“EAT a variety of foods within your recommended intake” — this warns us that moderation is the key to healthy eating.
Assuming that one leads a sedentary lifestyle, calorie intake for both men and women should not exceed 2,000 and 1,500 kcal per day. Failure to maintain the right balance of diet increases the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which include heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Governments have a central role in promoting healthy eating habits. In Malaysia, to improve the nutritional status, comprehensive nutrition plans, such as the National Plan of Action for Nutrition of Malaysia (NPANM) 1996, 2006 and 2016, were formulated. Specifically to guide healthy eating, the Malaysian Healthy Plate campaign of #sukusukuseparuh, or “quarter, quarter, half”, promotes the division of plate portion to a quarter for protein, a quarter for complex carbohydrates, and half for fruits and vegetables.
However, these efforts have proven insufficient to urge Malaysians to be mindful of the potential health risks caused by bad eating habits. Most Malaysians fail to translate the concept of healthy eating into practice. At present, 63 per cent of adults may be facing at least one NCD risk factor, such as obesity, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, which is caused by bad eating habits.
In an urban setting, there are at least four major factors that hinder Malaysians from eating healthily, such as time constraints, inconvenience of healthy food availability, low purchasing power and low level of awareness. As there are more than 70 per cent of Malaysians in urban areas, influencing this group of people would be the first step in addressing the problem.
FIRST, healthy food choices need to be made more readily available for desk-bound or office workers. Recently, the supply of online food delivery is getting higher, which eliminates the need for consumers to drive to restaurants as well as ensuring they get proper meals on time. The trend also contributes to the mushrooming of healthy food deliveries in the Klang Valley.
Looking at the trend in Australia, there are collaborations between the corporate sector and restaurants that provide healthy food to inculcate better eating habits among workers. In such collaborations, organisations promote the restaurants that sell healthy food to their employees via mobile applications.
SECOND, increase the awareness of healthy food alternatives that are locally produced. The rise of social media or “word-of-mouth” promotion can encourage healthy eating, for instance, the idea of sharing photos and information such as superfoods have increased the awareness of a well-balanced diet worldwide. This can be replicated in promoting local fruits and vegetables that are rich in minerals and are relatively cheaper than imported superfoods.
THIRD is to impose tax on sugar-based products to optimise healthcare delivery systems. Ideally, taxes discourage consumption of targeted items and increase consumption of the alternatives.
Malaysia is planning to impose tax on unhealthy food by 2020. Further, Malaysia also targets a minimum number of 15 formulated or reformulated less-sugary food products per year. This is essential to control sugar consumption as it contributes to obesity in children. Data suggest that Malaysian children’s sugar intake is more than 10 teaspoons a day, which exceed the daily recommendation of three to eight teaspoons. In addition, tax collection can be used to increase the allocation on healthcare.
In the case of Hungary, a strategy to channel the tax collected into public health spending has encouraged manufacturers to change their product formula and created a revenue to offset the healthcare cost of diet-related illness.
Similarly, Malaysia can adopt the policy to optimise healthcare delivery systems in two ways: Additional revenue can reduce public health per capita spending, especially in purchasing medicine to cure NCDs. In the case of Hungary, US$219 million (RM863 million), or 1.2 per cent of government health expenditures, were collected; and, it would enable Malaysia to increase its allocation of gross domestic products (GDP) on healthcare, which means better health outcome such as lower infant mortality rate and higher life expectancy. At the moment, Malaysia spends 4.3 per cent of its GDP on healthcare, which is lower than developed countries, which stands at 17.2 per cent.
In conclusion, if Malaysians understand the huge disadvantages of bad eating habits, then the implementation of the recently announced 13-point policies in promoting healthier living environment will be smooth.
However, negative responses from the public seem to indicate a different path, where they choose to be in denial of the correlation between eating habits and health risks. Perhaps, the issue in changing society’s mentality is not the matter of “not understanding”, but “not believing”.