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Weaning people off tasty junk food onto bland healthy diets is no piece of cake

Banning unhealthy but popular foods is not going to work, say experts, so how best to turn people on to healthier food?

Siva Selan
3 minute read

The world is eating more fast food than ever, and Malaysia is no exception.

In fact, as mall outlets pushing fashionable and appealing Western fast food – doughnuts, burgers, chocolate chip cookies – across Asia, a lot of young people find it impossible to resist temptation.

Modern diets are loaded with sugar, salt and fats instead of healthier options.

Dr Feisul Idzwan Mustapha, deputy director of non-communicable disease at the health ministry, told MalaysiaNow popular food trends are going in an unhealthy direction because sweet and fatty foods appeal more to people’s taste buds than “bland” healthier options.

In modern lifestyles, a lot of people treat food not only as fuel for the body and brain but also, and sometimes more so, an important part of their social life, particularly in the pandemic when isolation SOPs have forced everybody online.

Posting pictures on social media of pretty food you are about to eat, to gather hundreds of likes, counts for more to many people than consuming healthy food.

“People are always looking for what’s new and what can be shared on social media, but a lot of these foods are usually poor in nutrients and high in sugar and fats,” Feisul said.

For healthy eating advocates, the sad truth is that junk food, dripping with fat, or pink with icing sugar, is simply prettier than brussels sprouts or lotus root, however much you dress them up.

“People are always looking for what’s new and what can be shared on social media, but a lot of these foods are usually poor in nutrients.”

In recent years, bubble teas and peculiar inventions like puttu cheese – steamed cylinders of ground rice with a palm sugar filling – and Maggi goreng instant noodles with cheese have been buzzing on social media.

Yeo Pei Sien, a dietician from Kuala Lumpur Hospital told MalaysiaNow that people’s eating patterns are changing and unhealthy food has more people licking their lips than ever in Malaysia.

She said most consumers choose food that is convenient, inexpensive and tastes good over healthier, labour-intensive, and more expensive options.

In order to cater to this demand, the food and beverage (F&B) industry is continually concocting new recipes to tempt the tastebuds. That makes sense for their bottom line as unhealthy food is usually easier to produce and more profitable than healthier alternatives, she said.

Feisul agreed, highlighting the fact that profit matters more than health in the food business today. “It’s a complex issue to deal with because it’s the source of income for many. Still, making a profit usually goes against healthy living.”

He added that fast food caters to people’s modern lifestyles and few Malaysians are actively demanding healthier diets, saying, “I have no doubt unhealthy food is here to stay.”

Feisul and Yeo both warned that consuming a lot of high-calorie processed foods low in micronutrients increases the risks of type 2 diabetes, cancer and other chronic illnesses, but admitted such warnings are often happily ignored at the food court.

Children are difficult enough to feed, their immature taste buds being averse to most green vegetables, but Feisul pointed out that many adults even expose their children to their own bad eating habits by feeding them easy, unhealthy food which will influence their future dietary choices as they grow up.

“I have no doubt unhealthy food is here to stay.”

Feisul said the National Plan of Action for Nutrition of Malaysia 2016-2025 is the guiding document to promote healthy eating and prevent nutritional deficiencies among Malaysians.

However, he said there is no existing policy for the compulsory control or restriction of unhealthy food. “The current regulations focus more on food safety.”

He is convinced that F&B industry promotion of unhealthy food cannot be controlled through bans since they could turn out to be counterproductive.

Other approaches are needed. The health ministry has introduced SST tax on drinks high in sugar to raise the price and discourage people from buying them.

“We also have the ‘Healthier Choice’ logo on selected food and drinks to indicate that they are a better option,” he said.

Most Malaysians are well aware that fatty and sweet food is bad for their health, but many need showing how best to incorporate healthier options into their diet in a regular and affordable way.

To go some way to achieving this, there is a need for more publicly available input from nutritionists and other health professionals, our experts say.

For, when the tummy starts rumbling and it’s time for a mid-afternoon snack on the run, the smell of caramelising sugar wafting from the mall cookie shop is awfully hard to resist, however determined you are to eat healthily.

Be honest, those freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in the window do look amazingly yummy.

And after all, just one won’t hurt, will it?