Asian family dining on healthy food together happily

Unhealthy Eating Patterns Can Lead to Chronic Diseases

Did you know that non-communicable (i.e. “non-contagious”) chronic diseases, like cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, are the leading cause of death in Singapore?

One of the important ways to prevent and manage such diseases, of course, is through our diet. By changing our eating patterns and consistently making healthy food choices, we can help to reduce our risks of these chronic diseases.

People who observe healthy eating patterns have a varied diet, i.e. those who eat from all four food groups and have different types of food from each food group, are also more likely to meet their nutrient requirements.

Dietary Guidelines for Adults in Singapore

Dietary guidelines are crucial in helping people to adopt healthier eating patterns. In Singapore, the dietary guidelines were first developed in 1990, and revised in 1993.

A new set of guidelines was then released in 2003, which reflected a shift from nutrient-based to food-based recommendations. This was in line with the increasing recognition that food provides not only nutrients but also other non-nutrient compounds (e.g. phytochemicals such as lycopene, isoflavones, lutein) which appear to protect against chronic diseases.

Here’s a summary of the eight dietary guidelines for adult Singaporeans (aged 18 to 69):

#1: Replace Food Pyramid with My Healthy Plate as a Guide

Meat and alternatives is just one part of the food pyramid in Singapore

Many of us may remember the food pyramid. It was a triangular diagram that represented the recommended number of servings to be eaten each day from each of the basic food groups. It was known as the Food Guide Pyramid in the United States and was used to demonstrate the dietary guidelines for Americans.

In Singapore, it was often referred to as the Healthy Diet Pyramid, and it categorised commonly eaten foods into four food groups:

  • Rice and alternatives
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Meat and alternatives

The Health Promotion Board has replaced the Healthy Diet Pyramid with My Healthy Plate as a friendly, easy-to-understand visual guide to help you build balanced meals.

Both convey similar healthy eating advice—the information on the food groups and recommendations is essentially the same. However, My Healthy Plate shows this in a way that’s more easily understood and usable at mealtimes. Learn more about My Healthy Plate.

Eat from all four food groups and have different types of food from each group. Choose items low in fat (especially saturated fat), salt and added sugar.

Pay attention to your calcium intake, which is vital for maintaining bone health and reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Milk and dairy products are the best sources of calcium. Other good sources include dark green leafy vegetables (eg kai lan, chye sim), fish with edible bones, calcium-fortified products (e.g. calcium-fortified soybean milk and cereals) and tofu (which is set with calcium).

Related: Healthy Diet Pyramid

#2: Achieve and Maintain Body Weight Within the Normal Range

Stretching at work before having a healthy lunch that follows Singapore’s dietary guidelines

The healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) range for adults is between 18.5 and 22.9. Use a BMI calculator to see where you stand.

If your BMI is between 23—27.4, you stand in a moderate risk of heart disease. You are in the high-risk group if your BMI is 27.5 and above.

Those whose BMI is lower than 18.5, you run the risk of nutritional deficiency diseases and osteoporosis.

#3: Eat a Sufficient Amount of Grains, Especially Whole Grains

Healthy wholegrain pasta in a steel pot

At least one serving of rice & alternatives should come from wholegrain food as they contain both the bran (which is high in B-vitamins) and germ (which is rich in Vitamin E & phytochemicals).

Examples of wholegrain food include oats, brown rice and wholemeal/whole wheat versions of noodles, bread and breakfast cereals. Buy wholemeal bread at the supermarket and ask if your mixed rice stall serves brown rice when you take your lunch breaks next time.

People who have a diet rich in whole grains have a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes, and may also reduce their risk of colorectal and oesophageal cancers.

Whole grains also keep us feeling full for a longer period of time, so we don’t end up consuming more calories than we should.

Related: Wholesome Gains with Whole Grains

#4: Eat More Fruit and Vegetables Every Day

A balanced meal according to the dietary guidelines must include vegetables, carbs, protein and fruit

Aim to eat at least two servings of fruit and two servings of vegetables every day. Vegetables include all vegetables fresh, frozen and well-drained canned vegetables, except tubers (e.g. potatoes, yam) and legumes (e.g. beans, lentils).

Fruit includes fresh, frozen, well-drained canned or dried fruit.

A diet rich in fruit and vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Fruit and vegetables may also protect against cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, stomach and lung (fruit only).

If you still feel hungry after a meal, fill up on more fruits and vegetables. Not only do they contain fewer calories, they are also naturally low in fat and sodium. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables keeps us in tip-top shape.

Related: Smart Ways to Fill Up on Fruit and Vegetables

#5: Choose and Prepare Food with Less Fat, Especially Saturated Fat

Healthy eating patterns include eating more fruit and vegetables, picking lean meats, and preparing food with less fat

Total fat should be limited to 25—30% of total calorie intake, of which less than 10% is from saturated fat. The balance should come from mono- and polyunsaturated fats,

Sources of saturated fat include fatty cuts of meat, high-fat dairy products, food made with coconut milk and also food prepared with palm-based vegetable oil.

A high intake of saturated fat is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Related: Introduction to Fats

#6: Choose and Prepare Food with Less Salt and Sauces

Chinese beef stir-fried noodles prepared with lesser sauce for a healthier meal

Consume not more than recommended 5g of salt per day. Sources of sodium include sauces, monosodium glutamate (MSG), preservatives and salt substitutes.

Reducing your salt intake helps lower blood pressure in both healthy individuals and those with high blood pressure. Eating too much salt-preserved, cured or smoked food has also been associated with a higher risk of stomach and nasopharyngeal cancers because of the preservatives—salt and sodium nitrate.

Related: Cooking for Health—Keeping It Quick and Easy

#7: Choose Beverages and Food with Less Sugar

Watermelon smoothie with no added sugar for a healthier drink

Beverages and food with added sugar usually provide empty calories.

Limit added sugar to not more than 40-55g (8-11 tsp) daily. This includes sugar added to drinks and food such as cakes and candies.

Excessive consumption of food and drink high in added sugar may lead to weight gain if the excess calories are not burnt.

Related: 10 Hidden Sugar Bombshells in Your Diet

#8: If You Drink Alcoholic Beverages, Do So in Moderation

2 young women observing a dietary guideline by drinking alcohol in moderation.

Only adults 18 years and older are allowed to purchase and drink alcohol in Singapore. Keep to not more than two standard drinks a day (for women) and three drinks a day (for men).

A standard drink contains 10g of pure alcohol and is equivalent to a can of beer (220ml), one glass of wine (100ml), or one nip (30ml) of spirits.

Related: Alcohol and Health—Setting Your Drink Limits

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