Over the years, Malaysia has been regularly labelled as the most obese country in Asia – if not Southeast Asia. So, it is not surprising that the country has become more health conscious. The Ministry of Health (MOH) has even implemented new national health policies in attempts to curb the issue.

Furthermore, with recent global and local controversy surrounding nutritional claims on manufactured food products – it has become more apparent now than ever that the population in this era are getting more health conscious. As you are what you eat, it is no wonder that debates on nutrition – especially sugar content – are now happening among Malaysians.

If a healthy diet and lifestyle is of utmost importance in this era – why are Malaysians finding it difficult to be healthy? Is it really that hard to achieve? What are they missing here? 

Research more before jumping to conclusions

Most recently, Malaysians have been questioning the definition and validity of the “Healthier Choice” logo by the MOH, after a video allegedly accusing Nestlé's popular Milo drink of containing excessive amounts of sugar went viral.

The Healthier Choice logo is an initiative launched the MOH, in line with the strategy of the National Plan of Action for Nutrition Malaysian (NPANM) III to promote healthy eating and active living for the public. Photo credit: Nutrition Department/MOH
The Healthier Choice logo is an initiative launched the MOH, in line with the strategy of the National Plan of Action for Nutrition Malaysian (NPANM) III to promote healthy eating and active living for the public. Photo credit: Nutrition Department/MOH

“The Healthier Choice logo is an initiative to assist consumers to choose healthier options for manufactured foods on the shelves and divided into food categories,” explains Professor Dr Winnie Chee Siew Swee, President of the Malaysian Dietitians’ Association (MDA).

For example, when it comes to the standard criteria, the sugar content in beverages is set strictly around sugar content per 100ml – meeting the criteria of less than 12g per serving, she highlights. In addition, this evolves and becomes stricter, encouraging manufacturers to re-formulate and lower salt, sugar and fat contents in their products – which narrows down to about only one-third of products labelled as healthy.

These are detailed in the MOH guidelines that are available online, which consumers can easily access to understand why food products are labelled the “Healthier Choice”.

“It’s important for consumers to understand this (the Healthier Choice guideline) before making judgement,” Professor Chee emphasised, “and everything is transparent as can be seen from the MOH website.” Photo credit: International Medical University Malaysia
“It’s important for consumers to understand this (the Healthier Choice guideline) before making judgement,” Professor Chee emphasised, “and everything is transparent as can be seen from the MOH website.” Photo credit: International Medical University Malaysia

A healthy diet may also change with time, lifestyles and disease patterns. According to WHO, the current definition of a healthy diet is it “can protect against malnutrition in all its forms, as well as non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.”

Adding on to this, Ms Rozanna M Rosly, Head of Dietetic Services in the UM Specialist Centre (UMSC), details that “a healthy diet will support the body’s requirements in addition to exercise, which can be met from a diet that is varied with the balanced recommended portion sizes, suggested frequency and optimal quality to meet the individual nutritional needs.”

“The important thing is the principles of healthy eating should be evidence-based and supported by science and research,” echoes Professor Chee – as “no one diet is the best”.

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Encouraging self-education and initiations

In this digital age, it is not difficult to obtain information and knowledge. One should be able to teach themselves about balanced diet and nutritional content easily, through relevant and appropriate sites.

“Obtain the right information from credible websites,” advices Professor Chee. “Read comments from qualified experts with proper nutrition and dietetics qualification or professional websites which represent the nutrition and dietetics experts.”

“Reputable local websites will provide resources and information that are backed up by research and evidence,” iterates Ms Rozanna, such as the Malaysian Dietitians’ Association, Nutrition Society of Malaysia, National Cancer Society Malaysia and Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity (MASO).

