We must think healthy before we can eat healthy

Peter Kammerer says knowing what goes into our food when eating out will help guide us towards healthier choices - over time

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 2:43pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 2:43pm

There can never be any arguing with that age-old slice of wisdom, "You are what you eat". My stomach does indeed at times resemble a small beer barrel while there are a few people at the gym who, from a distance, look like human-sized versions of Shanghainese dumplings. The huffing and puffing at school sporting events is less about the effort being exerted than the inability to run at more than a brisk trot. Government warnings about being overweight, even obese, are certainly warranted.

The trend is global, but it's particularly noticeable in Hong Kong. While we spend too much time at desks working and studying, and don't get enough exercise, the main culprit is what we eat and drink. Specifically, it is the excessive amounts of salt and sugar in our diets. Salt is a particular problem, with the typical Hongkonger consuming twice the internationally recommended five grams a day.

For much of that, we can blame the restaurants we so like to frequent. I have no academic research to back up my thinking, but anecdotally, we would seem to eat most of our meals in restaurants. That is understandable with small flats and tiny kitchens, long working hours and being surrounded by places that serve food. To the end of last year, we had more than 15,000 licensed eateries of one sort or another.

Attracting customers in so competitive a market is challenging, but it doesn't take a gastronomist to know that the solution is to make food as cost-pleasing and tasty as possible. An inexpensive way is to add plenty of salt and sugar, whether directly or through sauces. Without knowing how our meal was prepared or having information from the restaurant to give an idea of specific calorie or nutrient levels, we have no idea if the food is healthy - and as long as it tastes good, why would most of us want to know?

The government has set up a committee to look into ways of reducing salt and sugar in food that will make recommendations to food and health minister Dr Ko Wing-man. A significant part of the problem lies in our eating-out culture, though, and as any child knows, the healthier the food, the less enjoyable it is to eat. A plate of raw vegetables won't, in the present circumstances, bring the crowds flocking back to Mr Chan's cha chaan teng.

But there's no need to wait for the committee's findings: education about healthy eating is all that is needed. The lack of knowledge is one reason the growing overseas trend for restaurants that cater for the health-conscious remains formative in Hong Kong. Those that dish up what is claimed to be organic and, by association, healthy, attach prices that are too expensive for many people.

The only way to fully control what goes into our meals is to prepare them ourselves and our supermarkets don't help in that regard, charging high prices for fresh produce. Those who have tried the cook-at-home option can only marvel at how the restaurant downstairs can do that rack of lamb for a fraction of the price - and they even serve it and wash the dishes.

Without education, there will be little demand for restaurants to serve healthy food. A sustained government campaign, not committees, will help spread that knowledge. Until mindsets change, the best option for those worried about what they eat is to find the time and money to cook for themselves.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post