Dr Tan explains why we might experience them

Ordering Up a Headache

Question: Every time I eat at a zi char stall or restaurant, I end up with a bad headache about half an hour later. It doesn’t matter which stall I patronise, I feel lousy after the meal. Is the MSG used likely to be the culprit? If so, why do I only suffer the effects when I eat zi char?

Answer: Food additives and flavour enhancers are commonly added during food preparation by food stalls and restaurants to make dishes taste better, and these are known to trigger headaches. Limit the number of dishes when ordering at a zi char stall, or keep to those that are less flavourful so as to minimise or avoid recurrences of your condition.

Check with the server which dishes contain MSG (monosodium glutamate) so that you are able to avoid them. If possible, make a request that MSG be omitted in the dishes that you order.

Related: 8 Singapore Dietary Guidelines You Must Know

The subsequent absence of headaches will help confirm your suspicion of MSG as the culprit, but this may not be an effective method as MSG is unlikely to be the only food additive or flavour enhancer to be found in a zi char meal. Moreover, many condiments such as oyster sauce and dark soya sauce also contain MSG.

On the brighter side, you may have found a link between zi char dishes and your headaches and this allows you to take precautionary measures. More often than not, patients with your condition and other benign headaches are not able to identify the triggers or may have difficulties avoiding their exposure due to lifestyle and work commitments.

If you observe new patterns of a headache unrelated to food intake, consult your family physician for further evaluation. Such findings can be a manifestation of other medical conditions which may necessitate different forms of intervention.

Dr Tan Wee Hian
Family Physician-Associate
Deputy Head
Pioneer Polyclinic
National Healthcare Group Polyclinics

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