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Fighting childhood obesity in Singapore: Healthy school meals and tips

Mainstream schools in Singapore started serving healthier meal options in recent years, as part of a wider initiative to encourage better eating habits since the childhood obesity rates in the city-state reached 11% in 2018. The rising childhood obesity rate in Singapore led the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Education (MOE) to regulate canteen stall operators at schools to follow a set of food service guidelines to curb consumption of food and beverages high in sugar, fat, and salt content.

The Healthy Meals in Schools Programme (HMSP) came from recommendations by NurtureSG, an inter-agency task force led by the Minister of State for Health Dr. Lam Pin Min and Minister of State for Education Dr. Janil Puthucheary to enhance health outcomes among children and youth – in a similar way to Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity campaign: Let’s Move.

This article by Pacific Prime Singapore looks at childhood obesity in Singapore and uncovers everything you need to know about Singapore’s HMSP, tips to reduce childhood obesity during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.

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Childhood obesity: A growing concern in Singapore

While hereditary and cultural factors certainly do have a part to play in making children more susceptible to developing obesity, lifestyle habits also play a significant role in Singapore’s childhood obesity rates. 11% of children in Singapore are categorized as being overweight, and while many Western countries have relatively higher rates of overweight children (e.g. in the US, where it is around 19.3%), the gap between Singapore and other Western countries is slowly narrowing.

Rising obesity rates are a huge concern globally, as they can lead to a whole host of other health complications that may occur either during childhood or later on in life. Common complications include:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Hypertension
  • Heart conditions
  • Stroke
  • Sleep apnea
  • Joint pains

Additionally, certain types of kidney, gut, and thyroid cancer have their roots in childhood obesity. Being overweight is also associated with chronic musculoskeletal disorders and issues with joints and flexibility. Furthermore, studies by Singapore’s National Centre for Infectious Diseases found that overweight COVID-19 patients are more likely to need supplemental oxygen and be admitted to intensive care.

Not only does obesity pose a huge threat to one’s physical health, but it may also cause a wide range of mental health issues. Studies have found that overweight children are more vulnerable to being bullied or social discrimination, and when they fail to lose weight, they may be blamed for a lack of self-control. As a consequence, they may experience a strong sense of shame and even suffer from more serious mental conditions such as:

  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor body image
  • Suicidal tendencies

What’s more, children with obesity are also more likely to be obese as adults. Obese children also tend to be under-exercised, which forms a vicious cycle and makes them more likely to gain weight. For instance, children who become obese at 2 years of age have only a 25% chance of not being obese as an adult. Similarly, a severely obese 5-year-old child only has a 10% chance of not being obese at age 35.

According to the World Population Review, the obesity rate in Singapore in 2021 is 6.10%. These alarming figures all point to the need for children to start childhood obesity prevention by developing healthy lifestyle habits at a young age.

Healthy Meals in Schools Programme overview

Under the HMSP, canteen vendors at schools must serve healthier food options to kids, and will need to observe the following guidelines (to read it in full, click here):

  • Every meal must contain food from these four food groups: brown rice/wholemeal bread, fruit, vegetables, and meat/ vegetarian protein (e.g. tofu). Meals should also have at least two heaped dessertspoonfuls of vegetables, and at least half a serving of fruit.
  • Include whole grains, e.g. white rice should be mixed with brown rice or another rice of choice.
  • When preparing food, use skinless poultry/lean meat.
  • When high-fat ingredients are used in preparing food and beverages (e.g. coconut cream), at least half of the required amount of such ingredients should be replaced with a low-fat alternative (e.g. low-fat yogurt).
  • Fattening and oily sauces/ soup should not be served unless upon request.
  • Snack stalls must only sell homemade snacks or commercial snacks that have the Healthier Choice Symbol (HCS) or HCS equivalent.
  • The canteen area must have at least two regularly maintained water coolers.
  • Beverages and desserts sold in canteens should contain less sugar. The specific guidelines on maximum sugar levels for different drink types are:

Drink type

Sugar level (per 100 ml)

Asian drinks/tea

≤ 6g

Juice drinks

≤ 6g

Carbonated drinks

≤ 7g

Sports drinks

≤ 6g

Dairy/ soya/ malted drinks

≤ 6g

Yogurt/ cultured milk drinks

≤ 7g

Pure fruit/ vegetable juices

≤ 12.5g (no added sugar)

Under the scheme, canteen stall operators must also be trained by nutritionists and chefs on healthier cooking methods, like baking and grilling. At certain schools, students can pay around SGD $0.1 to $0.3 more for the cost of healthier ingredients and extra fruit portions with their meals.

What is the true culprit behind obesity?

Obesity is more than excessive absorption of calories. Excessive calorie intakes, if anything, are not the only contributing factor to obesity. Instead, addictively palatable processed food, coupled with calories without the essential nutrients humans need (a.k.a. empty calories), are the true culprits behind overeating. You stay hungry when you don’t get the nutrients you need. Thus, the HMSP truly addresses the underlying causes of obesity in Singapore.

Other children’s health programs in Singapore

Besides addressing the issue of poor diet choices and the rise in childhood obesity rates, a number of other initiatives have been rolled out to address various other youth health-related focus areas, including physical activity, mental health, and adequate sleep.

For instance, to promote healthy lifestyle habits, new guidelines for daily activities over a 24-hour period have been launched in 2020 with the aim of reducing school kids’ screen time and encouraging them to undertake more physical activity.

To encourage children to exercise, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) provides a variety of programs that help students learn about physical activity, such as Active Youth Recharge and Active Youth Workout. To address mental health, the HPB and MOE provide mental health training courses to school educators. The HPB also launched a microsite to educate parents about the importance of adequate sleep in children.

How to reduce childhood obesity during the COVID-19 pandemic

The pandemic has started remote learning and limited the opportunities for school kids to engage in physical activities. Here are a few ways to reduce risk factors for unhealthy weight gain during school closures.

Watch online exercise videos: There are many online home-based exercise videos and on-demand virtual fitness content for kids.

Exercise as a family: Children tend to be more motivated if the entire family works out together. You can also set a daily exercise goal or make it a challenge to keep your children motivated.

Assign calorie-burning chores: Chores such as mopping or cleaning the windows are also great chances for kids to build muscles and burn calories.

Develop healthy eating habits in kids: You can limit the amount of added sugar and avoid the consumption of processed food. You should also teach by example by eating more healthy food.

Final advice

We all know how important it is to protect the health and wellbeing of our children. As such, securing the right kid’s health insurance in Singapore will ensure that, should they require medical treatment, they have access to the best facilities in Singapore.

To learn more about your family health insurance in Singapore, why not give the helpful advisors at Pacific Prime Singapore a call? With years of experience advising expats and their families in Singapore, you can rest assured that we will match you with the best health insurance for expats in Singapore for your needs and budget. If you’ve got any questions or would like to get a free quote and plan comparison, get in touch with us today.

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Content Strategist at Pacific Prime Singapore
Jessica Lindeman is a Content Strategist at Pacific Prime. She comes to work every day living and breathing the motto of "simplifying insurance", and injects her unbridled enthusiasm for health and insurance related topics into every article and piece of content she creates for Pacific Prime.

When she's not typing away on her keyboard, she's reading poetry, fueling her insatiable wanderlust, getting her coffee fix, and perpetually browsing animal Instagram accounts.