Restaurants roll out well-balanced meals and food with fewer calories

Low-carb Laksa Noodles. -- PHOTO: LEAN BENTO
Low-carb Laksa Noodles. -- PHOTO: LEAN BENTO
-- PHOTO: THE SNACK CULTURE COMPANY
-- PHOTO: THE SNACK CULTURE COMPANY
Tokyo Teri. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Tokyo Teri. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Valerie Teo. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Valerie Teo. -- ST PHOTO: DANIEL NEO
Acai bowls. -- PHOTO: PROJECT ACAI
Acai bowls. -- PHOTO: PROJECT ACAI
Salsa pork stew. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Salsa pork stew. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Food With Benefits owners: (clockwise from left) Mr Chan Manquan, Ms Tang Yanyue, Mr Travis Ho Zi Jie, Mr Soo Yan Long and Mr Dion Lo Zhen Yu. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES
Food With Benefits owners: (clockwise from left) Mr Chan Manquan, Ms Tang Yanyue, Mr Travis Ho Zi Jie, Mr Soo Yan Long and Mr Dion Lo Zhen Yu. -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Forget health food fads that cut out certain kinds of food.

A crop of restaurants have opened, claiming to offer well-balanced meals with proteins, carbohydrates and fats. These include bento boxes and brunch classics, some with the calorie count listed next to prices.

Other places are also introducing antioxidant-rich acai berries and probiotics-laden fermented foods.

There are at least four other health food restaurants which opened in the past three months. They include Lean Bento in Collyer Quay, which offers wholesome lunch sets, and Food With Benefits in Katong Shopping Centre, which serves pastries made with protein powder, stews and sandwiches.

With more people here becoming health- conscious, more health food options have started to become popular.

At Food With Benefits, most dishes, ranging from stews to bruschettas, have fewer than 500 calories a serving, which is one-quarter of the American Heart Association's recommended calorie intake for adults.

Its co-owner, Mr Chan Manquan, 26, says that each food group has its benefits. For instance, carbohydrates are an energy source and fats regulate hormones for metabolism and growth.

He says: "I want to debunk 'bro science' or health myths overheard in gyms, such as avoiding carbohydrates and fats to focus on muscle building. The solution to good health still lies in having a balanced diet and exercising."

To help diners get a sense of what they are eating, the restaurant, which has about 60 customers a day, puts the nutrition content of the dishes on the menu. This information is sourced from ingredient labels and cross-referenced to online calorie databases, such as CalorieKing.

Lean Bento created its eight bentos according to the most popular diets among fitness buffs. The three categories are high-protein, low-carbohydrate and low-calorie.

Co-owner Charles Ng, 38, says that these diets help to complement different levels of activity.

The bento approach, says the other co-owner Dionis Chiua, 31, provides a rich variety of foods with different flavours and textures, which is more visually appealing and satisfying than drinking a smoothie. She adds that the diverse ingredients in each bento make up a well-balanced, nutritious meal. They sell about 200 bentos a day and use gluten-free and halal-certified ingredients.

Ms Chiua says that health-conscious consumers are moving beyond eating salads.

She says: "The trend of eating salads sparked the interest of healthy eating. It opened up more ways of eating to achieve different body goals, such as being lean rather than skinny."

Balanced diets aside, new healthy eating concepts are making inroads.

One of them is the high probiotic food by Good Food Heals in North Canal Road. Ingredients such as plum tomatoes, cabbage, beetroot and apple are fermented with spices such as chilli and garlic, vinegar, sugar and salt for up to four days in containers, to cultivate live bacteria and lactic acid.

According to owner Valerie Teo, 29, these probiotics aid in the absorption of nutrients in the small intestines.

She says: "Unlike extreme dietary changes such as going on a juice cleanse, I hope to sell something that is sustainable. People can buy cultured foods and use them in their home meals, instead of coming to my eatery."

Another health fad is acai berries from Brazil, offered in dessert bowls and smoothies by Project Acai in Holland Village. It opened its second outlet in Ngee Ann City last week.

Thawed acai puree is topped with fresh fruit, seeds and nuts. The berries are said to contain antioxidants and Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids, which have anti- inflammatory effects in the body and are healthy for the heart.

Co-owner Melissa Ng, 27, says: "Besides salads, there are not many healthy and uncooked food options that are also vegan and gluten-friendly. Some customers eat acai bowls as full meals rather than as desserts."

While such food fads may be all the rage, doctor- turned-restaurateur Chan Tat Hon, 47, believes that it is more important to get the fundamentals of healthy eating right, such as having a balanced meal, instead of chasing after diets and nutrition figures.

His restaurant, The Snack Culture Company in Kallang Avenue, rolled out its healthy bento lunch menu two weeks ago.

Diners customise their lunches by choosing from lists of meat, vegetable and wholegrain dishes. They can order sugar-free beverages.

Dr Chan says: "We do not want to make meal times a mental experience by counting calories. Through introducing comforting and familiar food that makes diners happy, they will become more receptive to healthy eating habits and sustain them."

Nutritionists and consumers welcome more health-centric dining-out options.

Ms Vanessa McNamara of The Travelling Dietitian says that while consumers are more aware of nutrient intake, a balanced diet with foods from all food groups remains vital.

She says: "For weight-watchers who eat out regularly, I recommend using the Healthy Plate Model, instead of calorie-counting. The model stipulates filling half of your plate with vegetables, a quarter with proteins and a quarter with wholegrain carbohydrates.

