The very idea of a low carb high fat (LCHF) diet, often called the keto diet, is the stuff of most Singaporeans' nightmares. If you ever let slip that you're on this diet, best be prepared for critiques like, "How to lose weight when it's HIGH fat?" and "You need carbs to live!"
But dealing with concern-trolling family members/colleagues is only the second hardest thing about doing the keto diet in Singapore.
The number one hardest thing is going LCHF on a budget. Try swapping your $3 char kway teow for $15 protein bowls at that trendy CBD salad place for a month, and you'll be feeling lean in more ways than one.
Obligatory disclaimer: Obviously, MoneySmart isn't a fitness or medical advice website. I'm not going to extol the virtues of the diet, nor will I disparage it. Whatever your reasons are for wanting to go on a LCHF diet, here's how you can do it without going broke.
WHAT IS A LCHF/KETO DIET? AND WHAT'S THE POINT?
A low carb high fat diet is one that restricts the amount of carbohydrates you eat - not just sweet stuff, but also staples like rice, noodles, bread, starchy veggies and most fruits.
To stop you from turning into a hangry monster, the diet also includes higher amounts of fat. Ideally, naturally occuring "good" fats like avocado, nuts, olive oil and butter. This supposedly keeps you satiated longer.
Without going into too much detail, consuming less than a certain amount of carbs every day puts your body in ketosis, a state in which you burn fat reserves rather than broken-down carbohydrates for energy. (This requires you to actually count your carbs, which is easy these days thanks to apps like MyFitnessPal.)
Even if you don't achieve ketosis, a restricted diet like this can also be helpful in cutting down your total calorie intake daily, as carbs make up a lot of calories in the typical Singaporean diet of rice, bread, noodles and more rice.
Though lots of people go on this diet for short-term weight/fat loss purposes, it can also be used to manage conditions like diabetes where you'd need to reduce your carb intake.
WHERE AND WHAT DO YOU EAT ON A KETO DIET IN SINGAPORE?
Whether you're on a diet or not, eating healthy can be quite costly in Singapore. When it comes to a keto diet, here's an overview of your feeding options in Singapore.
MEAL PREP: Preparing your own meals is by far the best option. It's cheap, healthy and gives you full control over the ingredients (particularly important if you're counting your carbs). The downside is that meal prep takes effort. It can also make you a social pariah, since Singaporeans seem to equate socialising with eating.
HAWKER FOOD: Eating at the hawker centre or kopitiam is standard for most Singaporeans on a budget. The bad news is, going low carb cuts down your hawker options drastically. (Say goodbye to laksa, wanton mee, nasi biryani, roti prata and pretty much every carb-based dish that makes life worth living.) But I'll talk about the hawker dishes you can modify to fit the diet in a later section.
DINING OUT: This gives you significantly more healthy food options, ranging from more affordable fast food items to pricey atas salad places. Obviously, if you're eating at restaurants all the time, your budget will need to increase correspondingly.
MEAL SUBSCRIPTION: If you have the budget, you might also want to consider a meal subscription plan. These are pricey as well, but you can get more assurance about the nutritional profile of each meal, if you're counting your carbs or calories.
MEAL PREP FOR KETO DIET IN SINGAPORE
Cooking at home can be a time-consuming and labour-intensive affair if you're cooking Asian-style (rice, a few dishes, maybe a soup or curry).
But Western-style meal prep simplifies things. It can be as easy as taking a few hours every weekend to cook and freeze your meals for the week. The key is to keep the ingredients minimal (so you repeat meals) and cooking methods low-effort (like baking or steaming).
Here's a list of LCHF-friendly ingredients and where you can buy them in Singapore.
KETO OPTIONS AT HAWKER CENTRES IN SINGAPORE
It's actually possible to eat LCHF at hawker centres - it just more often than not requires you to be thick skinned and ask for a special order.
Of course, you can't just go to the wanton mee stall and ask for no noodles. You'll just end up with 3 dumplings and a few leaves. There are certain stalls that are more low carb-friendly, offering relatively filling meals even without the carbs.
However, hawker food isn't the healthiest, even if you skip the rice/noodles. They can be pretty greasy, and I doubt that refined cooking oil is considered a "good" fat. Also look out for hidden carbs, such as sauces (often heavily sweetened even if they don't taste sweet) and breaded fried items.
Expect to spend about $4 to $5 for most of these dishes. Bear in mind that you might need to order more dishes/ingredients to fill you up.
KETO DINING OPTIONS IN SINGAPORE
If you want to grab a bite somewhere with air con, there are actually a number of keto-friendly budget options at fast food restaurants and chain eateries. You can get a meal or filling snack for under $10 at most of these places.
Then of course there are health food eateries and salad bars, an obvious choice for most dieters. But frankly, most of these places charge way too much for little more clumps of limp lettuce. There are too many salad bars to list so I've named our favourites at MoneySmart. If you know of any other affordable and good places, let us know!
KETO-FRIENDLY MEAL SUBSCRIPTION IN SINGAPORE
What if you can't do your own meal prep, and you don't have many diet-friendly options around?
As a final recourse, there's always healthy meal subscription services. Of the current providers in Singapore, Fitness Ration does specialised LCHF meals (soon to be launched), but most allow you to choose low carb options.
Bear in mind that these come with hefty price tags. Expect to pay from $10 a meal at least.
To conclude, going on a LCHF diet in Singapore usually requires either effort (i.e. meal prep) or money (i.e. salad shops).
Nonetheless, there are hawker centre and casual dining "keto hacks" to help balance things out. So if you're frugal and disciplined, sticking to either meal prep or hawker food only, it's possible to do the keto diet at about $5 a meal.
This article was first published in MoneySmart.