Calories can’t tell the time

JANUARY 11 — A United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation report revealed that Malaysians consume an average of 2,910 calories daily.

And our neighbours? Indonesians 2,540 calories, Thais 2,530 calories, Filipinos 2,520 calories, and Cambodians 2,250 calories a day.

And since the recommended daily intake is about 2,000 calories for men, and 1,500 calories for women, it is no wonder that Malaysians hold the most obese people title in South-east Asia to date.

Accompanying it is the rise of non-communicable diseases in the country, putting strains on public health resources since diabetics and hypertensives are at risk of heart attacks and strokes. And the Ministry of Health is worried.

Well, rightly so. 

It’s not where, when and how we eat. It’s what

A small packet of nasi lemak with the usual condiments — some fried anchovies, a fifth of a boiled egg, a semi-slice of a cucumber, with a glass of teh tarik, is about 600 calories.

A piece of fried chicken will cost you another 100 calories.

Yes, delicious as they are, they are also calorie rich. Take enough, and your waist will grow. Even faster if you don’t move much.

But here’s the good news. 

The calorie count would be the same no matter where we have the nasi lemak. At home, restaurant, or in the car.

It will also be the same whether we have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. 

The weight gain isn’t generally about when, where, or how we eat it. It is about what we eat and the total consumption minus calories burned for the day.

And since Malaysians are mostly ignorant of how much they should take, and how much they are actually taking, limiting the operating hours of restaurants will not affect the weight situation much.

Between a 24-hour salad bar and a 24-hour fast food restaurant, the problem is not that they operate for 24 hours. The problem is in the type of food they serve. 

Educating Malaysians means empowering them to look for salad in the fast food restaurant instead of a hamburger at the salad bar. Take the stairs instead of lifts, escalators, and walk, stand instead of munching at their desks and counters.

And until we do that, Malaysians will continue making the wrong choices no matter where they are, no matter the time. Worse, their ignorance will affect children under their care leading to a nation that seems to be perpetually obese.

Thirty per cent of Malaysian children are already obese according to one report and 80 per cent of children who are obese beyond their first 10 years, will go on to become overweight adults.

Though frightening, I am not surprised.

Thinking back, I’ve had patients feeding their children Coca Cola to improve their child’s weight, Milo to play better in sports, and bottled orange juice for their Vitamin Cs. 

And these Coca Colas, Milos and bottled orange juice are not from 24-hour restaurants, mind you, but groceries that were bought and stored at home, from vending machines, 24-hour convenience stores... purchase decisions influenced by advertisements on billboards and TV.

So limiting the operating hours of eateries will not do much for public health. But education, and empowering Malaysians through awareness and enabling them to make better choices will.

Then, there are those who use food as a form of escapism.

People cope differently. Some people watch television. Some read, play games. There are those who smoke, drink as a form of escapism.

Others eat.

Problems at work, financial and familial fall outs — people eat to avoid unpleasant realities, allowing a momentary reprieve from circumstances. 

And since eating releases endorphins — the hormone that is described as being similar to morphine — restricting restaurants’ operating hours will not stop them from eating.

But addressing social economic problems such as cost of living, the quality of life, traffic will.

Malaysians need to learn that showering after meals doesn’t make them fat

The Ministry needs broad strategies to deal with an unhealthy population addicted to bad food. And one of them, as they correctly pointed out, is taxing sugar. 

They should also consider providing companies tax breaks to encourage a healthy lifestyle among their workers. It could lead to the company removing soft drinks and chips from vending machines, healthier food at canteens and cafeterias to issuing coupons and discounts for gym memberships.

And if that is successful, with the effect spilling over into Malaysian homes, we might even see a shift in market demand leading to grocery and convenience stores following suit in offering Malaysians a selection of produce and products that is better, healthier. 

Nourishing and more wholesome. 

And once you feel that you’ve been empowered to make the right choice, let me share with you about this nasi kandar restaurant in Ampang that serves delectable, mouth-watering and delicious Kedah Nasi Kandar.

To have a mouthful of the fragrant, aromatic rice with the sauce. To bite into the crispy, succulent, tender-fried chicken. To relish the seductive pas-de-deux as you slip into a pschedelic trance before taking a sip of cold, ice, tea. 

It’s a perfect way to spend an afternoon. 

That is, if, you are willing to spend 90 minutes swimming to burn off the calories.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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