"It is refreshing to not have to count calories at every meal."

She adds that while fermented foods can strengthen the immune system and alleviate bowel conditions, they are also high in salt used in the fermentation process.

Nutritionist Pooja Vig of The Nutrition Clinic says: "Listing the nutrition content of foods, instead of calories, is a more meaningful way of informing consumers, as a lot of 'low calorie' packaged food options are filled with unhealthy ingredients."

She adds that probiotics from cultured foods are useful for creating a good gut, which produces serotonin that is essential in balancing moods.

Property agent Peter Wan, 49, who lunches at Lean Bento once a week, says he does not mind that the meals cost more than those in food courts.

He says: "Foods in food courts are high in salt, sugar and oil. Since I eat out quite often, I'd rather pay for quality. Besides, the variety of bentos is great, with a mixture of Asian and Western food."

Management consultant Nadine Jazmati, 35, who visits Good Food Heals twice a week, likes the fresh ingredients from a melting pot of cultures for lunch.

She says: "Although I do not see the direct impact, it makes me feel psychologically lighter. I am happier after the full and satisfying meals."

kengohsz@sph.com.sg


FOOD WITH BENEFITS

This 300 sq ft cafe resembles a nutrition classroom. There is a huge wall infographic titled "Why are you fat?". It shows how many calories a person should ingest based on his basic metabolic rate and activity level. The menu consists of main courses such as salsa pork stew ($8.90), which is pork slow-cooked with tomato, capsicum, onion and jalepeno chilli; BBQ sauce chicken flatbread (from $8.90) and salmon and egg bruschetta (from $9.90).

It also serves muffins and cookies baked with protein powder and flavoured smoothies with protein powder. The cafe owners, a group of gym buddies, came up with the recipes. They also offer customised meal packages based on customers' nutritional needs (from $30).

Where: B1-92 Katong Shopping Centre, 865 Mountbatten Road

Open: 10.30am to 8pm, daily except Thursday

Info: Call 6348-1918 or go to www.facebook.com/Foodwithbenefit


PROJECT ACAI

Sisters Melissa and Deborah Ng were so convinced by the health benefits of acai, an Amazonian superfood, that they flew to Seoul last year to meet representatives from Sambazon, a California-based company that imports acai berries from Brazil.

Their cafe sells acai bowls (from $6.80), which consist of thawed acai berry puree adorned with toppings such as sliced bananas, granola, wolfberries, bee pollen and cacao nibs. There are 13 toppings in all.

Customers can also order acai smoothies flavoured with blueberries or chocolate oatmeal milk ($8.50).

Where: Two outlets - B2-32A Ngee Ann City, 391 Orchard Road; and 27 Lorong Liput

Open: Various opening hours, go to www.project-acai.com


GOOD FOOD HEALS

Owner Valerie Teo, 29, says she used to suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, until she started eating lacto-fermented foods such as tomatoes and cabbage. Her six bentos, which are categorised by health benefits to the body, skin and muscles, contain these cultured ingredients.

Top-sellers are the Tokyo Teri ($10.90), which includes baked teriyaki salmon, fermented plum tomatoes and soba; and Mexi Loco ($9.90), which includes smoked salmon, fermented guava-pineapple relish and rice. It sells about 90 bentos a day. Its 500ml jars of cultured foods can be bought as condiments (from $13.90 for a beetroot apple slaw). It also sells lacto-fermented fizzy drinks in pineapple and kiwi flavours ($3.90).

Where: 10 North Canal Road

Open: 8am to 6.30pm, weekday; 12.30 to 4.30pm, Saturday; closed on Sunday.

Info: Go to www.goodfoodheals.org


THE SNACK CULTURE COMPANY

Diners can construct their bento lunch sets by selecting three dishes from the more than 20 choices of meat, vegetable and grain dishes. They come from an eclectic range of cuisines from Korean and Greek to Thai and Mexican.

Popular picks include chilled chap chye-inspired Nonya salad, beef bulgogi with tofu, quinoa salad and salmon confit with Mexican salsa or Greek tzatziki.

There are unsweetened drinks such as ice lemon green tea and raspberry soda. A bento set starts at $9.80.

Where: 02-17 CT Hub, 2 Kallang Avenue

Open: 9am to 7pm, weekday, closed on weekend. The bento sets are available only during lunchtime from 11am to 3pm, weekdays.


LEAN BENTO

After spending $50,000 on "bizarre weight loss treatments" in slimming centres, Lean Bento's co-owner Dionis Chiua, 31, decided to take matters in her own hands - by eating clean and exercising.

Over the past five years, the 1.6m-tall Chiua has lost 15kg and now weighs 52kg.

Her low-calorie diet regime is offered on the menu of eight bentos, each containing about 450 calories. Popular bentos at this month-old cafe are the high-protein Marinara Chicken ($11.90), which includes a 50g chicken breast patty topped with pureed tomato sauce, wakame salad, ramen-style egg and multi-grain nigiri rolls; and the low-carb Laksa Noodles ($13.90), which features Japanese shirataki yam noodles. Wash them down with coffee or matcha tea brewed with alkaline water (from $2.50).

Where: 02-02 The Arcade, 11 Collyer Quay

Open: 8am to 5.30pm, weekday; closed on weekend

Info: Go to www.facebook.com/leanbentocom