"Let's go for steamboat!" In Singapore, this is often a clarion call for some festive, heart-warming get-together with family, friends or colleagues. But is this richly-flavoured, soup-based cauldron of fresh ingredients we call hot pot or steamboat good for your body, too?
The answer is: Hot pot can certainly be healthy, provided you choose your ingredients, base soup and dipping sauces carefully to avoid an overdose of sodium, saturated fats, and carbohydrates in your meal.
High sodium content in hot pot
"The sodium content in a typical hot pot meal far exceeds the recommended daily salt intake. Popular hot pot ingredients, such as fish balls, cuttlefish balls, crab sticks, and meatballs, are all processed foods high in sodium," says Dr Daniel Wai, director of the Obesity and Metabolic Unit and Consultant at the Department of Endocrinology, Singapore General Hospital (SGH).
One can easily devour a dozen of these perennial hot pot favourites — fish balls, meatballs, and cuttlefish balls — in one sitting.
Just five servings each of fish balls and cuttlefish balls will use up more than half the daily allowances for sodium (2,000mg) and cholesterol (300mg). And this does not include the sodium in the broth!
Beware of saturated fats in hot pot broth
Hot pot lovers are spoilt for choice when it comes to the broth.
You have the popular Chong Qing spicy (ma la) soup, Thai Tom Yam soup, Sichuan hot and spicy soup, Chinese herbal pork belly soup, and kombu dashi soup (for Japanese nabe).
"The base soup, which already contains salt, is made more flavourful by adding slices of marinated pork, chicken, beef and organ meats such as liver, pork kidney, beef tripe. All of those are high in saturated fats," cautions Wai.
Even the chilli paste added to soups is sometimes fried with corn, soybean, olive or canola oil.
Related article: Just how much is too much? Learn the whole truth about trans fat
Tips for a healthy hot pot
Observe these rules to enjoy a heathy hot pot meal that doesn't lead to heartburn, indigestion or constipation:
1. Select a light soup base for your hot pot
Go for clear or light-flavoured soup such as mushroom and cabbage tofu soup for a healthy hot pot. Buy only low-sodium chicken or vegetable bouillon for soup stock. And avoid drinking the broth.
2. Choose lean over fat
Choose fish, seafood, lean pork, and chicken over internal organs such as liver, intestines, beef tripe and pork kidney.
3. Go easy on carbohydrates
Avoid adding rice or noodles to a hot pot meal. You risk piling up calories with these refined carbohydrates.
4. Add more high-fibre vegetables to your hot pot
Fill your hot pot with carrots, cabbage, spinach, mushrooms, peppers, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, and green peas.
5. Choose light dipping sauces
Go for light dipping sauces such as fresh cut chillies with soya sauce, minced garlic, vinegar sauce instead of sambal, chilli oil, deep-fried garlic and oil-based sauces.
6. Go easy on processed foods such as fish balls, meatballs, cuttlefish balls, and crab sticks.
These are high in sodium, saturated fats, and chemical preservatives such as sodium nitrite which is used to preserve the meat's flavour and colour.
7. Watch out for increased nitrite levels in hot pot broth
Repeated boiling of the hot pot broth for more than 90 minutes may increase nitrite levels, so set a time limit.
8. Eat slowly
The brain takes about 20 minutes to register you are full so eat slowly and chew thoroughly to prevent overeating.
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