The recent spike in food prices, especially for chicken and eggs – a primary source of protein – may have brought about a new set of challenges for those in the low-income group who were already struggling to afford healthy meals for themselves and their families.
Fears that such individuals might turn to more affordable but unhealthy options such as instant noodles and processed food compound concerns over observations in 2019 by Unicef that some 20% of children in Malaysia aged five and below suffer from stunted growth.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, nutritionist Nor Fatimah Ishak said people need to look for protein alternatives to ensure an adequate supply for their daily needs.
Fatimah, a hospital dietetic officer at Universiti Teknologi Mara, said a trend towards unhealthy foods was highly possible as Malaysians would increase their intake of excessive carbohydrates, sugary drinks and snacks that are high in salt and sugar content.
"Other protein sources include fish, tofu, tempeh, legumes, seafood and meat," she said.
"The daily requirement of protein is about four to five servings just to ensure adequate levels."
But this may not be possible for everyone given the rate at which prices have been on the rise.
Most recently, the ceiling price for chicken was raised to RM9.40 per kg – up 50 sen from the previous price cap of RM8.90.
The government also enforced a ban on poultry exports in order to stabilise the domestic supply of poultry.
According to Agriculture and Food Industry Minister Ronald Kiandee, Malaysia's average chicken requirement is two million birds per day or 62.9 million a month.
In terms of chicken eggs, meanwhile, Malaysians are estimated to consume 30 million per day.
Fatimah said it would suffice to consume chicken three or four times a week if the remaining protein intake can be filled from other sources.
Barakatun Nisak Mohd Yusof, a dietitian from Universiti Putra Malaysia, agreed, saying plant-based proteins such as tofu and tempeh would supply the necessary amino acids.
"A shift in this direction for protein source is also healthier as plant protein is low in saturated fat and rich in fibre," Barakatun, who has published more than 40 research papers on eating and dietary behaviours, said.
She also cited studies showing that the inclusion of plant protein in diets is associated with a reduced risk of death from a number of diseases, compared to a diet based solely on protein from animal sources.
Barakatun said a good knowledge and awareness about food choices is especially important as purchasing power declines due to the rising prices and cheaper options such as instant and processed food become more attractive.
She said instant food such as chicken burgers, nuggets and processed meat do not count as protein sources.
"They are high in fat and high in salt content and preservatives that could cause cancer," she said.
"Healthy food doesn't have to be expensive. Plant proteins are usually more affordable than animal proteins."
Taken from a positive angle, Fatimah added, the price spikes for chicken and eggs could be seen as a wake-up call for the people to put an end to unhealthy and excessive dietary practices.