23 June 2024

Don’t make it complicated

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By Dr Nahrizul Adib Kadri

A 28 May letter to the editor in The New Straits Times entitled “‘Fattest nation’ needs to slim down drastically” rightly highlights the dire health crisis Malaysia is facing. With 73 percent of deaths related to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and hypertension, and with staggering numbers of our population affected by these conditions, there is an urgent need for action.

The author’s call for a focus on fitness and healthy eating within the workplace is timely and necessary. However, while I agree with these proposals, I believe there is an additional layer to consider: the cultural complexity of eating and the necessity for simplicity and responsibility in our approach to food.

Malaysia’s rich culinary heritage is deeply ingrained in our social psyche. Eating is not just about sustenance; it is a way of connecting, celebrating, and expressing our cultural identity. We celebrate happy occasions with food; we also celebrate with food when we are sad. We have that slice of cake to celebrate the joyous times, but we also crave for sweet things when we are down with despair.

I truly believe that this cultural dimension is the reason making the concept of healthy eating appear daunting to many of us. “How to eat healthily at mamak?” becomes a very valid question.

The idea of shifting dietary habits can feel overwhelming, especially when faced with the vast array of (mis)information and divided opinions on what constitutes a healthy diet. The Atkins diet is not that much different than ketogenic diet, you say? And what about paleo, vegan and all those fad diets; and what about this latest Blue Zone thingy where people can live up to 100 years old by eating certain things in certain ways?

As with my previous articles, I am all into definitions. And that’s why I believe the key lies in demystifying and simplifying the term ‘healthy eating’. And the natural order of things obviously is to teach our younger generation to be responsible consumers. This involves simplifying the message around nutrition and encouraging a balanced approach to food consumption without sacrificing our cultural and social practices when it comes to food.

Firstly, we need to advocate for a balanced diet that is both accessible and relatable. Rather than promoting restrictive diets or exotic superfoods, we should focus on incorporating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins into our daily meals. Forget categorising certain foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Go for simple definitions instead, such as reducing sugar intake and opting for whole foods over processed ones. When eating out, replace sugary drinks with plain water or their ‘kosong’ versions. These ‘new’ perspectives can have a significant impact on health without alienating individuals from their cultural food practices.

Secondly, we must instil a sense of responsibility in our younger generation regarding their food choices and intake quantity. This involves educating them about the real purpose of eating as a form of biological sustenance, and empowering them to make informed decisions. “Eating to live, not living to eat” should become their daily mantra.

In addition to promoting healthy eating, the NST author also suggested for workplace fitness programs, which are commendable. On-site gym facilities, incentives for meeting fitness goals, and flexible scheduling for exercise can indeed bring a healthier, more productive workforce. However, these initiatives should be complemented with educational campaigns that emphasise the simplicity of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Awareness campaigns should not only highlight the importance of physical activity but also provide practical, easy-to-follow advice on making healthier food choices. For instance, talks on responsible choices when eating out, workshops on meal planning, and tips on reading food labels can help demystify the concept of healthy eating.

Ultimately, the goal is to create an environment where making healthier choices, be it when dining in or eating out, is both easy and appealing. By simplifying the conversation around healthy eating and fostering a culture of responsibility and moderation, we can begin to address the root causes of our health crisis.

In conclusion, while the author’s call to action is crucial, it is equally important to recognise and respect the cultural significance of food in our country. Let us embrace both fitness and mindful eating, ensuring a healthier future for us all.

Perhaps that option of not having rice while ordering your next plate of nasi kandar is not really that weird, after all.


The author is an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Universiti Malaya, and teaches biomedical engineering economics, among other subjects. He may be reached at nahrizuladib@um.edu.my