Published: Sunday March 18, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday August 15, 2013 MYT 10:48:44 AM

Don't become a statistic!

Something needs to be done to address the increasing incidence of diet-related chronic diseases, also called non-communicable diseases, in Malaysia.

DO you know of anyone who has diabetes, or someone who died suddenly from a heart attack? How about someone with high cholesterol, or high blood pressure?

Chances are very high that almost all of us have a relative or friend, or knows of someone, who has such problems.

This is the harsh reality of life in the 21st century, where technology has made life so much easier, and we’re living longer, but paradoxically, we’re much “sicker” than our forefathers.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension are referred to as diet-related chronic diseases and are termed Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). The list goes on, and includes cancer, chronic kidney disease, osteoporosis, gallbladder disease, and many more.

The WHO Global Status Report 2010 on NCDs recorded a staggering 36.1 million deaths from the four main NCDs – heart diseases, chronic lung diseases, cancers and diabetes, in 2008. Nearly 80% of these deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries. NCD deaths are projected to increase by 15% globally between 2010 and 2020, reaching 44 million a year.

Unfortunately, Malaysia has not been left behind when it comes to NCDs. Alarmingly, diet-related chronic diseases are prevalent amongst Malaysian children and adults, and have been on the rise over the past few decades.

Heart attacks and strokes are among the top five causes of death. And one in five Malaysians are diabetic, and the total number of diabetic patients has increased two-fold from 1.5 million in 2006 to three million in 2011.

Nutrition Society of Malaysia (NSM) president Dr Tee E Siong reasoned that the rapid rise in diet-related chronic diseases could be attributed to the rapid socio-economic development in Malaysia over the past 20 years, which has brought about significant changes in our lifestyles.

“These lifestyle changes include our dietary patterns such as an increase in the intake of fats, oils and refined carbohydrates (e.g. white rice, white bread, sugar) as well as a decreased intake of complex carbohydrates (e.g. brown rice, oatmeal, wholegrain products).

“Evident changes can also be seen in our meal patterns, where adults and families spend more time eating out, and the younger generation skip breakfasts and consume too much fast food.

“To further amplify this problem, our lifestyles have generally become more stressful and sedentary, with less physical activity, and harmful tobacco and alcohol use. This has resulted in more Malaysians suffering from being overweight, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood glucose levels, and so on,” explains Dr Tee.

Despite all the grim statistics, Dr Tee has some good news for us: we CAN prevent and lower our risk factors for NCDs. However, he warns that measures must be taken immediately to arrest the increase in these diseases.

Dire consequences

Diet-related chronic diseases can have very serious consequences on individuals, families and the country.

Malaysian Dietitians’ Association (MDA) president Indra Balaratnam describes these NCDs as a significant blow to an individual’s health and finances, and is an impending disaster to society.

“Not only are diet-related chronic diseases incurable, the long-term medical costs of treating these long-term diseases and the complications associated with them can strangle your purse-strings. This is because many patients and families still make direct out-of pocket payments,” Indra points out.

According to her, treatment for diseases like cancer can range from between RM40,000 and RM300,000 yearly, and for diabetes (outpatient care), between RM800 to RM1,000 a year. Treatment for the complications of these diseases may incur further costs.

“The tremendous cost of medical treatments for diet-related chronic diseases can lead to patients and family members maxing out their credit cards and incurring debts. The families may also resort to liquidating their family assets or selling off personal belongings to pay for the treatments,” Indra adds.

In addition, if the main income earners in the family die or are disabled because of an NCD, there may be a drastic cut in spending on food and education, and a possible loss of care and investment in their children.

Apart from the financial burden on individuals and households, the national healthcare costs of setting up and maintaining treatment facilities to treat these diseases can hinder the country’s economic development.

A WHO report estimates that such treatment facilities can cause billions of dollars in national income losses. The threat and impact of NCDs can cause large-scale loss of productivity as a result of absenteeism and inability to work, and ultimately a decrease in national income.

In addition, 30% of people dying from these diseases in low- and middle-income countries are under the age of 60, and are in their most productive period of life. These premature deaths are all the more tragic because they are largely preventable.

