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Perspective: Caught Between Satisfying Appetite And Maintaining Good Health

04/01/2022 12:20 PM

By Sakini Mohd Said

KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – Many a person must have gone through those moments when they are torn between caving in to the urge to eat and prioritising their health.  

Nor Athirah Zainol, 37, faces this dilemma frequently but on behalf of her mother who has diabetes and suffered a stroke recently. Her mother enjoys drinking teh tarik or tea sweetened with spoonfuls of condensed milk. She would ask for it every day and would sulk or even pick a fight if her request is not entertained.

Photo for illustrative purposes. -- Credit

“For other people, it may be a small matter but my siblings and I face a lot of pressure. We are actually in a dilemma as we don’t want to be labelled as ungrateful for not fulfilling our mother’s request (for teh tarik) but we are worried about her diabetes as her blood sugar level once reached 27 mmol/L and she had to be admitted to hospital,” said Nor Athirah, who works in the public sector.

The reality is, consuming sugar-laden food and beverages is not only an issue for senior citizens but the younger generation as well.



The “delicious food culture” now prevailing in society is an indication that many people are indifferent to their health as they make a beeline for food and beverages with high fat and sugar content, said Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia community medicine expert Prof Dr Sharifa Ezat Wan Puteh.

Take a look at what’s available in the market. Various types of supposedly unique and exotic drinks have emerged to tantalise taste buds but they all have one thing in common – excessive sugar.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) community health medicine expert Prof Dr Sharifa Ezat Wan Puteh. Photo courtesy of Dr Sharifa Ezat.

Members of the public are willing to queue up and wait patiently for a cup of bubble tea, also known as boba tea or pearl milk tea, despite being priced at between RM10 and RM15 each.

Boba tea is essentially milk tea to which “pearls” made of tapioca starch are added. This beverage is usually sweetened with brown sugar which gives it a creamy texture and dark colour.

Also available in the market is a wide array of desserts and snacks laden with sugar and salt. Consuming these over the long term can lead to the risk of contracting non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which include diabetes.



Not surprisingly, one in five adults in Malaysia has diabetes and face the risk of developing serious complications.  

Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah himself has labelled diabetes as the “recipe for other diseases”.

This is because diabetes can lead to hypertension and heart disease and affect organs such as the eyes and kidneys, as well as the nervous system.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin. -- fotoBERNAMA (2021) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

Recently in November, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin was quoted as saying that Malaysia cannot be regarded as a healthy nation due to its high obesity rate and number of people suffering from heart disease.

“If you ask me as a minister whether Malaysia is a healthy nation now, (my answer is) ‘no’. We are among the nations with the highest rate of obesity and heart disease, and comorbidities are among the reasons for COVID-19 deaths in this country,” he said.  

In Malaysia, ischemic heart disease was the main cause of death in 2020, accounting for 18,515 of the 109,155 medically-certified deaths.

This particular disease has remained the main cause of death in this country for over two decades, increasing from 11.6 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2020.

The National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) 2019 data has shown that high sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels are the major risk factors for cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack.

Photo for illustrative purposes. -- Credit

Dr Sharifa Ezat said although people are aware of the health issues caused by unhealthy eating habits, most of them pay no heed as they find themselves caught in the “tasty food” culture.

“We are worried about a rise in NCD cases, especially diabetes. This can be expected because during the MCO (Movement Control Order), many people were working from home and leading a sedentary lifestyle.

“Also, for those in the lower-income groups, the MCO led to a change in their dietary patterns as they were forced to eat more carbohydrate-rich food like rice. This is because they couldn’t afford to buy vegetables and fruits,” she said.



Photo for illustriative purposes. Credit

The NHMS 2019 data also showed that the prevalence of diabetes among young Malaysians aged 18 and above had increased from 11.2 percent in 2011 to 13.4 percent in 2015. In 2019, it rose to 18.3 percent (3.9 million) of the adult population.

Dr Sharifa Ezat regards this situation as worrying because diabetics who contract COVID-19 face the risk of more severe infection and death.

Data from the Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre has also revealed that death due to COVID-19 is 3.7 times higher among patients with comorbidities than those without any comorbidity.

Having recognised the seriousness of this health issue, the government has, under the 12th Malaysia Plan, increased its efforts to fight NCDs and this includes implementing more awareness programmes and carrying out more comprehensive screening exercises.

Photo for illustrative purposes. -- fotoBERNAMA (2022) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

In fact, in Budget 2022, the government has proposed to impose an excise duty on premixed beverages such as chocolate, cocoa, malt, coffee and tea.

“Like it or not, people have to accept the fact that we have to live with the COVID-19 virus. And, as we already know, the risks are higher for people with NCDs. This is why it is so important for them to change their behaviour and watch what they eat. If we don’t (take care of ourselves), who else will? The government will not be able to succeed without everyone’s involvement,” Dr Sharifa Ezat added.  


Translated by Rema Nambiar



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