An unhealthy family lifestyle is one of the main contributors to a rise in the incidence of obesity
ADIWAYU Ansar Zainuddin has been overweight all her life. She was bullied as a child, and wallowed in depression in college because of her weight issues.
“At one point, I just wanted to stay home all the time. I wasn’t comfortable with my appearance and I didn’t have any nice new clothes I could fit into. I had to keep wearing the same old pair of jeans, because I just couldn’t get a new pair,” recalls Adiwayu.
It didn’t matter to those who teased her that she was born weighing almost 5kg – roughly twice the average weight of a newborn. Her mother had gestational diabetes, a condition in which women without previously diagnosed diabetes exhibit high blood glucose levels during pregnancy. Women with this condition are more likely to deliver macrosomic, or big, babies.
“I’ve been big ever since the day I was born. When I was 10, I had already hit 70kg. All the women in my family are on the larger side. It could be due to genetics but I think it was also the kind of food we consumed. Processed food and fast food were a big part of our diet.
“We were also taught to finish whatever was on our plates. It’s a good habit to have, but if there’s a lot on your plate, then you’re bound to eat more,” says Adiwayu, now 37.
She has accepted her weight battles, but she is now also concerned for her three children, aged six, four and two.
Like her mother, Adiwayu had gestational diabetes during her three pregnancies. The human resources manager is concerned that her three children, who were all born macrosomic, have higher risks of becoming obese and developing diabetes later in life. Her first and third child are of normal weight, but the second one is starting to have weight issues.
Adiwayu’s family’s weight concerns are becoming increasingly common here. Childhood obesity affects one in seven children in Malaysia. Nearly half a million children below 18 are overweight, according to the 2011 National Health and Morbidity Survey statistics, while 2.6 million adults are obese.
Seeing obesity as a disease
Around the world, obesity is the fifth leading risk for global deaths and a major risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
“People just don’t see obesity as a problem. It’s not treated as a disease because you don’t take medication for being overweight. Some think that it’s ok to be that way and that it’s merely a cosmetic issue. Over the years, the country has made great efforts to raise awareness on obesity. The only thing we haven’t done is to curb temptations,” says dietitian and senior manager at the Dietetics and Food Services department at Institut Jantung Negara (IJN) Mary Easaw.
“Food is easily attainable anywhere, anytime now. More often than not, food that is cheap is also of low quality and with high fat content.
“In families where both parents are working, ordering take-outs are often seen as the more convenient choice and most go for value-for-money options. At the end of the day, it’s all about making better choices – even if you have to eat out, you can still make a choice between the healthy and the not-so,” says Easaw.
Adiwayu does not want her children to grow up overweight because she does not want them to go through the bullying and insecurities she went through. Though she keeps a close eye on what her children eats, Adiwayu admits that it is all too easy to give in to the many temptations around.
Adiwayu’s dietery staples include nasi lemak, tosai, roti canai or capati for breakfast, mixed rice or fried noodles for lunch and homecooked meals of rice and side dishes of meat and vegetables for dinner. Despite her health concerns, she says giving up deep-fried food has been hard.
“In my line of work, I go for a lot of trainings and they always have tea breaks in between the sessions. I think that’s one of the main contributors to my weight gain,” she adds.
Adiwayu has tried different diets to lose weight, and has even considered going for a gastric bypass surgery to shed some pounds. But her husband has advised her against surgery because he says he likes her the way she is.
It has also been challenging to inculcate healthy eating habits in her children.
“I’m careful when it comes to my children. I try my best to keep them away from anything that is too sweet or oily. My husband, on the other hand, thinks that it’s ok for them to have junk food once in a while. I want to be a good role model for my children but sometimes I too give in to temptation,” she says, admitting to allowing her children to eat fast food and snacks between meals.
When it comes to managing a child’s dietary intake, Easaw warns parents against giving in to their child’s every whim and fancy.
“Parents are responsible for the overall wellbeing of their child. Nutrition is important. In the olden days, we ate whatever our parents prepared for us. Nowadays, we have situations where the children dictate the family menu and parents willingly meet those demands, even if it means serving less healthy food options, to ensure their children do not go hungry,” Easaw shares.
However, parents shouldn’t also be too rigid, says Easaw. “Completely denying your children fast food isn’t necessarily healthy. For one, they may just have it behind your back. I have a teenage daughter and what I do with her is this: if there’s a new fast food product in the market and she asks for it, I’ll let her try it once so that she knows what it’s all about. The next time around, she’ll just have to settle for a healthier choice. And I find that even with fast food, there is always the healthier option available.”
For those who find that they do not have the time to cook daily, a good solution would be to prepare their meals in advance.
“If weekends are the only time you have for cooking, you can try preparing a few simple dishes then putting them in the freezer with a use-by date. You can just defrost the portions over the week and serve it with rice,” she suggests.
While Adiwayu is aware that an exercise regime can help tackle her weight issues, she is guilty of almost always preferring to “sit at home especially after a long day at work.” Indeed, more and more families have adopted a sedentary lifestyle in favour of an active one – in essence, anyone who walks less than 5,000 steps a day is leading a sedentary lifestyle, which could be due to hectic working schedules, the “couch potato” syndrome and dependence on digital devices.
Easaw notes that several nations are addressing this rising epidemic of obesity. Singapore – as part of its targeted strategy to engage the working population – had introduced a 12-week weight loss programme in 2009 to help individuals lose weight in a healthy way and sustain it. The programme included nutrition workshops, physical activity sessions, fitness assessments and incentives.
By the end of the 12th week, 99.6% of the 285 participants recorded an improvement in their fitness index and 93.6% lost weight.
Easaw feels that giving people incentives will motivate them to be active. “At work, I do a lot of walking and hauling in the food ingredients and standing as I chop vegetables and fruits. I sweat all day. Asking me to work out after work would be pure torture – anytime I have left for resting, I will rest,” says cook Wan Noraini Isahaktm, 50, who is not motivated to exercise even though her weight has led to health issues. At 46, Wan Noraini was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. She is also taking medication for high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Her husband, Mohd Noor Hitam, 62, also has the same ailments and has suffered two different strokes – the first caused a bout of memory loss; the second, partial lower body paralysis, which he has since recovered from.
Two out of their five children are currently obese; one of them, aged 30, suffers from early onset of hypertension. Four of their grandchildren are showing signs of being overweight.
As a cook, Wan Noraini is well aware of the need to favour healthy food preparation methods over matters of taste, but they still like their nasi lemak and ayam goreng (fried chicken). Their battle with weight, as Wan Noraini sees it, is due to genetics as well as a lack of exercise.
“My twin boys are the only ones in the family who are of a healthy weight. They are very active in sports and play a lot of futsal. The rest of us have a lot of catching up to do. I don’t know what else we can do except change our lifestyles completely.”