KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Malaysians have a passionate love affair with their lip-smacking cuisine – rich curries, succulent fried chicken, buttery breads and creamy drinks – but it is increasingly an unhealthy relationship.
Malaysia is Southeast Asia’s fattest country, where a nationwide foodie culture is feeding mounting concern over what its health minister calls “an obesity epidemic”.
“We are the most obese nation in Southeast Asia, and Malaysians are becoming more and more obese,” Health Minister S Subramaniam told AFP, warning of a “crisis in unhealthy behaviour”.
Nearly 45 per cent of Malaysian men and almost half of women are overweight or obese, according to a 2013 study by UK medical journal Lancet, compared to global rates of around 30 per cent.
A recent report by consultants McKinsey Global Institution found obesity now costs the global economy $2 trillion in healthcare and lost productivity – or 2.8 per cent of global GDP – just $100 billion less than both smoking and armed conflict. The study warned almost half of the world’s adult population will be overweight or obese by 2030 and called for a “coordinated response” from governments, retailers and food and drink manufacturers.
In Malaysia, childhood obesity rates also are climbing, from less than 10 per cent a decade ago to nearly 14 per cent in 2008, according to the most recent figures, saddling health systems with a new generation of diabetes, hypertension and other obesity-related illnesses
Already, some 2.6 million adults have diabetes, a figure authorities expect to spike to 4.5 million in 2020. Malaysia has a population of around 29 million.
Civil engineer Kevin Lim is trying to slim down after doctors told him a few years ago that his life was at risk.
Lim, 40, who weighs 173 kg (380 pounds), has diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and joint pains from lugging his bulk around.
“All I knew was that eating made me happy. I was a couch potato, watching DVDs, and my weight rose,” Lim said as he huffs through his now-regular workouts in a Kuala Lumpur fitness centre.
Malaysia is a victim of its own success, with decades of economic advancement bringing the flip-side health issues that developing countries often encounter when hunger is defeated, incomes rise, and lifestyles become more sedentary.
But a key factor is the national love for Malaysia’s delicious but rich fare – spicy curries made with fattening coconut milk, carb-heavy rice dishes, and sugary drinks like teh tarik – a frothy tea with sweetened condensed milk.
The breaking of bread is of vital social and cultural importance in each of multi-racial Malaysia’s main ethnic groups – Muslim Malays, Chinese, and Hindu Indians – and is enthusiastically embraced. Open-air food stalls are a fixture in every neighbourhood, often open 24 hours and full of late-diners – a major health no-no, according to doctors.