Calorie labelling may help fight diabetes and obesity

Such details on food items help people keep track of their diets and make healthier choices

In an ideal world, requiring food and beverage (F&B) outlets to display the calorie content of food items would lead to Singaporeans making informed and healthier diet choices.

This would help prevent them from becoming obese and falling victim to obesity-linked diseases such as diabetes.

Wishful thinking?

Calorie labelling in other countries has largely proven ineffective in decreasing the amount of calories consumed, as indicated in a 2014 review done by a group of researchers from Health Canada, the Canadian ministry of health.

In their review of more than 50 studies done in North America, the researchers found that providing calorie information on menus resulted in a negligible decrease of 13 calories (kcal) consumed per person.

However, this figure jumped to 81 kcal when information was added to help consumers interpret the numbers they were seeing.

A calorie-count guide of some of the dishes served at Gourmet Paradise Food Court, located at the HDB Hub in Toa Payoh. ST PHOTO: NANCY KOH

Regulations for F&B outlets to display calorie and nutrition information to help in the Ministry of Health's war on diabetes and rising obesity were suggested by Member of Parliament for Chua Chu Kang GRC, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, in Parliament last month.

The cost of fighting diabetes in Singapore is expected to soar beyond $2.5 billion a year by 2050, up from more than $1 billion in 2010.

Obesity is closely linked with developing Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of diabetes cases.

The National Health Survey in 2010 found that 11 per cent of Singaporean adults aged between 18 and 69 were obese, up from 7 per cent in 2004.

And there are more than 400,000 diabetics in Singapore, with one in three unaware that he has the disease.

The vital factor is in getting Sing- aporeans to be more aware of their food choices. "Most people here don't count their calories and are not aware of how much they have eaten," said Dr Lim Su Lin, chief dietitian at the National University Hospital (NUH).

An exception is retiree Christine Lim, who is among the few who fastidiously count their calories. The 71-year-old lost 13.8kg in less than a year after consulting a dietitian at NUH.

She had been informed of the health risks associated with obesity when her medical records showed that she had gained an average of 1kg a year for the last 10 years.

Though she would welcome calorie labels when eating out, she said it would be a different story for her food-loving friends.

She said: "Even with the calorie numbers, people will ask, how do you know how much you're eating? They are not dietitians."

Calorie or nutrition labelling may, in fact, be most beneficial for those who are watching what they eat.

These include people who are simply health-conscious and those with existing medical conditions such as diabetes or high blood cholesterol that require them to make dietary adjustments.

Dr Peter Eng, a consultant endocrinologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, said that people who are "very careful with their food choices" are in the minority among his patients.

He would like more information to be given to people. "A lot of my patients who eat out find it difficult to manage what they eat. Labelling will help them, especially those with Type 1 diabetes who need to manage the correct distribution of carbohydrates," he said.

Having more information about food items would help national serviceman Muhammad Nabil Payayah, 20, who suffers from seizures and has high cholesterol.

"There are many ways to prepare the same dish. For example, some vendors use vegetable oil when cooking the rice for chicken briyani, while others use ghee or butter," said Mr Nabil.

"Knowing what ingredients they use makes it more convenient for people who need to keep track of what they are eating."

When Health Minister Gan Kim Yong declared war on diabetes in April this year, it was not only to help existing patients but also to prevent the onset of diabetes for those at risk.

But experts said that, as an isolated initiative, the odds are stacked against calorie labelling from the start.

Dr Lim, NUH's chief dietitian, said: "It is easy to over-consume calories in Singapore, which is a food heaven. Many vendors do not care about the calorie content of their food as long as it tastes good and people want to buy it."

If calorie labelling is to be effective in the war against obesity and diabetes, then it needs to be part of a larger effort to change mindsets by increasing awareness about personal diet choices.

Ms Wong Hui Mei, a senior dietitian at Singapore General Hospital, agreed that nutrition information on food labels will help patients choose the right food to incorporate into their daily meal plans. But first, they have to know what they need to be eating.

It is important that people are aware of their daily caloric requirements, she said. "This is essential, so that there is a target to work towards. Knowledge of one's caloric intake alone is not enough to help with weight reduction or maintenance."

Dr Lim is working on a mobile application that will help users calculate individual calorie requirements and plan their meals based on those requirements. It is expected to be launched in the fourth quarter of this year.

"As dietitians, we can give nutrition advice when patients come to see us, but there are many more people out there needing help to change their diets and lifestyles," she said.

Making lifestyle changes early can help prevent diseases such as diabetes, she added.

Introducing calorie labelling would be a start, but the task is not so much to put calorie numbers on a page as it is to educate Singaporeans on why these numbers are there and how best to use them.

It will be a slow process, a "long war requiring sustained effort", to quote Mr Gan. But to hope for slimmer, healthier Singaporeans at the end of that process is surely not just wishful thinking.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2016, with the headline Calorie labelling may help fight diabetes and obesity. Subscribe