Diabetes is one of the most common health conditions among older Singaporeans. Studies have shown that the proportion of Singapore's population aged 18 to 69 years old with diabetes has increased from 7.3 per cent in 1992 to 8.6 per cent in 2017.
Diabetes arises when our body becomes less sensitive to insulin, a hormone that normally keeps our blood sugar levels within control. This causes blood sugar levels to suddenly become very high or very low, leading to long-term health consequences like heart diseases and stroke.
Eating out at the hawker centre might seem like a bad idea for someone with diabetes. How do we know which local foods are healthy for someone with diabetes? Wouldn't a seemingly "healthy"-looking dish be high in sugar, salt or other unhealthy ingredients?
Fortunately, eating at the hawker centre is not an option that needs to be completely ruled out for someone with diabetes. In this article, we will talk about what you should look out for to decide if some foods are diabetes-friendly.
We will also suggest some foods you can eat and others that you should avoid the next time you go to the hawker centre.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes, also known by its scientific name diabetes mellitus, is a chronic health condition. Our pancreas produces a hormone called insulin when our blood sugar levels increase, which usually happens shortly after a meal.
Insulin converts the sugar in our blood into glycogen which then causes our blood sugar levels to drop. For someone with diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin or cannot use insulin effectively, which causes blood sugar levels to become more unstable.
There are two general types of diabetes mellitus: Type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes is a condition that is present from birth and results when our pancreas cannot produce enough insulin. Type 2 diabetes arises later in life and happens when your body can no longer use insulin effectively.
Both types of diabetes require you to watch your diet to avoid foods that could make your condition worse.
What to look out for in diabetes-friendly foods
It is important for people with diabetes to have a balanced diet including foods from different food groups. In addition, here are some nutrients that you should look out for when choosing foods that are good for a diabetes diet:
Eating more complex carbohydrates is better for people with diabetes. Complex carbohydrates include foods like wholemeal bread, pasta and brown rice, which take a longer time to break down in the body than refined carbohydrates such as white rice and foods made with refined sugar.
This is good for people with diabetes as it causes one's blood sugar levels to rise more slowly. This also prevents damage to the blood vessels caused when blood that is high in sugar flows through the arteries.
Since diabetes is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, it is important to eat foods that help to promote good heart health. Such foods include those which contain unsaturated fats which promote levels of "good" cholesterol in the blood.
Foods with unsaturated fats help to stabilise your heart rate and prevent inflammation. These lower your risk of heart-related complications and help to prevent other major health problems in the future. Such foods include avocados, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and fish.
Being overweight is associated with a higher risk of various health problems. People with diabetes who were also overweight were found to have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure and stroke.
To keep your weight at a healthy level, you should watch the amount of calories you take in which largely comes from carbohydrates.
You gain weight when you take in more calories than your body needs for daily activities. When choosing food options, go for foods you know will be low in calories, and are boiled or steamed.
What is hidden sugar count?
In some discussions about food that is good for people with diabetes, you might have come across the term "hidden sugar count". Hidden sugar count refers to added sugars that might be present in everyday foods and ingredients which we would not normally think has sugar.
Examples include salad dressings, ketchup, pasta sauces, and flavoured yoghurt. All of these foods might include more sugar than one might expect.
When you buy groceries at the supermarket, read the nutritional information label to check how much sugar it has. Sugar is usually indicated in grams per serving on such labels.
Measuring the hidden sugar count of common local foods can be more difficult since they often do not come with nutritional information. For reference, we will include the hidden sugar count of certain hawker foods in teaspoons.
5 diabetes-friendly foods you can find in hawker centres
Chapati is a traditional Indian dish consisting of flatbread pancakes made of sourdough that can be served with a variety of condiments. One piece of chapati has just 70 calories and no added sugar, making it a great option for people with diabetes who are watching their diet and weight.
Chapati is also often served with lentils which are a rich source of dietary protein, especially for vegetarians and vegans. Choose chapati which is made with whole wheat flour and select vegetable-based side dishes for added fibre and nutrients.
Popiah can be a healthy option because its diverse ingredients provide a variety of nutrients while being low in sugar. Popiah can be rich in fibre because it contains many different types of vegetables like turnip, jicama (also known by its Malay name bangkuang ), bean sprouts and lettuce leaves.
