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Eating every few hours, but never satisfying the hunger

SINGAPORE — Mr Marcus Gan cannot remember the last time he had three square meals in a day, and has not eaten food prepared at home in the last four years.

Eating every few hours, but never satisfying the hunger

Modern eating habits such as grazing translate to extra calories consumed throughout the day, which does not bode well for health.

SINGAPORE — Mr Marcus Gan cannot remember the last time he had three square meals in a day, and has not eaten food prepared at home in the last four years.

For the 35-year-old, who works in the security industry, grazing throughout the day during lull periods at work has replaced fixed mealtimes. His current eating habits are drastically different from the home-cooked meals of his childhood, he said.

“I often have my lunch — a bun or a curry puff that I grab along the way — in my car, especially on busy days when I have to attend meetings," he said.

 "I never ever really feel full. It’s unhealthy, I know, but I don’t really have a choice due to the nature of my work and lifestyle.” 

Homemaker Manisha Choudhary, 32, suffered negative effects and put on 10kg when she stopped having fixed meals after the birth of her daughter.

“I would eat at all times of the day (and) snack on sweet, fatty food. But instead of keeping my energy levels up, it made me feel more lethargic than when I was pregnant and having proper meals,” said Mdm Manisha, who lost her pregnancy and excess postpartum weight only after consulting a nutritionist for mealtime planning.

From traditional meals at home to all-day grazing and snacking on-the-go, eating habits are changing as people demand flexibility and options, according to market research firm Euromonitor International’s recent report on global mealtimes.

Dining out is now also the norm for a significant proportion of Singaporeans.

One in four people here eat out daily and more than half do so on a weekly basis, according to a new out-of-home dining survey by Nielsen, another market research company. Its survey polled over 200 people last year on their dining behaviour and preferences.

Many of these eating habits translate to extra calories throughout the day, which does not bode well for health, said experts.

Ms Pamela Er, senior dietitian at the National University Hospital, said most of these dining habits boil down to several reasons including work commitments, access to a wide variety of snack and food choices, the rise of fad diets and technology.

“For instance, meal delivery services like foodpanda, Grab Food and Deliveroo make it convenient for one to have access to food without even leaving home,” said Ms Er.

MINDLESS GRAZING, EXTRA CALORIES

Grazing every two to three hours has become the norm in Singapore, said registered dietitian Ujjwala Baxi.

Singaporeans are also fond of consuming drinks such as flavoured teas, milk teas and other high-sugar drinks on the go, she said.

Singaporeans are fond of consuming sugared drinks on the go. Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY

Grazing can expose one to unnecessary calories and induce the urge to eat often, such that people end up making mindless food choices, said Ms Ujjwala, founder of diet and nutrition counselling company Poshan-Cure Thru Diet.

The average daily energy intake of Singaporeans has increased by 17 per cent over the last two decades, from around 2,110 calories in 1998 to 2,470 calories in 2018, according to the National Nutrition Survey. The 2018 average calorie intake, however, was lower than levels seen in 2010.

On average, an adult male requires about 2,200 calories a day while an adult female requires around 1,800 calories daily.

Ms Er said people who graze throughout the day never truly satisfy their hunger even though they may eat or drink all the time.

“Grazing typically does not consist of a complete meal filled with carbohydrates, protein and fibre. This can leave one feeling hungry easily. It also involves processed snack foods of refined carbohydrates that can be calorie-dense and lower in nutrients but do not necessarily keep you well-satiated,” she said.

By grazing on high carbohydrates food throughout the day, insulin levels are kept high, which leaves people vulnerable to weight gain, said Ms Er.

​“This also happens in Type 2 diabetes, where insulin resistance causes insulin levels to stay elevated,” she said.

HARD TO RESIST

Children are eating more for pleasure, too.

When given the opportunity, the majority of preschool-aged children in Singapore will consume snacks placed in front of them within a short span of time, even after they have eaten lunch, according to a Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC) study published in the journal Physiology and Behaviour in August last year.

The CNRC is a joint initiative of the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences, Agency for Science, Technology and Research and the National University Health System.

The study, based on 158 children from the Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes (Gusto) cohort, found that four-and-a-half-year-olds who ate in the absence of hunger were three times more likely to do so at the age of six. Gusto is an ongoing Singapore study that tracks mothers and their children from birth.

“One reason for this is because the snacks offered, such as biscuits and chips, were all considered palatable (to children in general). We probably would not have seen the same level of eating in the absence of hunger had we offered the children vegetables,” said Dr Keri McCrickerd, senior research fellow at the CNRC and one of the study’s investigators.

Some individuals find it harder to resist cues to eat palatable foods, which are often high in sugar, fat and calories, said Dr McCrickerd.

“They may be more strongly influenced by social and emotional cues to eat rather than sensations of hunger and fullness. If children grow up in an environment that encourages them to eat and snack on foods when they are not hungry, and where palatable calorie-rich snacks are frequently used as rewards, it is likely that these associations will be carried into adulthood,” said Dr McCrickerd.

SMALL CHANGES ADD UP

For most people, small changes to eating behaviour can make it easier to change negative eating habits, said experts.

For instance, begin by introducing one or two small changes at a time and wait until they have become routine before introducing more, said Dr McCrickerd.

Encourage family, friends and colleagues to do the same, and consider long-term health, rather than aesthetic changes, as your goal, she added.

“Many benefits of a healthy diet are not visible, so using the way you look as a motivator for changing eating behaviour may not be very sustainable,” said Dr McCrickerd.

Read also

Here are some tips from the experts:

1. Yes to balanced meals, no to unsustainable fad diets

Pick meals that are cooked with less salt, oil and sugar. Ask for more vegetables, and end your meal with a serving of fruit instead of fruit juices as the former is lower in calories, said NUH’s Ms Er.

Aim to replace one regular sugar-sweetened beverage per day with a no-sugar alternative or water, said Dr McCrickerd.

2. Plan major meals in advance

This is to avoid making last-minute bad food choices based on aggressive hunger, said Ms Ujjwala.

3. Opt for healthier options when managing hunger pangs between meals

Think fruit instead of a shake, juice or milk beverages, or nuts instead of deep-fried snacks when craving for crunchy food, said Ms Ujjwala.

4. Eyes on your food

There are studies to suggest that meal memory is enhanced by paying attention to food at mealtimes, which can reduce overall intake, said Ms Er. Remove distractions like the television, computer and mobile gadgets.

5. Take time to chew your food

Research by the CNRC has shown that some children and adults eat fast and consume more energy by taking larger bites and chewing less. A preference for softer-textured food could also prompt people to consume calories faster than those with diets consisting of harder, chewier food textures.

Pause between bites and incorporate food with more texture to encourage longer chewing times, said Dr McCrickerd. For example, brown and red rice is chewier and takes longer to eat than well-cooked white rice, she said. The former also has the added benefit of more fibre and is lower on the glycaemic index.

6. Start young

A healthy relationship with food starts from childhood. Reward children with stickers and praise instead of snacks and food, said Dr McCrickerd.

7. An app a day keeps the munchies away

A well-designed evidence-based application can be effective in supporting eating behaviour and lifestyle changes, said Ms Er.

In an NUH study on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease patients, 90 per cent of participants who used the nBuddy app — a diet management app conceptualised by NUH’s chief dietitian — experienced weight loss compared to 41 per cent in the control group.

Related topics

Diet weight loss food health

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