Unaffordable diets drive obesity in Malaysia - Health expert

Cost as a barrier to healthy choices

09 Mar 2024 10:31am
Photo for illustration purpose only. - Illustrated by Sinar Daily
Photo for illustration purpose only. - Illustrated by Sinar Daily

SHAH ALAM - The country is currently facing a troubling increase in obesity rates, as recent health studies have highlighted.

The 2023 National Health Screening Initiative (NHSI) has unveiled startling figures, showing that 31.3 per cent of those screened are overweight, with an additional 22.2 per cent being classified as obese.

These statistics reveal that more than half of the Malaysians screened are either overweight or obese, presenting a concerning health scenario.

Health experts have pointed out the high cost of healthy food as a major deterrent to making healthier dietary choices, thereby contributing to the rise in obesity.

As a result, many families opt for more affordable but less nutritious options that are rich in empty calories.

Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy Chief Executive Officer Azrul Mohd Khalib said obesity affects all ethnic groups, with higher rates observed among those from less affluent backgrounds.

"The issue of rising obesity rates is indicative of potential market failures, where the higher cost of healthy foods makes them less accessible, discouraging healthier eating habits," he told Sinar Daily.

Alarmingly, Azrul also noted that children are becoming obese at increasingly younger ages, a trend that often extends into adulthood, with childhood obesity rates doubling in under a decade.

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Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Public Health Medicine Specialist Professor Dr Sharifa Ezat Wan Puteh highlighted that nearly one in five adults in Malaysia is obese, with the adult obesity rate currently at 19.7 per cent.

She warned of a looming health crisis, projecting a surge in obesity rates to 41 per cent by 2035, based on estimates from the World Obesity Federation.

"This trend poses significant risks to the healthcare system and the overall health of the population," she cautioned.

Consultant Public Health Specialist Professor Dr Hematram Yadav discussed the health risks associated with obesity, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and various heart conditions.

"Obesity rates are worsening in Malaysia," he said, referencing the 2023 National Health Morbidity Study which found that 50.1 per cent of Malaysians are overweight or obese.

This figure exceeds the global obesity prevalence of 13 per cent recorded in 2016.

Dr Hematram also noted that urban areas have the highest obesity rates, attributing this to poor diet and lack of physical activity.

"The rapid increase in obesity in Malaysia is largely due to sedentary lifestyles and high sugar consumption," he stressed.

The UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) report highlighted a concerning trend of increasing overweight and obesity rates in low and middle-income countries (LMICs), nearing those of higher-income nations.

Since 2006, overweight rates in low-income countries jumped from 20.3 per cent to 25.8 per cent, and from 21.4 per cent to 27 per cent in low-middle income countries, largely due to economic factors.

High costs and limited availability of healthy foods versus cheaper unhealthy options are exacerbating obesity rates across both urban and rural settings in these regions.

The report, drawing on data from countries like Indonesia, Zambia, Egypt, Nigeria, and Bolivia, pointed out the significant price gap between nutritious and unhealthy foods in developing countries, making a healthy diet unaffordable for three billion people worldwide.