Think Eating Healthy is Hard in Singapore? Here’s Why It’s Even Harder on a Budget

eating healthy on a budget singapore

Although 99% of the people on Singapore streets still look like sticks to me, according to many anxious news reports, Singaporeans are actually getting fatter. And even if you’re all “love your body”, being overweight might put you at a higher risk of heart disease or diabetes. To put things in perspective, it seemed like about 50% of the people at my previous workplace had diabetes.

So you’ve decided to start losing some weight. But take a look around you and you’ll discover it’s close to impossible in Singapore, especially if you’re on a budget. Here’s why.

1. Cheap food in Singapore is usually unhealthy

Everyone in Singapore knows the cheapest places to eat at are hawker centres and food courts. In fact, with even McDonald’s inflating their prices, they are virtually the only places where you can get a meal for $5 or less.

But try as you might to convince yourself that fish soup or yong tau foo are healthy, they aren’t. Well, sure, a bowl of fish soup might be healthier than eating five big Macs and then smoking a whole pack of cigarettes. And a couple of bowls aren’t going to instantly turn you obese.

Over time, however, the high salt content and MSG will cause bloating, ill health and eventually lead to weight gain.

If you don’t believe me, check out this post written by a blogger who ate every meal at hawker centres for a week.

2. Cooking at home takes time

When you eat out you really have no idea what they’re feeding you and how many times the food on your plate accidentally fell to the ground on the journey from kitchen to table.

In addition, if you could witness first-hand how much oil and salt the cook added to your meal, you might actually lose your appetite.

Obviously, cooking at home gives you the greatest control over what you put in your body. But guess what—Singaporeans just don’t have the time to cook. A 2002 study showed that 32% of teenagers did not have home-cooked food since both their parents were working.

With some of the longest working hours in the world, Singaporeans just don’t have the time to constantly run to the grocery store and prepare dinner, let alone make lunch in advance to take to the office.

3. Eating out is the most common form of socialising

What’s there to do in Singapore? Nothing except shopping and eating, cry most people. And food and drink are pretty much the only things people do when they socialise. Even if you eat lettuce leaves at home on Saturday, get invited to a buffet by your friends on Sunday and there goes your diet.

To make matters worse, eating is a national sport in Singapore and regular people actually monitor the opening of new restaurants and, most recently, cafes.

If you actually have a social life and leave the house for reasons other than work, chances are you’ll find yourself tucking in to a slice of cake at a hipster café or stuffing your face with dim sum on a steamy afternoon.

 When you’re socialising, staying healthy gets even harder as you’re more likely to opt for a big night out at Chomp Chomp or Korean BBQ. Unless your friends are health nuts or vegetarian, most Singaporeans turn up their noses at paying good money when large amounts of meat or alcohol aren’t included.

4. Food is all around, 24/7

To make matters worse, in Singapore, the sun never goes down on food, especially unhealthy options. Hungry and bored at 3 in the morning? No problem, just nip downstairs for a quick prata and Milo Dinosaur. Emerging all hot and sweaty from a club at 5am? Time for some bak kut teh.

Not only does this mean you have ample opportunities to stuff your face virtually any time of day, it also makes people less observant of mealtimes. Many of my friends who work till 9 or 10pm every day often have dinner at 11pm or eat at the office and then follow up with supper after work.

While it’s true that late night options tend to be cheaper than eating at restaurants that open specifically for lunch or dinner, let’s just say that you’re not going to be appearing on the cover of Men’s Health anytime soon if you keep up those nightly satay sessions.

What’s a helpless dieter to do?

Here at MoneySmart, we don’t like to use the word “doomed” unless we have to. So we’re going to say that there is a way out of this sticky situation that doesn’t involve doing Crossfit. And while we don’t claim to be stopping traffic with our abs of steel, here are some tips that will have you looking better than us without having to turn to loan sharks.

  1. Look for specialty salad joints: While it’s true that it’s pretty difficult to get a healthy meal in Singapore for under $5, if you up your budget to $10, it’s doable. Specialty salad joints usually throw together filling salads for a reasonable price, and you get to pick your own ingredients and sauce. Here are some cheap ones:
    • My Salad Bowl, Golden Shoe Car Park, 50 Market Street, #03-10 – A stall at the Market Street Hawker Centre (Golden Shoe) serving up fresh salads for about $5
    • Sumo Salad, 313 Somerset Road – Salads from $6.50 to $7.50
    • Salads and Wraps, 12 Gopeng St – Salads from $7.50 to $9.50, wraps $7.50 to $8
  2. Cook healthy meals in bulk at home – If you have no time to cook every night, spend one day over the weekend making healthy meals in bulk and then store them in the fridge or freezer. We like this salad-in-a-jar idea.
  3. Buy healthy read-to-eat items at the supermarket. No, sorry, that doesn’t mean you get to make a beeline for the instant pizza or ice cream. There are ready made salads (substitute the sauce for extra virgin olive oil) and sushi for those who are too lazy or too time-strapped to cook.

Do you have any trouble eating healthily without spending huge amounts of money? Let us know in the comments!