Ask anyone what the value of pi is or to cite the mass-energy equivalence formula and most people will be able to confidently answer (they are 3.142 and E=mc², by the way). But ask about what the recommended energy intake values for males and females and you will likely see more blank faces.
It is interesting to note that for some things much less often used by the average person, those mathematical formulae are more known than how much energy one should consume in a day to maintain good bodily function and weight. This is not just a Singaporean phenomenon—it is common in other countries as well.
The Fight Over Sugar
While the war against obesity has been ongoing, albeit the prospect of a ceasefire is nowhere in sight, the battle against diabetes has recently been on the national headlines, beginning with the debate on our increasing consumption of sugar, of which sugary drinks and sodas are the mascots.
The Ministry of Health has in recent days begun consulting experts and the public on how we can all tackle our unhealthy love for sugar that has led to Singaporeans experiencing an increased risk of diabetes. Some measures and regulations proposed include an outright ban or taxing some packaged sweet drinks, tightening or introducing new regulations on advertising sweet drinks labels and requiring manufacturers to label nutritional values on their products.
With the authorities sending strong signals to food manufacturers of their intent to combat diabetes, food and beverage companies may find a newfound impetus to offer healthier options.
But Is That Enough?
You will not need a nutrition expert to tell you that the key to preventing weight gain is simply eating as many calories as you are spending in a day, and the easily understood way to lose weight is to consume less than you spend.
But do you know what to eat and what not to eat to achieve those? What kind of diet should you adopt? What are some innocent-looking products that are actually filled with sugary mischief?
Many of us are unaware, and most of us do not realise that our combined love for pastries, confectionery, local favourites and soda are busting our sugar roofs. Some of our favourites are so energy-dense and our habits so unhealthy that regular exercise is not enough to keep the weight off.
To combat this, perhaps it’s high time to revisit the practice of counting calories.
Know Your Enemy
The famous Chinese military tactician Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not to fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
This is true in the war against diabetes and obesity too! Knowing our nutrition, diet, metabolism and activity needs as well as the calories in our food, and actively balancing the equation can give us the much-needed edge to stay healthy. By counting calories, we can control portions of our favourites without having to swear off them altogether, prioritise the essentials over the indulgence, and make nutrition something less arbitrary.
Pure Regulation Is Impossible
During a discussion organised by the Ministry of Health, some participants in the dialogue stated that just regulating packaged sweetened drinks is not going far enough and that it should be extended to the rest of the food and beverage industry like restaurants, cafes and bars. Although it is reasonable, regulating the entire industry is not possible.
For instance, freshly-prepared and made-to-order drinks like bubble tea, coffee and cocktails where there are near-limitless permutations of customisation and customer requests will prove to be impossible for authorities to regulate while not crippling businesses trying to innovate and be competitive.
It Takes Two Hands To Clap
It is worth noting that while preventing diabetes and obesity from becoming global and national epidemics takes a whole society of stakeholders from the citizenry to the government to businesses to play their part, individuals can and need to do his/her part to influence demand and supply. When we opt for choices lower in sugar, we create a demand that businesses would be foolish to ignore. Over time, with numerous healthier choices available, we can hopefully make low-sugar alternatives the new normal.
To do that, we need to first know how to read the labels and count the calories for ourselves. While it is not possible to label every plate of chicken rice or prawn noodle, the Health Promotion Board has a handy online guide, called the Energy & Nutrient Composition of Food, detailing the nutritional content of various local favourites. The HealthHub website by the Ministry of Health also has a Calorie Calculator to help you understand how much calories you need a day.
If we are all savvy about our diet, using a little bit of math so that we are not merely shooting blindly, we can make our fight against diabetes and obesity so much more effective.