Make a change today

Although these diseases are incurable, the prevention and management of NCDs lies in your own hands.

“Now that you know the underlying causes of these diet-related chronic diseases are due to a combination of factors, you must make a change in your diet and lifestyle in order to reduce the risk of developing these diseases. It is important to remember that these diet-related diseases are preventable,” advises Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity (MASO) vice-president Prof Dr Norimah A Karim.

Prof Norimah also advises everyone to eat healthily, following the principles of balance, moderation and variety (B.M.V.). The Malaysian Food Pyramid is the best guide to healthy eating as it emphasises B.M.V. in our daily diet.

“You can practise balance by eating food from all five food groups in the Food Pyramid. To achieve moderation, follow the number of servings that is recommended to prevent overeating, which may lead to being overweight. Ensure that you have a variety of foods from each food group, because no single food can give you all the nutrients you need,” she explains.

Prof Norimah also proposes that another way to improve your health and keep chronic diseases away is to practise an active lifestyle. Studies have shown that exercise or physical activity is an important part of a healthy life as it helps to balance the consumed energy (calories), and it is essential in the prevention of chronic diseases and premature death.

“People who are physically active tend to be healthier than those who are less so. They experience less health problems like osteoporosis and cancer, particularly colon, breast and prostate cancer. Regular physical activity also helps to promote a sense of well-being, relieve stress and decrease the likelihood of anxiety and depression,” she adds.

The Malaysian Dietary Guidelines (MDG) recommends that all adults carry out 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity at least five to six days a week, preferably daily. Children and adolescents are recommended to do 60 minutes or more of either moderate or vigorous intensity physical activity daily.

When your fitness improves, the intensity level and amount of time spent on physical activity can be gradually increased.

It is also recommended that you participate in activities that increase flexibility, strength and endurance of your muscles as often as two to three times a week. More importantly, limit physical inactivity and any sedentary habits like watching television, driving a car, or working at the computer to no more than two hours a day.

“Be active everyday in as many ways as you can. Think of each movement as an opportunity to improve your health instead of an inconvenience. Try walking up the stairs instead of taking the lift or escalator. Walk to the shops instead of driving. Do housework such as sweeping and mopping the floor, and hand-washing your clothes instead of using machines,” advises Prof Norimah.

“Lastly, in addition to making a change for yourself, you can play a role by sharing your own knowledge and habits of a healthy diet and physical activity with your children, family members, friends, and co-workers. Through open discussions about the methods, challenges, and benefits of adopting a healthy lifestyle, you can empower others to take control of their health and well-being as well as aid in decreasing the rising statistics of obesity in the country,” concludes Prof Norimah.

Remember to:        

  • Maintain a consistent healthy eating pattern.
  • Eat breakfast and don’t skip meals.
  • Eat a diet low in fat and calories and avoid sugary foods and drinks.       
  • Avoid fad diets.
  • Monitor your weight regularly.
  • Engage in more physical activity.        

This article is brought to you by the Nutrition Month Malaysia 2012 (NMM) programme, which is jointly organised by the NSM, MDA and MASO. The NMM 2012 programme is supported by A Clouet & Co (KL) Sdn Bhd (Ayam Brand), Gardenia Bakeries KL Sdn Bhd, Kraft Malaysia Sdn Bhd, Malaysia Milk Sdn Bhd (Vitagen), Nestlè Products Sdn Bhd, Summit Co. (M) Sdn Bhd (Biogrow Oats BG22) and Yakult Malaysia Sdn Bhd.

Experience bliss and healthy living at the Nutrition Month Malaysia 2012 “NutriFun Land” Carnival on April 14 & 15, 2012 (from 10am–9pm) at Mid Valley Exhibition Centre (Hall 2). Come and meet the country’s nutritionists and dietitians to learn more about making healthier food choices and active lifestyle. Lots of fun educational activities and goodies will be waiting for you! For more information, call 03-5621 1408 or visit

Tags / Keywords: Health, Lifestyle, Health, diabetes, heart attack, high blood pressure, hypertension


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