The key to overcoming obesity is identifying the problems early and nipping them in the bud — during childhood. This is easier said than done because it takes commitment from everyone, especially parents. To be sure, the role of policymakers in this public health battle is crucial. But obesity is not a problem that government alone can solve. Government can and should help by making it easier for Malaysians, through appropriate policies, to embrace a healthy lifestyle. However, choosing what your family eats for breakfast, lunch or dinner is a personal matter and we hope parents appreciate the value of making the right choices where their children’s health is concerned.
If doctors find it difficult to discuss children’s weight problem with parents, it is usually because mothers and fathers refuse to acknowledge the fact that their offspring are fat. This observation is backed by research. A study last year found that 94.9 per cent of parents of overweight children believed their loved ones were “just right”. This finding resonates well with local culture because that is how older Malaysians view young fatties, erroneously believing that their expanding girth is a sign of good health. Admittedly, addressing the causes of childhood obesity is a complex and difficult task. We have a long way to go. The number of young Malaysians who need to lose weight is growing rapidly. A 2014 Nutrition Society of Malaysia nationwide study involving more than 80,000 primary and secondary schoolchildren showed that the prevalence of being overweight and obese among rural and urban children is high, at close to 30 per cent for both primary and secondary children. There is also a significant prevalence of stunting (seven per cent), which can also lead to obesity if a stunted child piles on the pounds.
Yes, childhood obesity is tragic. An obese child is more likely to grow up to be a fat adult. The origins of many non-communicable diseases, such as cholesterol build-up in the blood vessels and high blood glucose level, start from the primary school age. How did young Malaysians reach this stage? Much has been said about canteen operators selling junk food. And, let us not forget about the vendors who sell similar trash outside school gates and school bus drivers who tempt their young passengers with sugar-loaded confectionary. Hopefully, the recommendation to introduce nutritionists in all 10,000 schools in Malaysia materialises but that would have to wait until more nutritionists are available for the job. Meanwhile, a recently introduced programme, known as the C-HAT (Cara Hidup Anda Terbaik), wants to produce fit and productive schoolchildren by enhancing the knowledge of parents and teachers about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity in tackling obesity. NSM’s proposal to teach nutrition in all primary schools throughout Malaysia is worth considering. The outcome of the society’s project in Sabah and Sarawak found that nutritional lessons have helped to improve children’s knowledge and eating habits. When they opt for nourishing meals, this will push canteen operators to make changes in their menu. The overarching aim is to foster a culture of wholesome living both in and outside school.