oil that is 100 per cent pure unsaturated fat, she advised.
Good sources of monounsaturated fat include olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil while good sources of polyunsaturated fat include corn oil, soya bean oil and sunflower oil.
The former group tend to reduce total cholesterol and LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels. Consuming oil from the latter group will lower total cholesterol, LDL and HDL levels.
Go local to stretch your dollar
Local produce that are in season are not only fresher and tastier, but they are cheaper too
Investing in nutritious food does not mean spending a fortune. Even if you are on a budget, you can still eat to fulfil your daily nutritional needs.
The Health Promotion Board (HPB) said adults should have five to seven servings of rice or carbohydrate alternatives, two servings of fruit, two servings of vegetables and two or three servings of meat or protein alternatives like fish, milk and beans every day.
Ms Ng Hwa Ling, a dietitian at the department of dietetics and nutrition services at Singapore General Hospital, said it is healthier - and sometimes cheaper - to eat local produce.
She said: 'Local produce is usually fresher. Eating local also means eating with the seasons. Hence, it enables you to eat food at their peak taste and at cheaper prices as they're most abundant then.'
Besides buying local, you can also plan your grocery shopping so you buy only what you need.
Stocking up on canned food when they go on sale is another saving strategy. Canned food can form part of a healthy, balanced diet as they often provide similar amounts of vitamins and minerals as fresh food.
Most are canned immediately or soon after harvest when nutrient concentrations and eating quality are at their highest.
Go for products with low or no salt, no added sugar, and fruits that are canned in their own juice or water.
Switching your food staples like rice, bread and milk to house brands will stretch your dollar too.
When asked for examples of cheap but nutritious food, Mr Lim Meng Thiam, manager and dietitian in the adult health division at HPB, suggested: 'Green, leafy vegetables like chye sim, kai lan and kang kong have a high content of nutrients and phytochemicals. Fish provides protein, B vitamins, iron and Omega-3 while being low in saturated fat.'