Becoming healthier extends far more than just weight loss and eating better
by ZAHIN ZAILANI / pic TMR
HEALTH has been a long withstanding crisis in Malaysia and it always revolved around non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), NCDs include cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases.
Meanwhile, the International Trade Association (ITA) stated that for Malaysia in particular, NCDs also include stroke and hypertension.
They are the biggest contributor to premature mortality among older adults in the country.
NCDs, according to the WHO, can be caused by a myriad of factors, mainly physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet.
Obesity and Chronic Disease Rates
According to ITA, current trends suggest a Malaysian will be spending an estimated 9.5 years of life expectancy in poor health due to NCDs or chronic diseases.
Meanwhile, a National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) states that one in every five Malaysian adults was diagnosed with diabetes, three in 10 people with hypertension and four in every 10 people were diagnosed with high cholesterol.
However, these diseases can be mitigated and prevented even through seemingly small changes in one’s lifestyle.
Perak Health Department deputy director Dr Feisul Idzwan Mustapha explained that dietary choices can have a significant impact on chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
“There are several aspects here. Excessive sugar and fat intake get converted into energy and stored as fat in the body, leading to obesity and heart diseases.
“Saturated fat, in particular, has a direct impact on atherosclerosis and that leads to heart attacks and strokes,” Dr Feisul told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).
According to The Straits Times, Malaysians are getting heart disease eight years earlier than the global average.
Compared to our South-East Asia contemporaries, the average age of Malaysians who suffer a heart attack is 58 whereas Thailand is 63 and Singapore is 68.
This concerning statistic is that about a quarter, or 24.7% of Malaysians, are not aware of having high cholesterol.
This is due to it having no noticeable symptoms as the only way of detecting it is through a blood test.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said obesity is linked to higher triglyceride levels, higher LDL cholesterol levels and lower HDL cholesterol levels. According to the NHMS Adolescent Health Survey 2022, approximately one in three Malaysian adolescents is classified as overweight or obese.
Health Ministry (MoH) dietetic officer Syed Hafizal Ardi Syed Omar said obesity is a risk factor for other NCDs such as diabetes, hypertension and hypercholesterolemia.
Hence, when a quarter of Malaysians are unaware of high cholesterol, as well as obesity rates in adolescents being one in three, this shows that there is a high amount of people at risk of these diseases.
Hence, Malaysians should be informed on ways to combat this through dietary and lifestyle changes.
“It does not necessarily have to be large sweeping changes that are expensive, some are just a matter of watching what you eat.
“Consume a complete and balanced meal, and a quantity that matches daily needs can help prevent obesity,” Syed Hafizal told TMR.
Meanwhile, Dr Subashini Ambigapathy, a family medical consultant from the Kinta Health Department, said other chronic diseases that are also easily prevented include cerebrovascular disease, ischaemic heart disease and fatty liver.
Misconceptions About Dieting
Despite all these easily preventable methods, there are still many misconceptions regarding dieting.
“Eating healthy is not and does not have to be expensive. Reducing the portion, reducing food and drinks that are high in fat, sugar and salt is not that hard,” said Dr Feisul.
He also suggested following the Malaysian Health Plate, a plate of food consisting of a quarter plate of grains or cereals; a quarter plate of fish, poultry, meat or legumes and half a plate of fruits and vegetables.
Another misconception in dieting and nutrition is the need for weight loss supplements.
Dr Subashini said weight loss supplements may contain ingredients which may be harmful and not Food and Drug Administration-approved, leading to potential cancer risks.
Therefore, Malaysians who wish to lose weight must be wary and cautious of weight loss medications.
Syed Hafizal added that there are no shortcuts in dieting.
“Taking only weight loss supplements or fat-burning products is not enough to reach your goal as it must come with a balanced and healthy diet.
“Dieting or losing weight should be enjoyable. Enjoy your favourite food but with the right portion,” he said.
Becoming healthier extends far more than just weight loss and eating better. Losing weight, depending on the person, varies in duration. Therefore, it is integral that we improve both physical and mental health.
Maintaining a constant healthy lifestyle is very complex with many challenges such as laziness, work or other obligations.
Therefore, one must be able to commit to this long-term goal of improving health over a longer period of time.
Dr Subashini said Malaysians ought to exercise a minimum of 150 minutes per week, based on individual capabilities and the FITT approach (frequency, intensity, type, and timing of specified exercise prescription).
She also recommended stress management through relaxation therapy, music therapy, meditation and yoga as it will help combat the lack of motivation or viewing exercising as stressful.
Dr Feisul said firstly, a person must have a strong reason to change towards a healthy lifestyle and to sustain it. This is often an internal motivation, for example, being healthy to be able to take care of his or her family.
“Support is also important throughout this journey. It can be from family, professionals or digital apps and wearables,” he said.
Meanwhile, Syed Hafizal said one must also make external changes to stay motivated. “Set realistic targets and timeline; seek guidance from professionals on how to eat healthy and improve your quality of life. Surround yourself with a supportive group or those who have the same goals as yours. Lastly and most importantly, be consistent,” he said.
It is crucial to know that becoming healthy is more than just weight loss, it is also about improving oneself through a change in behaviour and self-improvement.
Syed Hafizal added that there is only so much awareness government initiatives can do, other than MoH’s programmes such as the Malaysian Food Pyramid and the Young Doctors Programme in primary schools.
To conclude, diet, nutrition, chronic disease prevention, dietary guidelines and lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on Malaysians and the future of the country.
- This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition