Here’s the truth about the actual benefits of Singapore’s health food trends

Gone are the days of fast food domination. These days, it’s cool to eat clean.

Unfortunately, many people jump from one superfood trend to the next without first finding out how these foods can affect them.

Before trying out a new diet, Derrick Ong, lead dietitian and director of Eat Right Nutrition Consultancy, recommends that you check if your diet has these three things – balance, variety and moderation.

To help you decide if your diet is right for you, we went behind the marketing material of some of Singapore’s favourite health foods, and asked experts about the truth behind these seven popular health food trends:

1) Juices

The Straits Times

Dr Heng Kiang Soon, a lecturer at Republic Polytechnic’s School of Applied Science, says the nutritional value of fruit juice really depends on what’s in it. Needless to say, fruits with higher sugar content will produce juices with higher sugar levels.

Juices are also low in insoluble fibre, which is what is needed to delay the absorption of sugar. “Without insoluble fibre, the sugars (and also other nutrients) will be digested and absorbed faster into bloodstream,” Dr Heng says.

Instead of juicing, Dr Heng suggests blending whole fruits and vegetables together so that the insoluble fibre content is not lost.

Still, if you are embarking on a juice-only diet, Dr Heng advises against consuming only fruit and vegetable juices in the long-term as they do not provide the full range of nutrients required for metabolism.

“In the short term, a juice detox diet may be practiced under professional advice to ensure nutritional adequacy of the person,” he adds.

2) Brown rice

The Straits Times

More and more people are ditching the fluffy white rice in their meals with bowls of nutrient-filled brown rice.

“Brown rice is rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients, and this wholegrain is definitely more nutritious than white rice,” Mr Ong says.

Nonetheless, people who suffer from constipation, kidney disease, difficulty swallowing and malnutrition should not take brown rice. “Brown rice tends to be higher in potassium than white rice, so people with kidney problems may want to be cautious about over-consuming brown rice,” Mr Ong tells us.

Some experts have also warned against taking too much brown rice because of its phytic acid content. According to Dr Heng, phytic acid “is an anti-nutrient as it binds with minerals such as iron, calcium and magnesium and inhibits their absorption into the body through the intestine”.

But there is a simple solution to that. “Research has shown that soaking grains in water before cooking can significantly cut down their phytic acid content. Even cooking itself will further reduce the phytic acid level,” Dr Heng says.

Soaking brown rice overnight before cooking can also enhance its palatability, he adds.

3) Gluten-free food

The Straits Times

From cakes to pizza dough, many Singaporeans are opting for gluten-free alternatives in their meals.

However, scientists at Harvard have found that unless you have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, going gluten-free is not actually going to improve your health. The long-running study also discovered that people who ate the most gluten were at no greater risk for a heart attack than those who ate the least of it.

What they found instead, was that those who consumed less gluten also ate less dietary fibre and whole grains, which can help to prevent type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Dr Heng explains: “Unless one is diagnosed with any of the gluten-related allergies or sensitivity, it is not usually necessary to avoid gluten-containing foods or to go for a gluten-free diet”.

Nonetheless, Dr Heng says going gluten-free can be a good dietary practice as long as your diet is balanced and meets your nutritional requirements.

4) Coconut water

Lianhe Zaobao

Coconut water’s popularity is rising thanks to its high electrolyte and low sugar content.

Take note though: As it is easily spoiled by microbial growth and enzymatic reaction after being exposed to air, Dr Heng says coconut water is best consumed fresh.

Moreover, packaged coconut water may have lost some of its nutrients and flavour in the packaging process, prompting some manufacturers to enhance its taste with sugar. Hence, it is also unwise to drink too much packaged coconut water if you’re trying to lose weight.

One way of ensuring that you are drinking additive-free coconut water is to check the product’s contents and look out for the Healthier Choice Symbol on the package, he says.

5) Chia seeds

The Straits Times

One of the most well-known superfoods in Singapore, the chia seed has an exotic sounding name and is high in nutritional content. While it is a great health food, there is some concern that the health benefits of superfoods such as this are often exaggerated.

Mr Ong says that chia seeds are popular a weight-loss food as they swell up in water and promote satiety. But this can be problematic for some people as it can cause uncomfortable bloating as a result.

As a nutrient-dense food, chia seeds may also interfere with certain medications and treatments, and people who wish to add it to their diet should check with their doctor beforehand.

6) Avocado

The Straits Times

The avocado’s buttery goodness is hard to resist, and you might find yourself adding an entire fruit to your salad twice a day. It’s healthy fat, so eating more of it should be good for you, right? Well, not exactly.

According to Mr Ong, ⅓ of an average avocado contains around 140 kcal of energy. When blended, an avocado shake – without added sugar- can easily contain about 300 kcal.

“A useful tip to make sure you don’t overdo the calories is to ask for less (or no) sugar, and to avoid ‘upsizing’ the shake. If having the shake with a meal, consider having a lighter meal with less calories to avoid busting the calorie budget for the meal or the day,” he says.

In a similar vein, Dr Heng says it is better to make sure you exercise moderation and variety when consuming fruits like avocados. “Do not just limit yourself to one type of fruit. Instead, take a variety of fruits to obtain various types of phytochemicals and nutrients. Including an avocado into a daily diet is fine as long as the total caloric intake is still within a healthy range,” he suggests.

7) Kale

Shin Min

Why people love kale is plain to see – it’s packed with numerous phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and fibre, and can help prevent a variety of illnesses.

Despite the benefits, some experts recommend that people with thyroid problems should stay away from kale, or speak to their doctors before adding the dark leafy green to their diets. This is because kale contains a type of anti-nutrient called glucosinolate, which can inhibit the absorption of iodine by the thyroid gland.

But Dr Heng assures us that this is unlikely to be a problem unless you consume an unusually large amount of kale. Furthermore, glucosinolates can be degraded by heat, so eating kale cooked instead of raw will help resolve this problem.

Kale does, however, contain raffinose, which can cause bloating and gas problems for those with sensitive digestive systems. This doesn’t mean you have to cut out kale completely from your diet though – you just have to avoid overdoing it.