Tuesday, August 9

Sarawak’s widening problem with obesity


Lingering away the night at Kuching’s famous Top Spot Food Court is just one such gastronomic delight in Sarawak’s capital that has made Malaysia deserving of its reputation as the pièce de résistance of Asia’s food world.

But it is this love affair with food combined with increasingly sedentary lifestyles and rising incomes that has gained Malaysia another, more unsavoury, title.

Malaysia is Asean’s most obese nation, with a recorded 15.1 per cent of Malaysians aged above 18 suffering from obesity, whi le more than 35 per cent are either obese or overweight with a bodymass index of more than 25, according to statistics from the National Health and Morbidity Surveys.

Sarawak, unfortunately, is also part of the obesity rise, an epidemic that can have drastic economic implications on a country’s social sector, namely upped healthcare expenditures, as well as a drop in work productivity resulting from lethargy.

“Sarawak is not an exception when it comes to rising obesity rates. In fact, we seem to be moving towards this trend because of better incomes and changed lifestyles,” Datuk Fatimah Abdullah, Sarawak’s Minister of Welfare, Women and Family Development, told Inside Investor.

In Sarawak, where per capita income hit RM41,000 in 2013, affluent lifestyles are rapidly changing the volume of food that is eaten, while retaining the unhealthy nature of traditional foods.

“Sarawakians have acquired a taste for fried and salted food.

When I was younger, we didn’t have TVs, refrigerators or electricity.

“So how did we preserve food? You had to preserve food by using salt and this taste has remained because our generation has been brought up being very familiar with salty tastes,” Fatimah reminisced.

Then there is, of course, the allure of Western fast food establishments, which have an uncanny ability to offer convenience and consistency all at once.

When combined with the mounting pressures placed on modern families to earn double incomes, while adapting to a more sedentary work environments that involve long hours stationed in front of a computer, it becomes evident how this epidemic has risen – and not only in the developing world.

“Even in Greece they are moving away from Mediterranean diets to chips, ice cream and Coke,” Dr Sumiter Broca, Policy Officer at the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation told Inside Investor.

“We have also not iced a similar pattern in Italy, which has a strong history of traditional cuisine, but has also taken to fast food.”

Dining out (or taking away) at brightly lit fast food restaurants also carries a badge that many in developing Asia look for to show their status, moving away from their rural past and towards acceptance of the culture of manufactured meal consistency.

“There is a prestige element associated with going to a KFC,” Dr Broca explained, giving an example.

“Just being able to show that you can afford to eat at a Western establishment is a draw.”

It’s a hard fight, but one not being totally ignored.

The spectre of losing economic productivity and burgeoning hospital bills associated with non-communicable diseases l inked to obesity such as diabetes and hypertension, has caused the government to take action.

In July 2012, the Sarawak Health Foundation was given RM50,0 0 0 by the Sarawak Foundation (Yayasan Sarawak) to create greater awareness in the public of the dangers of obesity.

Witnessing the ceremony was Chief Minister Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, who said, “many countries such as the US and Australia have fast rising obesity rates.

“We cannot stop this trend, but we can slow it down.”

Indeed, prevention has been identified as the best way to address obesity in general, with nutrition and physical education aimed specifically at children, who are the most vulnerable.

“We believe that prevention is better than cure, so that’s why we focus on young children, who we are increasingly displaying signs of becoming overweight even before they enter school.

“Assisting early childhood education also involves making sure that food operators at public schools are vetted and are providing nutritional options,” Fatimah said.

Publically run organisations and agencies, such as public libraries and mosques , offer exercise programmes throughout Malaysia, but beyond fighting to create a broader awareness, there may not be much that can be done.

“In reality, there are not quick-fix solutions. You cannot expect people to change mentalities overnight,” Tan Sri Ismail Bin Merican, the former Director General in the Malaysian Health Ministry and Pro Chancellor of MAHSA College, told Inside Investor in an interview last February.

Much of the burden, then, comes down to the reader, who ultimately makes the choice to balance their life and diet – no matter how rapidly they are changing.