Voices 2017: Diet and Nutrition Interactive Roundtable

KUALA LUMPUR: “We are in a health crisis. Malaysia is the fattest nation in South East Asia,” said Meera Sivasothy, BFM producer and presenter, as she opened the ‘Voices 2017: Diet and Nutrition’ interactive roundtable held at KLTC on the 17th June.

The event.

Organized by UNMC’s vibrant School of Media, Languages, and Cultures, this installment of Voices 2017 was a departure from its past themes that discoursed pertinent social, cultural, political issues within Malaysian society. Erstwhile, since 2013, Voices has observed and evaluated identity, culture, and media; however, this episode of the series expanded to address the looming criticality of public health in Malaysia. The event showcased latest research on Malaysian health, the risks of health complications that Malaysians are susceptible to, and insights on incremental changes that we can progressively make towards leading a healthier lifestyle.

The speakers.

Moderating the forum panel was Meera Sivasothy, alongside speakers: Puan Zalma bt Addul Razak, the director of the Nutrition Division at the Ministry of Health; Professor Dr Winnie Chee, the President of the Malaysian Dietitians Association; Dr Suresh Mohankumar, a research scientist in metabolic physiology and pharmacology from UNMC’s Faculty of Science; and Dr Soma Mitra, from UNMC’s School of Biosciences, an expert in nutrition, metabolism, and human physiology.

Facts and numbers.

The discussion began with pressing statistics, out of which these were outstandingly shocking: 94% of our population doesn’t consume fruits and vegetables, 3.5 million Malaysians are diabetic, 1 in 2 of us are overweight, and 1 in 5 are obese. Our average calorie intake should lie between the spectrum of 1800 – 2200 calories per day, varying from individuals contingent upon factors such as age, sex, and levels of exercise; however, the quotidian Mamak Mee Gorengs and Teh Tariks that we consume as mere evening snacks cumulate to around 1000 calories itself.

Puan Zalma informed the audience that the UN has declared the Decade of Action on Nutrition: 2016- 2025, providing an action plan to all stakeholders; which includes healthy eating. Malaysians require dietitians and nutritionists to work together and teach and advise people about this initiative.

However, Dr Soma said, “Malaysians love eating out. Partly due to time constraints of cooking at home, almost every evening we see families gathering to eat outside. These profit-driven food outlets do not cater towards healthier eating options, and without any physical activity, we begin storing calories and aren’t expending it as we should.”

The food pyramid.

The discussion also steered to address the pseudo-healthy trend of ubiquitous fruit juice bars. Dr Winnie stated that in the food pyramid, 5 servings of fruits and vegetables should be consumed in a day. These contain fibre and vitamins; however, these fruit juice bars add substantial sugar to their juices, thus becoming sources of high calories.”

“It matters where the calories are from. With 1 gram of sugar you get an x amount of calories, and you can get the same amount of calories by taking in honey,” added Dr Suresh. He compels people to be mindful about how can we replace our calories with healthier calories. These have molecules and compounds that differ from the bad calories.

Additionally, to advocate proper nutrition, there is the declaration of Malaysian Dietitians Day and the movement of nutritionists to kindergartens to speak with young children and parents. Good habits like these should be instilled during early stages, and Dr Winnie states, “we can leverage on the efforts of parents to pack healthy lunches for school”

Voices 2017
Talking solutions.

But the problem is deeply rooted. Meera points out that Malaysians are passively aware of what they should and shouldn’t eat. However this knowledge of healthy food choices doesn’t always translate into responsible actions. She illustrated this by mentioning the state of Selangor, whereby 24-hour operating Mamak stalls were intended to be closed down, however the people had backlashed against this from happening.

To this, Winnie responded, “If we are aiming for behavior change, we must look at the issue in totality. The imposition of sugar taxes doesn’t necessarily result in the reduction of obesity. Intervention must be concurrent on 3 levels: the individual level; community level; awareness/motivation level. We need a multifaceted approach for this to work.” She shared that some techniques of incorporating healthy living into our daily lifestyles which have proven to be successful is having workplace wellness regimes, and post-work exercise classes whereby one’s BMI contributes to their KPI.

As a word of advice, Dr Soma recommends students to incrementally change their attitude towards a healthier lifestyle. We may begin with our weekends, whereby we plan ahead for the week. Students can select a day to cook healthier meals, and engage in physical activities. Additionally, instead of driving to campus, we should opt to walk instead.

Concluding remarks.

Concluding the discussion, Puan Zalma urged all to download the ‘My Nutri Diary’ mobile app introduced by the Ministry of Health. Designed to log and track our dietary patterns, My Nutri Diary is different from other food consumption tracking apps. The food database on this app is based on the local Malaysian cuisine, purposefully personalizing it for our citizens.

In addition to this interactive roundtable, attendees and participants were given a body composition analysis and blood pressure screening by the Ministry of Health.

Written by Piya Raj Sukhani

"They say that great minds think alike, but also fools seldom differ"

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