Straits Times Life!: Our love-hate relationship with fast food needs an intervention

Straits Times Life!: Our love-hate relationship with fast food needs an intervention

An Opinion piece in Straits Times written by Chan Fang Lynn. Published 25 Nov 2023. Link to the article can be found here.

“Made with 100 per cent wild Alaskan pollock,” the McDonald’s advertisement at MRT stations and bus stops kept telling me.

Fast food is not part of my diet, but I eventually caved in and ordered a Filet-O-Fish meal, lured by the slick ubiquitous advertising, and curious to see if it lived up to the hype.

It’s not just seductive advertising. Fast food’s popularity in Singapore is rising because such meals are easily available and relatively cheap, despite its lack of nutritional value.

In Singapore, the healthy choice is not always going to be the easiest choice. 

Singaporeans eat out most of the time because of their busy lifestyles, and there is no beating the convenience of getting a “value meal” quickly – a set meal complete with fries, burger and a drink for under $10 is a good deal in these times of rising prices.

You cannot turn a corner without seeing a fast-food outlet; a lot of them are never closed and ready to serve you 24/7, making them not only a go-to place for a meal anytime of the day, but also a good air-conditioned hangout spot in sweltering Singapore.

It is a familiar sight – groups of school kids, clutching their cups of soda and munching on fries, hanging out at a fast-food restaurant, the go-to place to meet friends after school. Their influence on our children is pervasive.

In this age of social media, fast-food places have also ramped up their interior design to make them more Instagram-worthy spaces, in addition to the indoor kid-friendly areas that cater to families. 

During the last June school holidays, McDonald’s had a Shake ’N Dip Fest 2023, a weekend family fun event with bouncy castles, ball pits and film screenings to promote its Honey Butter McShaker Fries and Chicken McNuggets with Cajun sauce. The message is that fast food is fun and good for the whole family.

Then there is marketing playing a big part in pushing the popularity of fast food. Promotional menu items with a “local twist” such as McDonald’s nasi lemak burger or KFC chicken porridge pique the interest of diners game to try the latest thing.

When we are not eating out, we “dabao” food or order takeaway. With deals on free delivery and loyalty credits, why bother whipping up something in the kitchen?

No wonder home-cooked meals are hard to come by. A survey in 2015 found that only 22 per cent of Singaporean households cook at home almost every day, compared with 49 per cent in cities such as Shanghai and London. 

It is not difficult to see why: After a long day at work, who has time to buy the 10 ingredients to cook a proper meal, when a quick trip to the fried chicken place nearby, with its yummy spicy wings, will do the trick?

Time for an intervention

To counter the pervasiveness of fast food and encourage healthier eating, the Government implemented various policies and initiatives to promote healthier eating and combat diet-related health issues, including advocating cutting back on salt and putting healthier choice logos on packaging

The Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) Healthier Dining Programme works with food establishments, including restaurants, hawker centres and fast-food outlets, to offer healthier menu options. These include dishes with lower sodium and higher fibre, and having stalls offering brown instead of white rice.

HPB’s Healthy Meals in Schools Programme involves teachers, canteen vendors and students in encouraging healthier food and beverage choices in the canteen, and “help students cultivate healthy eating habits right from their youth”. Guidelines for vendors include cutting down fat, sugar and sodium; serving wholegrain, fruit and vegetables; and offering meals from the four main food groups to ensure students get the necessary nutrients.

Even fast-food companies now offer healthier options, letting diners switch fries out for corn, soda for juice and having meat-free, plant-based burgers.

But are all these actions enough to move the needle on the hold that fast food has on us, and make us eat better? Although there is increased awareness and availability of healthy options, what is also needed is a re-framing of our mindset on how we look at food.

To really make a difference, our palette needs to be “reprogrammed” to prefer natural whole foods.

By definition, whole foods are foods that are as close to their natural state as possible, minimally processed, and free from additives or artificial substances. Fast-food items are the opposite of this – they contain empty calories with no real nutritional value, and are high in saturated fats from a combination of processed ingredients and seed oils.

Our taste buds are wired by such food to hanker for them more because of the flavour-boosting preservatives and additives. Our stressful lifestyle makes us reach for comfort food, for that greasy burger that is readily available, relatively cheap and totally satisfying.

Perhaps a more targeted approach is needed. 

Making it mandatory to include the nutritional and caloric value of a quarter pounder is a good idea, but a better message to convey is that not all calories are created equal.

The 420 calories in a micronutrient-laden bowl of quinoa with grilled zucchini and salmon, topped with a chimichurri sauce, will do more good for your health than the 420 calories in that burger. As whole foods are often less calorie-dense than processed foods, they are more filling due to their higher fibre content. You feel satiated with fewer calories.

Most fast-food chains use ultra-processed seed oils, like sunflower and canola, to fry their fries, mainly because they are cheaper than higher-quality, less-refined oils. Such refined oils are stripped of nutrients and high in omega-6 fatty acids that contribute to the onset of chronic illnesses and inflammation in the body.

Any exhortation to watch your calories has to be followed by a message on the benefits of eating more whole foods.

The micronutrients and vitamins in a whole foods diet will not only boost overall health, but also improve your sleep, moods and mental well-being. In comparison, a diet of ultra-processed food with its high glycaemic index can cause rapid spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels, leading to irritability, fatigue and mood swings.

Flipping our taste buds cannot happen overnight. The addictive nature of fast foods means there is no switch you can turn on to kick-start the process of preferring more unprocessed foods. 

Overhauling your diet takes time, and a good start is by introducing small habits, like reaching for an apple with almond butter instead of a pack of potato chips. I started by having a green apple every day before dinner.

Still adamant on getting your junk food fix? One way is to add more vegetables in your burger, or opt for the small portion of french fries alongside a packet of apple slices. Simple swops allow for more leeway in having “cheat days” when a quick burger meal is the only option.

Changing course

I did not enjoy my Filet-O-Fish meal, probably because I knew I was not getting much nutrition from it.

We are all guilty of caving in to a new taste experience – the salted egg bagel or chocolate-dipped churros. After a stressful day, sometimes junk food, like a greasy, fatty, sugar-laden treat, fills a void.

Perhaps when it comes to eating habits, a simple approach is best. For instance, people in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, where many live to be 100 years old or more, remind themselves before the start of a meal to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 per cent full.

Another way is to start preparing your own meals at home, which is not as difficult or time-consuming as some would think. If we can spend time doomscrolling on Instagram, we can easily make time for building a pantry of staples such as herbs and spices, and google simple recipes.

And it is probably cheaper to buy raw materials to cook meals that can be kept in batches for the week ahead and can be savoured at the end of the workday, instead of ordering a mee goreng from the prata place.

Finding the right diet that fits our individual needs and lifestyle requires having the knowledge of how the food we eat impacts us nutritionally, and then working out how to eat better at every meal.

I am a big believer in intuitive eating, where I tune in to my body’s cues on hunger and fullness to decide what and how I consume. This is a non-restrictive pattern of eating that lets me indulge in my cravings for comfort food like ice cream during that time of the month.

After a couple of years of being on a largely whole-foods diet, I now do not care for the taste of processed food.

Fast food is not going anywhere any time soon, so we need to adopt healthier eating habits by changing our mindsets on what we consume. Everyone should embark on this life-long journey towards a more informed and sustainable relationship with food.

  • Chan Fang Lynn is the founder of home-based business Loaded Gun Kitchen, which sells plant-based dips and spreads.