Obesity prevention must begin at home

I REFER to the report “Lack of nutrition the culprit” (The Star, May 30) about the findings of the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019. The survey found that one in two Malaysians are obese, one-fifth of the population have diabetes and one-third have raised blood pressure.

While the public health doctor in me would like to begin preaching statistics about how poorly Malaysians are doing and how we could do better as a country, as a mother of three young children, I know what a struggle it is to raise a healthy family.

My eldest, an eight-year-old primary school pupil, has a big appetite and eats well at home. Despite knowing how to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy food, she succumbs to doughnuts and cold syrup drinks in her school canteen. She knows it’s unhealthy, but her plain water simply does not compare to the cold sweet drink on a hot day.

My picky eater pre-schooler struggles to maintain his weight but is lucky enough to go to a pre-school that prescribes a healthy menu that is exciting enough for children his age. Meanwhile, my toddler is just too spoiled to eat her daily serving of fruits and vegetables unless they are hidden in an unrecognisable pattern on her plate.

But we try, and we must because our children are already growing up in an obesogenic environment. Heavily marketed fast food (meals that make you happy) are often deemed cheaper compared to fresh home-cooked meals. Screen time distracts us from a sit-down family meal while advertisements on processed foods and other cultural factors such as “open houses” encourage everyone to keep on eating.

We must try because we know that developing good eating habits from young shapes the tastes and preferences of our children.

We must try because studies show that majority of children who are overweight will remain overweight as adults and will face a higher risk of obesity, diabetes-related complications and other non-communicable diseases (NCD).

The Health Ministry has been working closely with the Education Ministry to create a supportive environment for healthy eating in schools. For school-going children, we have the Guideline for Sale of Food and Drinks in School Canteens, which outlines the type of food that can and cannot be sold in school premises. However, we simply do not have the resources to monitor schools as closely as we would like to enforce the guideline. As parents, you can and should tell your school management if the guideline is flouted.

The Weight Management Guideline for School Children outlines the screening and referral mechanism for under- and overweight children. Do not be afraid if your child comes home with a referral from his or her school to see a healthcare provider.

Most importantly, please do not blame your child. We live in a world that is critical of excess weight (as evident in the amount of weight loss products in the market) while it offers an environment for overindulgence.

The Guidelines for Enforcement of Prohibition of Food and Beverages Outside Schools clearly state that sale of food and beverages within 40m of the school fence is prohibited. The sign is displayed outside the school. How many of us have complained to our local authorities when we see a breach of the regulations?

Prevention of obesity and other non-communicable diseases needs to begin at home and at a very early age.

As a mother, I know it is not easy to say no to our children all the time. That is why it is important to talk to them about nutrition and also lead by example.


Non-Communicable Disease Section

Ministry of Health Malaysia

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