SINGAPORE: “I would like to eat healthily, but work has just been too busy for me.”
That’s a common lament dietitians like me hear. Indeed, long working hours, a hectic work schedule, and even working from home after office hours are common in Singapore, with its reputation as one of the most competitive countries globally.
In schools, Singaporean students are similarly feeling the pressure, spending twice the amount of time on homework weekly as compared to the global average, according to 2012 findings by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
With competing priorities including family responsibilities and a packed social life, healthy eating inevitably takes a backseat.
NO TIME TO EAT HEALTHILY AT WORK
About one-third of Singaporean working professionals reported having lunch breaks at their desks at least four times a week, according to a 2016 Herbalife survey.
After slaving away over a busy morning, many gravitate towards unhealthy quick fixes for lunch based on impulsive decisions. Oftentimes, these are foods which are rich in fast-acting carbohydrates that cause blood sugars to rise and drop more rapidly, potentially affecting energy levels at work.
When our lunch doesn’t satisfy us, we rely on office pantry snacks and sugary drinks, which are low in nutrients yet packed with energy, racking up our calorie intake. And revenue data suggests potato chips form the bulk of snack foods we consume.
Where colleagues take turns to buy lunch back to save time, they often order in bulk based on the dish the majority decides on, meaning we may end up consuming foods that are not as nutritious as we would like them to be.
Many skip breakfast, but this inadvertently leads to overeating at lunch, and has been associated with a higher body mass index. Others load up on nasi lemak, prata or fried beehoon with sausage for brunch so that they can skip lunch.
GAINING WEIGHT, SLEEPING LATER, EATING SUPPER
Guess how much weight the average Singaporean gains in one decade after starting work? 4kg.
Healthy eating is a massive challenge for working Singaporeans, in part because it’s a small reflection of the larger unhealthy habits we subject ourselves to.
Half of Singapore workers work after office hours more than thrice a week, according to Regus surveys.
Many go to bed late, at an average of 11.45pm, which is among the latest of 100 countries surveyed by the University of Michigan.
Those who eat late-night suppers tend to choose high-calorie meals like fried rice or fried noodles.
NO TIME TO COOK FOOD
Much as many desire to put together a healthy home-cooked meal for the family, picking up a pan may be the last thing on our minds after a long work shift.
The notion of fuss-free dining outside of homes, with zero need for food preparation and washing up, is such an appealing option.
Hawker centres and fast food restaurants top our lists, given their affordability, accessibility and addictively tasty offerings. Takeaways are also a popular option, with the rise of online food delivery platforms that readily offer your favourite dining options.
TAKE A STEP BACK
Perhaps we ought to take a step back in the midst of busyness to ponder over what really matters. Are we happy with our current eating habits and lifestyle?
If we continue, what would likely happen in the future? Envisioning where we want to be in the future can help us begin taking steps towards it.
Translating this into practice means not just altering our diets but our habits. It may begin with making breakfast a regular habit. A bowl of muesli soaked in milk overnight in the fridge or wholegrain bread with peanut butter make a quick nutritious breakfast.
Paying attention to our environment, by replacing energy-dense, low-nutrient snacks in our office pantry and home kitchen with a small stash of wholegrain crackers, fresh fruit and low-fat yoghurt, can be helpful. This way, we are more likely to reach for a healthier snack when hunger pangs strike.
If home-cooked meals are not an option, there are plenty of healthier choices available with Singapore’s diverse food scene. Yong tau foo, beehoon soto, and chapati are some healthier affordable local options available in hawker centres and food courts flanking workplaces.
Healthy eating at the workplace is now made more convenient with takeaway sushi and salad counters in supermarkets in working districts. Singapore’s multi-ethnic cuisine also offers healthier international fare like Thai tom yum seafood soup, Vietnamese pho, and Korean Bibimbap.
During peak work periods, avoiding the lunch crowd by putting together a quick lunch at the office can also be a real time-saver. A can of tuna flakes, some wholegrain bread slices, and a handful of cherry tomatoes are a recipe for a nutritious meal ready in seconds.
With a number of vitamins and minerals being linked to mood and energy, consuming a balanced diet with adequate vegetables and fruits enable us to feel our best and perform better at work.
Healthy eating and doing well at work need not be mutually exclusive. Food is fuel for the day and making intelligent decisions about food is key to achieving top workplace performance.
By setting goals, planning ahead, and making healthier choices an easier option to reach for each time a food decision presents itself, we may develop healthy eating habits over time.
Months later, we could be pleasantly surprised with how far this takes us.
Ng Zi Ling Jolyn Johal is Senior Dietitian at the National University Hospital.