How Singapore is 'nudging' children to eat healthy

By Tinesh Indrarajah

Interview with Alex Fun, Director, School Health & Outreach Division, Health Promotion Board.

It is undeniable that Singaporeans have a complicated relationship with food.

“Food is part of our tradition, part of our culture, and in some ways, a matter of pride and national identity,” explains Alex Fun, Director of the School Health & Outreach Division, Health Promotion Board (HPB) of Singapore.

However, largely due to unhealthy eating habits and sedentary lifestyles, Singapore is projected to hit obesity rates of 15% by 2024, based on data from HPB.

“In Singapore, there is a danger – you are surrounded by an abundance of food at such convenience that you can gravitate towards over-consumption,” Fun says. To address this issue, the HPB is attempting to nudge Singaporeans into developing a healthier relationship with their food from young.

Improved access to healthy food

It is not enough to merely increase awareness of healthy eating strategies; Singaporeans also need to have access to healthy food options.

According to him, a healthy meal, for example, would be one that has “less than 500 calories or contain healthier ingredients such as wholegrains”. Today, the number of food stalls at institutes of higher learnings (IHLS) offering one to three healthier food options have doubled, from 21% in 2015 to 42% to date.

The agency is ensuring that the eating environment provides “a sufficient range of healthier options and products”. In 2016, sugar content of all drinks served in mainstream schools vending machines was reduced from 7% to 6%.

And in 2011, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) launched a programme called Healthy Meals in Schools, where canteen stall operators must serve healthier options such as brown rice and wholemeal bread. Today, as part of the Health Promoting School initiative, all mainstream schools are required to comply with the Healthy Meals in Schools guidelines, which aim to cut down on saturated fat, sugar and salt as well as to serve wholegrains, fruits and vegetables in meals.

The inclusion of these healthy options are also made a prerequisite for preschools looking to be accredited under HPB’s Healthy Preschool initiative, Fun adds. “Conditioning from young” is a key reason why Singaporeans may prefer unhealthy food when they become adults, he believes.

“If you only have access to unhealthier food and drink options in schools, community, and homes – like when you open the kitchen cabinet – you are conditioned, and it is going to be very difficult to wean you off later”.
“If you only have access to unhealthier food and drink options in schools, community, and homes... it is going to be very difficult to wean you off later.”

Alternative strategies

Aside from influencing behaviour from young and building a conducive environment that promotes healthy eating, Singapore is looking at further strengthening its efforts.

One approach being focused on is to rely on “pester power” – where “the child influences the parent” – so that healthy eating practices become the norm in Singaporean households. More and more childcare centres are already serving healthy food, Fun says, and the onus is now on parents to follow the example of these centres and feed healthy food to their children. “The question to the parents then is, ‘Your childcare centres are serving healthy food. What about you?’,” he remarks.

To facilitate healthy eating at home, HPB helps teach parents to prepare balanced meals with cooking demonstrations and supermarket tours, he explains.

HPB is also stepping up its capacity building efforts by providing advanced culinary training for canteen vendors and pre-school cooks to ensure children enjoy quality and taste healthier meals in schools.

Continued collaboration and teamwork between the government, industry, and parents is critical in promoting healthier eating habits and supporting nationwide efforts to tackle obesity in Singapore.

Their efforts will ensure that the current generation won’t lose the intrinsic Singaporean love for food altogether, but bolster it with the desire to opt for healthier food options and pay attention to the quality of their diet.