“The information is available across many platforms”, comments Professor Chee, which includes radios, televisions, newspapers and even messages in the eateries. Photo credit: Malaysian Dietitians’ Association (MDA)
“The information is available across many platforms”, comments Professor Chee, which includes radios, televisions, newspapers and even messages in the eateries. Photo credit: Malaysian Dietitians’ Association (MDA)

Additionally, many consumers trust doctors for correct information. Therefore, “doctors should also check the facts and disseminate the right information to their patients,” comments Professor Chee, and that “evidence-based nutrition should be practised, as they would with medicines.”

Both Professor Chee and Ms Rozanna strongly agree that HCPs can collaborate and promote awareness by providing the right information, practical tips and resources to the public. They can also encourage or educate the public to read ingredient lists and nutrient labels, and referring them to proper experts to help decipher the nutrition information, or to the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines – prepared by “respected and qualified professionals who comb through the science and evidence to make recommendations for the public”, details Professor Chee.

“Attending public talks conducted by qualified healthcare professionals (HCPs) that are advertised in the newspapers and online news portals” is also another method of obtaining information, suggests Ms Rozanna.

Furthermore, “making small changes” is also an effort in improving one’s lifestyle – for instance, eating simple home-cooked meals, ensuring adequate fluid intake, sleep and rest, exercising more and avoiding fad diets influenced by non-qualified HCPs, echoes Ms Rozanna.

Ms Rozanna was a guest speaker at Tollyjoy Baby Day last July, to talk about nutrition for pregnant mothers and babies. She describes a healthy diet as “a diet that will help maintain or improve general health and prevent diseases” and “provides the body with all the essential nutrition and nutrients, which include protein, fats, vitamins, minerals, fluids and adequate calories.” Photo credit: Ms Rozanna M Rosly
Ms Rozanna was a guest speaker at Tollyjoy Baby Day last July, to talk about nutrition for pregnant mothers and babies. She describes a healthy diet as “a diet that will help maintain or improve general health and prevent diseases” and “provides the body with all the essential nutrition and nutrients, which include protein, fats, vitamins, minerals, fluids and adequate calories.” Photo credit: Ms Rozanna M Rosly

“Malaysians know what should be done to lead a healthy lifestyle,” comments Professor Chee. “The bigger challenge is why do Malaysians not possess the determination to change their diet and lifestyle? We tend to believe in quick fixes rather than taking the longer-term benefit of putting in effort to eat healthy, eat less and move more!”

Creating awareness – everyone’s responsibility

Having a healthy lifestyle does not limit to only self-care. “Our socioeconomic status, education level or knowledge, and environment play a fundamental role in our choice of diet and lifestyle,” explains Ms Rozanna.

Inferencing from a study, on top of a healthy lifestyle intervention for the low-income group in urban cities, Ms Rozanna suggests that, “the government or employers could assist in financial subsidy to create awareness and conduct continuous educational campaigns to the general public.”

These can be in the forms of health talks, awareness campaigns, and providing healthy foods for the low-income population.

The Healthy Kids Programme Malaysia produced a simple guide for children to choose their canteen food wisely. Photo credit: Nestlé Healthy Kids
The Healthy Kids Programme Malaysia produced a simple guide for children to choose their canteen food wisely. Photo credit: Nestlé Healthy Kids

Other public facilities such as schools, work places and residential communities also need to play a part. As Ms Rozanna suggests, schools can provide affordable healthy foods; and residents can encourage sustainable eating by planting fresh vegetables, instead.

The Ministry of Education and the MOH have taken first steps in banning processed foods – such as fish balls, meatballs, and fishcakes – in school canteens after concerns over child nutrition arose upon results of the 2016 National Health and Morbidity survey. It showed 28% of children aged between 23 months and 12 years in Putrajaya were stunted due to chronic malnutrition.

“We should have trust in our healthcare system and the health experts in our country who have been entrusted to protect the health of Malaysians,” emphasises Professor Chee.

Many steps have been taken – and still continue – to create awareness and educate individuals to help make more informed choices of their food intake. As such, Malaysians should “support the efforts to make the food environment healthier”. MIMS


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