Push for better lifestyle, healthier food choices to help address obesity

According to the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019, the prevalence of overweight Malaysian adults was 50.1 per cent, up from 44.5 per cent in 2011, and 47.7 per cent in 2015.

Additionally, the obesity rate among adults aged 18 years and older, stands at 19.7 per cent. A report by the World Obesity Federation estimates that 41 per cent of Malaysia’s adults will be obese by 2035, with an annual increase in adult obesity rates of 4.7 per cent from 2020, to 2035. Clearly, this could have severe implications on the country’s healthcare system and the economy.

In response, among other things, the Malaysian government introduced a sugar tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in 2019. The additional revenue generated from this tax was used to support dialysis facilities and diabetes treatment. In Budget 2024 announced late last year, this tax was increased from 40 sen, to 50 sen per litre.

While this and other healthy living initiatives are commendable and have merit, I believe one social aspect that we all can take part in and must address is the normalisation and celebration of obesity. I understand that it can be difficult to confront such a sensitive issue head-on. Saying something as it is, especially when it concerns health and personal choices, is never easy.

However, it needs to be done. Now, not later.

Remember how smoking was perceived in the early part of the 20th century? It was seen as “harmless”, even medicinal, too. Smoking was a socially-accepted norm, even on airplanes. It took decades of research and public health campaigns to shift public perception, and acknowledge the severe health risks associated with smoking. Today, smoking is recognised for what it is: a leading cause of various cancers, preventable diseases, and deaths.

Just as smoking was once glamorised and widely accepted, obesity is now being normalised and, in some cases, celebrated.

We need to stop calling obese children “cute”, and labelling overweight individuals as “curvy” when it is clear that their health is at risk. These euphemisms and positive spins on obesity only serve to mask the serious health issues that come with it.

Obesity is the leading cause of many health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity-related complications, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood glucose are major risk factors for heart disease. Obesity is also a significant risk factor for developing Type 2 diabetes, which can lead to severe complications if left unmanaged.

On top of that, obesity is associated with an increased risk of several types of cancer, including endometrial, breast, ovarian, prostate, liver, gallbladder, kidney, and colon cancer, with the risk of these cancers growing more serious as body weight increases.

By sugar-coating (no pun intended) the reality of obesity, we are doing a disservice to those who are struggling with their weight and to the wider community that faces rising healthcare costs and a diminished quality of life.

We need to change the narrative. Now, not later.

We should promote the benefits of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Once again, this does not mean shaming those who are obese, but rather, encouraging a shift towards healthier lifestyles. It means creating supportive environments where healthy food choices and regular physical activity are the norm, not the exception.

In conjunction with Sustainable Gastronomy Day which was held yesterday (June 18), let’s make a commitment to celebrate a healthy lifestyle instead. Let’s eat healthier and move more, taking one day at a time. Focus on doing better, no matter how incrementally small, than yesterday.

Let’s strive for a healthier life for all of us. Now, not later.

Dr Nahrizul Adib Kadri is an associate professor of biomedical engineering, and former director of the Corporate Communications Centre, Universiti Malaya.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.