One serving of popiah contains just 187 calories, half the amount you would get from eating similar dishes like fried spring rolls. Avoid eating fried popiah as it is higher in saturated fats which can worsen heart problems.
3. Sliced fish bee hoon
Low in sugar and calories, sliced fish bee hoon is a good option if you are looking for a noodle dish at your local hawker centre. The fish used is commonly steamed rather than fried, making it a healthier choice as it contains less cholesterol.
Furthermore, fish contains omega-3 fatty acids that are good for heart health. Avoid drinking the soup to prevent taking in additional salt and MSG.
4. Thunder tea rice
Thunder tea rice is a vegetarian Hakka dish also known by its Chinese name, lei cha fan. This dish may be an acquired taste for some because of the strong bitter taste of the thick green herbal paste that it is served with.
Nonetheless, it is a good source of fibre and antioxidants as it contains many different types of vegetables like cabbage, long beans, and pickled radish. Some stalls even serve the dish made with brown rice which is a healthier option especially for people with diabetes.
Brown rice is a complex carbohydrate, so it will cause your blood sugar to rise more slowly after a meal.
5. Unsweetened soy milk
Finally you can wash down your meal with a cup of soy milk, also known in Hokkien as tau huay jui . Make sure to order your soy milk with no sugar to enjoy the health benefits while minimising your sugar intake.
Soy milk is higher in protein compared to other plant-based milks like almond milk and oat milk, at seven to 12g per eight-ounce serving. You can even drink a cup of unsweetened chin chow (soy milk with grass jelly) for added antioxidants that are naturally found in lemongrass.
5 unhealthy foods to avoid in hawker centres
1. Chee cheong fun
The iconic sweet sauce served over the thick rice noodles found in chee cheong fun is dangerous for the blood sugar levels of people with diabetes. Just two pieces of chee cheong fun contain a whopping seven teaspoons of sugar.
This is as much sugar as can be found in three bowls of laksa! This is a dish that people with diabetes should definitely avoid to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
2. Lor mee
Lor mee has thick yellow noodles served in thick, starchy gravy with toppings including fried fish, hard-boiled eggs and slices of fishcake. As the noodles and gravy contain a lot of starch, each bowl of lor mee also contains a lot of calories at 383 calories per bowl.
Lor mee seasonings alone contain one and a half teaspoons of sugar. In addition, the gravy is high in sodium, and consuming too much sodium can be damaging to the kidneys.
3. Mee rebus
Mee rebus is high in refined carbohydrates because it uses yellow egg noodles and the gravy is made with brown palm sugar. Refined carbohydrates cause your blood sugar levels to spike quickly after a meal. This leads to hypertension that causes a rapid heart rate, blurred vision and dizziness.
Furthermore, the dish is high in calories as one plate of mee rebus contains 559 calories. Eating a lot of high-calorie foods will cause you to gain weight more easily. Being overweight is linked to worse health complications with diabetes.
Rojak is a salad dish that consists of various types of chopped fruits, vegetables and seafood drenched in a palm sugar dressing and topped with shredded peanuts. The palm sugar dressing is what contributes to rojak's high sugar content.
If you want to eat rojak, try to have it without the sugar dressing and share it with a friend to reduce your sugar and caloric intake. You can also eat fruits on their own in moderation as they are a healthy source of natural sugar and vitamin C. People with diabetes should have no more than two servings of fruits a day.
5. Roti prata
Each piece of roti prata contains half a teaspoon of sugar. However, this does not include additional sugar that can come from the sides and toppings that we usually eat prata with. Many people eat roti prata with additional white sugar on the side.
Even savoury varieties of roti prata, like roti prata with egg or onion, can be high in calories and unsaturated fat because of the ghee used to cook the dish. If you want to eat roti prata, try to limit yourself to no more than two pieces of plain prata in a serving.
The next time you visit a hawker centre for a meal, you now know what to get for yourself or a loved one suffering from diabetes. Even if you do not have any existing illnesses, it is always important to maintain a healthy diet and be more conscious of what goes into your body.
If you or a loved one is still struggling with other aspects of living with diabetes, Homage has trained Care Professionals who are able to help you with diabetes care and management at home.
We are able to provide medical advice and health screenings at home, administer insulin and diabetes medication and keep track of you or your loved one's vital signs. With Homage, you can rest easy knowing that we have got you covered.
This article was first published in Homage.