Is obesity really proof of prosperity?

MARCH 9 — I was astounded at a statement made by a Malaysian lawmaker that the fact that Malaysians are obese is proof that we are a prosperous nation. 

It is, of course, self-evident that when a nation undergoes famine, its people will look starved. 

The iconic picture of an African child crouching in starvation while a vulture looks on comes to my mind. 

It is said that the journalist who shot that picture eventually killed himself and I totally get his impulse. 

So there is a certain truth to the idea that obesity is linked to prosperity. 

Obviously when there is enough luxury food items, people are bound to overconsume and become overweight and even obese.

However, there is one factor that this particular lawmaker had not taken into account and that is of nutrition. 

A nation can have what is normally perceived to be luxury food items and still be malnourished. How can this possibly happen, you might ask? 

The answer lies in our perception of luxury food items. This problem is not something new but has persisted since fast food first landed on our shores more than 50 years ago (the A&W in Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, if I’m not mistaken). 

When I was growing up in the 1980s, it was McDonalds. We would go to McDonalds perhaps once every month. Back then, Big Macs were actually big! 

It was not unusual for us not to be able to finish what we ordered and perhaps I am idealising here, but the food felt fresher too. It was the same for KFC, although the prices were not unreasonable (RM7-8 for a snack plate — something which I saved for two weeks before indulging myself), the quality of the food definitely felt better.

However, with the advances in food technology, certain foods became cheaper. This is certainly true in the UK. I remember visiting a friend’s student accomodation in the late 90s and she served me a variety of biscuits. 

I felt bad because I thought she must have spent over 10 pounds (RM40 back then) but it turned out it was only two pounds or less. A packet of biscuits was only 30 pence, it turned out! 

While it was perfect for a student’s budget, it was hardly nutritious food and simply satiated but did nor nourish much. 

Fast forward nearly 20 years to when the UK had its economic slowdown. Jobs were lost, the economy was slowing down and people were tightening their belts. 

One of the issues raised then was the cost of nutritious food. It turned out that a satisfactory home-cooked meal for a family of four cost 10 pounds (by then, about RM55). 

This meal would include a portion of meat, potatoes or rice and vegetables. However, one could get a chicken and chips bargain bucket for 8 pounds along with 1.5 litres of a soft drink. 

Chicken and chips is the ubiquitous cheap meal in the UK, usually sold by Pakistani or Bangladeshi immigrants. The meat is usually of very poor quality and the French fries a very serious health risk. 

On an unlucky day, you may get food prepared from the previous day. But it is cheap and filling and from experience, I can tell you that this food can make you obese fairly quickly!

It was at the time that the UK realised that it was actually more expensive to eat healthy. 

The nation was experiencing a rise in diseases simply because it was cheaper to eat fast food and this fast food was satiating but horribly malnourishing. 

Malaysia is having the same problem. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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