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Commentary: Hawker food can also be healthy if you know what to look for

Coffee shop and hawker food are notorious for being carb-heavy and fat-laden. With more budget meals coming, eating healthy is all about making the right choices, say Susan Tan and Nurliyana Daros from the Society of Behavioural Health, Singapore.

SINGAPORE: There is one thing that brings Singaporeans together - our insatiable love for eating. Our hawker centres buzz with life, serving up a symphony of flavours and aromas without breaking the bank (albeit a tad pricier than before). Hawker centres aren't just places to grab a quick bite; they are the heart and soul of our food culture where convenience and choice reign.

According to a national survey in 2010, about 60 per cent of Singapore residents eat out at least four times a week. Such is the love for hawker food that 83 per cent of residents treat themselves to local fare at such establishments at least once every week, according to a separate paper published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity in 2020. 

Singapore’s hawker culture is even listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, joining the likes of French cuisine, Thai massage and yoga.

From 2026, all coffee shops leased from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) will be required to offer budget meal options. While the requirement for budget meals has been in place since 2018 for new coffee shops let out by HDB, it will now be extended to all other HDB coffee shops.

While this will likely address some of the concerns over complaints about prices of “cai fan” or economy rice meals, questions have been raised about how healthy these budget offerings are.

Coffee shop and hawker food are notorious for being carb-heavy and fat-laden. Do cost-conscious diners have to choose between affordability and health? Is the notion that healthy food is expensive true? 


After two decades in health coaching, we have heard all the moans and groans about the perceived barriers to healthy eating, including "I don't know what's good for me" and "I cannot afford to". Is finding wallet-friendly and nutritious hawker food a Herculean task?

Food prices have indeed increased over the past few years due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the global supply chain, extreme weather events, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and trade restrictions.

For example, the average retail price for broccoli rose from S$5.61 to S$6.92 per kg from 2019 to 2022, while tomatoes increased from S$2.20 to S$2.78 per kg, according to official data. Eggs (pack of 10) went up from S$2.39 to S$3.06, while a whole chicken increased from S$6.36 to S$7.94 and salmon from S$30.09 to S$34.41 per kg. In July, food inflation in Singapore was 5.3 per cent year-on-year.

Healthier options do come with a price tag for both food operators and consumers, but you do not have to be sentenced to a lifetime of bland and pricey food just because you decide to tread the healthy path.

With soaring food prices, there is greater impetus for more initiatives to ensure healthier food and ingredients are accessible and affordable for the different socio-economic and budget considerations.

Healthy eating needs to be viewed holistically in terms of the food intake throughout the day, and as experts have recommended, this is achievable by making low-cost tweaks.

Initiatives like the Health Promotion Board’s Healthier Dining Programme, which is aimed at helping diners choose healthier options such as lower-calorie meals, whole grains, reduced sodium and sugar, have made a positive impact.

As of December 2022, 60 per cent of stalls across all hawker centres and coffee shops have at least one healthier option on their menus.

Healthy hawker hunting is not rocket science; moderation is key. A well-balanced plate should be divided into the following food groups: A quarter filled with wholegrains, a quarter filled with protein, and half filled with fruit and vegetables.

You can still have curry and deep-fried food, just not every day. For example, when ordering cai fan or nasi padang, opt for brown rice (less rice), less sauce, and a non-processed protein instead of chicken nuggets or luncheon meat. Swap out your favourite curry vegetable dish for a vegetable stir-fry or embrace the egg as your wallet-friendly protein choice.

A plate of brown rice, stir-fried bean sprouts, tofu with minced meat, and a sunny side up would set you back by about S$4.30. 


Our culinary choices are moulded by factors including cultural norms, repeated (childhood) exposure, and positive experiences associated with food.

The aromas and flavours we hold dear as comfort food may be hard to break free - almost like an addiction. You can improve your eating habits without bidding adieu to your favourite char kway teow; neither do you have to make your not-so-healthy favourites your daily default meal.

Humans are creatures of habit and habits can be reshaped over time. It is all about understanding what your body needs and creating a harmonious blend for your unique optimal diet. Seek out nutrient-dense options, watch your portions, and take your time savouring each bite. Those sugar cravings? Tame them with a succulent fruit instead of the sugar-loaded dessert or sweetened beverage. 

Now, what about the occasional craving for carbs-heavy hokkien mee? Try pairing it with stir-fried vegetables and a sugar-free protein-packed soy milk and compensate with fewer carbs for your next meal. It is all about balance at the end of the day.


Eating well need not mean emptying your pockets. Organic and pricey are not necessarily healthy. Take for example the sodium levels in the dressings and marinades of the protein in a fancy salad bowl - let's just say, not all salads are created equal.

Be careful of that soup dish too. About 80 per cent of adult Singapore residents exceed the salt intake recommendation of less than 5g per day. Don’t empty your bowl when having fish soup or yong tau fu with clear soup, as the soup could also be loaded with sodium.

The more we advocate for change, the easier healthy eating will be when dining out, and in turn, the happier our doctors will be.

French lawyer and gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."

Embracing healthy eating does not mean bidding farewell to your culinary heritage. The journey is about slowly integrating new habits with your old favourites, creating a balanced and delightful dance of flavours on your plate. With time, your taste buds will adapt and you will realise that moderation and mindful choices are the true keys to a satisfying and healthy culinary journey.

Susan Tan is the president of the Society of Behavioural Health, Singapore, and founder of ECI Consulting Holdings, a public health social enterprise. Nurliyana Daros is on the executive committee of the Society of Behavioural Health, Singapore, and a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University.

Any views or opinions represented in this article are personal and do not represent the organisations that the author may or may not be associated with in a professional or personal capacity.

Source: CNA/aj


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