Malaysia's food problem is bigger than obesity

JUNE 10 — I spent a long time staring at my palms today. No, I was not scrying the future, but for the first time in my 40-odd years of existence my palms were flush and red.

It took a specialist in haematology to tell me that I had a pallor, one that could only be seen on my palms as my tanned skin hid it well.

My paleness as a child was the reason my mother would make me get as much sun as possible but it was something I took for granted -- the tiredness, the hollow ache in my bones and a tendency to fall asleep when I shouldn't.

All my life, it seemed, I had been running on empty, as my iron stores were scant. My digestive issues stopped me from absorbing the nutrients I needed, but the cure (iron pills) made my digestive issues worse, further preventing me from getting enough iron.

Now in the 21st century, there hasn't been much progress in treatment besides eating the damn pills. But studies have shown that eating them every other day and taking vitamin C, as well as avoiding caffeine and dairy on those days would maximise absorption while reducing side effects.

I have been lucky that my love of meat and abhorrence of vegetarian or vegan diets made sure I wasn't more iron-starved than I already was. Not many children are as lucky to have balanced diets.

It wasn't that long ago that a National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) found that the stunting in children under five years of age in Malaysia had increased from 17.2 per cent in 2006 to 20.7 per cent in 2016.

The pandemic has highlighted the struggle poor Malaysians endure in feeding themselves as well as their children. Seeing the foodstuff donated to poor families I noticed that generally they were inadequate for growing children.

GIving milk to young children is not necessarily the best idea, especially with lactose intolerance being prevalent in our society. They need a lot of food to fuel their physical and mental growth, something the average low-income earner cannot provide.

The standard practice in poorer communities is loading children up with starches to keep them full but during the lowest times of the movement control order (MCO), even rice was scarce.

Today an activist uploaded a picture on Facebook of all a poor family had left — a sole onion in a basket.

Despite that survey going around that shows the high prevalence of diabetes and obesity in Malaysia, the reality is that too many Malaysians are not getting enough to eat or enough of the right things.

With the most our government can come up with at the moment is RM50 to spend at a physical store, a universal basic income seems far away.

However, I don't see why we can't come up with a staple of just giving food basics to the poor. Even a free sack of rice per family would go a long way in helping alleviate some of the burdens of poverty.

We cannot keep asking NGOs to bridge the income gap because charity, as well-meaning as it is, is no replacement for government involvement in the welfare of the poor.

I am lucky that as a child my parents prioritised food over anything else. The amount of food I ate made up for the fact that I couldn't digest a lot of it well but any low-income child with my digestive issues would likely be chronically underweight.

Rice these days is fortified with extra nutrients so if a poor person is forced to subsist on just the grain, at least they won't be too chronically undernourished.

Fun fact: you could survive on rice for a bit but not on rabbit meat as it is so lean, it does not have enough fat and without fat, your body will suffer. It causes a form of protein starvation that is also called "rabbit starvation."

We cannot move forward as a country until we can take care of those who have the least. This is not a burden but a necessity; in an age where there is more food than there are people who can finish it all, there is no reason why anyone should starve.

Thus why I think Malaysians have to let go of the whole 'oh no Malaysians are eating so much and getting fat' idea and instead latch on to the important bit -- Malaysians aren't getting proper nutrition. That is the point here, not fat-shaming or ridiculous tips like abandoning oyster sauce for being too sweet.

Food staples should be a basic right and far more useful than RM50 e-wallet distribution when poorer families can't even afford smartphones in the first place.

Maybe by the time they figure out an alternative to horrible iron supplements we will figure out how to ensure no Malaysian is left to starve. Or, for that matter, any foreigner on our soil.

That being said, with the restrictions being eased over the next few weeks, I hope Malaysians will keep practising proper hygiene and keep wearing masks until a vaccine actually exists. 

Stay safe, wash your hands and don't be that guy standing right behind me at the supermarket cashier without a mask. I would rather not have to murder you so practise safe distancing and help keep me out of jail, at least for homicide

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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