SINGAPORE: News of A&W opening at Jewel Changi Airport have taken the nation by storm, or should I say by a flurry of curly fries and frothy root beer.
Those in my generation who still vividly recall sipping root beer at one of the many A&W outlets littered across Singapore are understandably nostalgic. There was much comfort to be found in a glass of root beer float when one was mugging for the exams or dealing with regular teenage angst.
Advertisements by fast food joints usually capitalise on similar emotions.
They feature images of happy couples and families to tap our innate desire for love and connection. Images of cute babies trigger a release of endorphins. Toys and ice cream draw the hearts and minds of young children.
With health-consciousness on the rise, such advertising typically also feature fresh, crisp greens to sell the idea that their products are healthy and wholesome.
Although most of us try to curb the consumption of fast food in our daily diet, sometimes convenience and hearing our children’s shouts of hurray tear down the defences of even the best of us.
Around 44 per cent of Singaporeans eat fast food one to three times per week in 2018, according to Statista. A similar percentage (39 per cent) consumes it less than once a week.
There were 477 fast food outlets in Singapore in 2016, generating operating receipts of over S$1 billion, according to Singstat.
It’s not surprising that fast food ranks quite highly on the Singaporean agenda, given our busy lifestyles and the proliferation of fast-food outlets.
Plus, the unbearable heat of some afternoons make it extra tempting to duck into the first joint you can find, just to hide from the heat.
But should we be allowing these things to sway us from our resolve to eat healthily as a family, and more importantly inculcate good food habits in our young?
HOW BAD IS FAST FOOD?
Ask anyone and they’d tell you that fast food isn’t the best kind of food to include in your diet. But exactly why is it so bad?
The term “fast food” generally refers to foods that are rich in energy (read: calories) but low in important nutrients.
They are typically processed and high in fat, sodium and sugar. A diet that features fast food regularly is associated with increased body mass index and obesity, along with related health issues like hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
But hasn’t fast food changed its ways to keep up with the times?
In recent years, to meet the rise in demand for healthy food options, fast food giant McDonald’s has rolled out new menu items such as salads and wraps, revealed caloric counts of its foods, and included apple slices and corn cups in kids’ happy meals.
Could these multi-national companies expand their menu variety even more and make changes to their food sourcing and preparation, such as limiting the amount of salt they sprinkle over French fries?
This is what a recent Forbes story suggested while highlighting the financial-moral conundrum that surrounds the global fast food industry: It provides jobs for locals, but also contributes to a rise in obesity levels in the country.
One solution put forward is to “slow down” the sector by using more local produce and expanding the availability of healthy and affordable options.
However, a recent study funded by the US Department of Agriculture shows the industry seems to have headed the other direction. It found the portion size and calorie content offered by most American popular fast food restaurants have increased over the past three decades.
The calorie count of mains has increased by 90, while the portion size grew by 39 grams, another research in the Journal of the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Can we really imagine a world where fast food is more sustainable for life, and for growing children?
THE TYRANNY OF CONVENIENCE
It’s hard to deny – fast food is an attractive option for busy families, even when most of us regular joes do our best to put healthy food on the table for the most part of the week.
It is an easy win because of the taste, affordability, speed, and convenience (it can even be delivered to your doorstep).
For some families where parents have to work extended or odd hours to put food on the table, it’s almost impossible to whip up a wholesome home-cooked meal in less than 30 minutes.
In such situations, instant noodles or a ham and cheese sandwich could likely be a daily affair. How can children from lower-income families get the nutrition they need in order to function well in school?
We all know that nutritious food is essential for the healthy development of a child. With the right conditions and resources, we would try to feed our children the most nutrient-dense foods we can provide.
Yet in our time-stretched and stressful realities, it is easier said than done.
Wendell Steavenson, in a Financial Times article, puts it succinctly: “…the rise of fast-food, vending machines, takeaways and online delivery services all encourage a food culture of constant, instant gratification.”
Although I try my best not to make fast food a regular feature in our diet, there is a small part of me that holds fond memories of dining out at McDonald’s when I was young. A hotcakes happy meal would make my Saturday complete, in my young mind.
As a family, we do eat fast food on occasions, even though I spend a fair amount of that time lecturing the kids about how unhealthy fries and nuggets are – all while being aware of how hypocritical it sounds since I’m also digging in.
We limit their intake of store-bought juices to two to three times a week. And we don’t allow soft drinks at all, citing the convenient excuse that it is not only high in sugar but it also causes bloatedness.
BE AWARE OF WHAT WE EAT
So most of us have this love-hate relationship with fast food but it isn’t the only thing that irks us. Because of the long hours children spend in school, we’re also expected to pack healthy snacks for them daily.
Snack planning can be a stressful affair. Apart from a handful of healthier options like nuts or whole-wheat buns, I fret over what to provide that would be palatable and unspoilt by noon the next day.
Perhaps the problem lies not only in how readily available fast food is, but also how hard it is to find wholesome foods on the go.
Healthy eating is a daily dilemma, and at the moment it appears that no one is winning.
Even for families who eat clean and healthy, there are areas where we are willing to settle for less.
But as a wise friend once said, we should aim to eat well 70 per cent of the time, and allow some wriggle room for indulgences.
Now with the opening of Jewel Changi Airport, the indulgence of the moment might just be an icy glass of root beer float, or maybe a juicy burger at Shake Shack.
And while there’s nothing wrong with rewarding ourselves, let’s be more aware of how fast or slow our daily diet is – and aim to dial back on the frenetic pace of life and food.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.