'Cha chaan teng' no-nos

Wong Yat-hei

A nutritionist tells students there are ways to eat healthier foods even when they go out

Wong Yat-hei |

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For students with a limited budget and time, cha chaan teng outlets and fast-food chains are popular choices for lunch. These places are not known for offering healthy menus, making it tough for students who leave school for lunch to stay fit if they don't bring their own. But there are ways to get healthy meals at these spots, and Josephine Chan, a nutritionist at MSL Nutritional Diet Centre, shared tips on how to do it.

The healthiest items in a cha chaan teng are soup with rice and soup with noodles. "These foods contain less oil. In the summer, winter melon soup with minced meat and rice is a good choice for a cha chaan teng lunch," she says.

For noodle in soup, Chan recommended macaroni, spaghetti and rice vermicelli. "Instant noodles are a big no-no. They contain a huge amount of oil, because the noodles are deep-fried with palm oil. A bowl of instant noodles with hot and spicy diced pork can have up to 800 calories, a disaster for weight watchers," she says.

Steak is not as unhealthy as many would think, Chan says. "The meat itself doesn't contain many calories; the problem is the gravy. If you eat it without gravy, the calorie intake will not go off the charts. For a side dish, go for baked potato instead of mashed potato or chips, as mashed potato is made with cream, which is high in calories."

Cha chaan teng dishes are actually quite meaty, and those concerned about a balanced diet should consider ordering a vegetable dish. However, vegetable dishes can be packed with hidden calories if they're prepared with oil, such as stir-fried. "Fried vegetables are loaded with calories," Chan says. "Instead, order vegetables cooked in soup or boiled veggies."

For the after-school tea break, Chan warns students to avoid deep-fried chicken and pork chops. "Some would think that they can avoid the fat by not eating the skin, but that is not the case. When the meat is deep-fried, its calorie and fat content will be higher. A healthier option is to have a sandwich," she says.

Milk tea, the staple drink at cha chaan teng, should also be avoided. "A cup of milk tea has two teaspoons of sugar, which accounts for almost one-third of a person's daily sugar intake. Healthier options are lemon tea or lemon water with less syrup," says Chan.

Salads are a healthy choice for lunch since vegetables are low in calories. But if you use the wrong salad dressing, your calorie intake will be much higher. "It is hard to eat salad without dressing," Chan says. "A healthier alternative is to choose lemon juice, white vinegar or balsamic vinegar."

Freshly squeezed fruit juice sounds like a healthy drink, but Chan pointed out that it is high in fructose (fruit sugar) and low in dietary fibre. "The recommended daily intake for fruit juice is one cup (250ml) per day; otherwise, you'll exceed the daily fructose intake. Fruit juice is not a replacement for eating fresh fruit, as it does not provide enough dietary fibre to stimulate your bowel movement. Juice blended with fruits and vegetables like celery and cucumber are healthier options," she says.

Families enjoy yum cha at weekends. Of course, steamed dim sum is less fatty than fried, but it does not necessarily mean all are healthy options. "Steamed shrimp and pork dumplings are fine, but beef balls and steamed chicken are oily, and sweet steamed buns such as sweet cream buns and lotus paste buns are extremely high in sugar," Chan says.

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