Human Writes: This foodie paradise we're living in is killing us

  • Living
  • Sunday, 22 Oct 2017

When my elder sister was a child, her legs were so skinny that my uncle named her “Chopsticks”. All of us six children were slim, but my sister’s bony, spindly legs took the cake. Obesity was far from her problem.

Mothers then worried about feeding children the right nutrients for growth as well as to fatten them up. Because in those days, when children played outside a lot, watched little television and had no electronic games, childhood obesity was rare.

Fast forward to today and the tables have turned. Parents are now watching their children’s weight while obesity is becoming a new norm. There are now 10 times more obese children than there were 40 years ago globally, according to a new study in medical journal The Lancet, released for World Obesity Day last week.

The most accelerated increase in childhood obesity was in Asia, found the study, which was led by the World Health Organisation. In Malaysia, the rise of obesity over the last few decades is simply shocking.

Consider: in 1996, about 4% of the adult population were obese, according to the 2nd National Health Morbidity Survey (NHMS). By 2003, that figure had doubled to 8%, and by 2006, it jumped to 14%, the 3rd NHMS found.

The 2006 survey also found almost a third of adults were overweight. (Obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index – BMI – or weight-to-height ratio, of 30 or more, while being overweight is a BMI between 25 and 29.9.)

In 2014, we got the moniker “heavyweight of Asia”. With almost half of all adults overweight or obese, a study in The Lancet found, we were possibly the heaviest nation in the continent. How much worse is this going to get?

Individual action is critical. But we need to look at a wider level too. Our whole environment is “obesogenic” – that is, it encourages unhealthy heating and lack of activity. The “foodie” culture that we take such pride in may be our undoing.

Food is everywhere and anywhere, 24/7, ready-to-eat, ready-to-go, cheap, sweet, and mostly fried. Curry puffs, fried chicken, roti canai, kueh, char kway teow, teh tarik tempt us from every corner.

A report on Vox news last week looked at how food environments enable overeating. While the report focuses on the gargantuan obesity epidemic in the United States, it provides – pardon the pun – food for thought for Malaysia.

Some chilling and disturbing parallels across both our food cultures are:

We Love To Eat Out

Americans now cook less and eat out more, the Vox report says. In 2015, they spent more money on eating out than on groceries. Research shows people typically eat 20% to 40% more calories in restaurant meals than with home-cooked food. Almost two-thirds of Malaysians eat at least one meal outside every day. And even among that one-third who eat at home, 13% have a meal originating from outside, a study by Taylor’s University found. In comparison, only one in five meals are eaten out in Spain, while in Germany, it is one in seven.

We Slurp Down Sweet Drinks

Americans love their sweetened, fizzy drinks. We love sugar-loaded tea and coffee; we also love sweet flavoured milks, juices, and sweet soya milk. One popular local brand of infant formula has 13 teaspoons of sugar in a serving! Sugar is more destructive than alcohol to us, with its link to so many diseases, so how about a sugar sin tax? Several countries actually have a tax on sugary drinks. The Malaysian Government is currently studying Mexico’s tax, which led to a drop in consumption of sweet drinks by 10% in 2016. But would our tax cover sweetened condensed milk, a local favourite with tea and coffee?

We Don’t Eat Much Fruit Or Vegetables

When it comes to eating veggies, Americans mostly eat potatoes and tomatoes. There’s a supply problem. We live in a luscious cornucopia of colourful fresh produce, yet, only one out of 15 Malaysians eat enough fruits and vegetables. The Ministry of Health started a campaign to get us to eat more fresh produce last year. How about schools providing some fresh fruit?

We Blitz Kids With Junk Food Ads 

Multinationals spend billions on junk food advertising. Children growing up in the United States and here see these ads every day. A 2014 study revealed Malaysian children’s high exposure to unhealthy foods ads on local TV channels; advertising of sweetened drinks trebled during school holidays. We should simply ban such ads aimed at children. We need to protect our children from products that cause ill health. Who would agree to cigarette advertising aimed at children?

The obesity problem is a huge one, and it’s going to take big, big actions, including hard policies and tough taxes, to see real change.

Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at

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