Obesity Prevention Must Begin at Home

(Obese boy who is overweight on a pink background, Source: FreePik)

So, the cat’s out of the bag! One in two Malaysians are obese. A fifth have diabetes. A third have raised blood pressure (NHMS 2019).

While the public health doctor in me would like to begin preaching statistics about how poorly Malaysians are doing and how we could do better as a country, the mother of three young children in me knows what a struggle it is to raise a healthy family.

My eldest, an eight-year-old primary schooler, has a big appetite and eats healthily at home. Despite knowing all the differences about healthy and unhealthy food, succumbs to her doughnuts and cold syrup drink in her school canteen. She says she knows its unhealthy, but her plain water simply does not compare to the temptation of a cold sweet drink in her canteen on a hot day. My picky eater pre-schooler struggles to maintain his weight but is lucky enough to go to a pre-school that prescribes to a healthy menu that is exciting enough for children his age. My toddler, all said and done, is just too spoilt to eat her daily serving of fruits and vegetable, unless they were hidden in an unrecognisable pattern on her plate.

But, we try. We must try because our children are already growing up in an “obesogenic” environment. Heavily marketed fast food (Hint: meals that make you happy) are often deemed cheaper from fresh homemade meals. Screen time distract us from a sit-down family meal while advertisements on processed foods and other cultural factors such as ‘open houses’ encourage everyone to keep on eating. We live in a country where we even greet each other with a “Dah Makan?”.

We must try because we know developing good eating habits from young shapes the tastes and preferences of our children when they grow up. We must try because studies show that majority of children who are overweight will remain overweight as adults. We must try because we know food parenting practices are important and failure to do so could lead to an increased lifetime exposure to and a higher risk of obesity, diabetes-related complications and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) for our children.

The Ministry of Health has been working closely with Ministry of Education, putting concerted effort into creating a supportive environment for healthy eating in schools. For school-going children, we have the Guideline for Sale of Food and Drinks in School Canteens which outlines the type of food that can and cannot be sold in school premises. However, we simply do not have the resources to enforce and monitor schools as closely as we would like. If your child’s school does not comply to the guideline, as parents, you can and should voice it out to your school management.

The Weight Management Guideline for School Children aims to outline the screening and referral mechanism for under- and overweight children. Do not be afraid if your child comes home with a referral from his or her school to see a healthcare provider. Most importantly, please do not guilt trip or blame your child. We already live in a paradoxical world that is critical of excess weight ( as it is evident by the amount of weight loss products in the market and shady billboards along our highways) and at the same time offers an environment for overindulgence. It can be as confusing for a child, if not more, as it is for us adults.

Every day, we see our children who walk out of school be tempted by unhealthy food and beverage sold outside schools. The Guidelines for Enforcement of Prohibition of Food and Beverages Outside Schools by Local Authorities clearly states that food and beverage sales within 40meters from the school fence is prohibited. We see the sign outside the schools, do we not? How many of us have reached out to our local authorities when we see the breach of regulations?

All said and done, our children only spend that many in hours in schools. Well, in the current COVID-19 pandemic period, none of the hours. Obesity and all other non-communicable disease prevention need to begin at home and very early. Most of us know the lifestyle changes that we need to make but fail to follow through. Perhaps, we can start one step at a time. That extra colour from fruits and vegetables at dinnertime or try keeping sugary drinks out of the house or implement a no-eating-in-front-of-the-screen rule. As a mother, I know it is not easy to say ‘no’ to our kids all the time which is why it is important that we talk about nutrition to our kids and lead by example. No one said it was going to be easy but nothing worthwhile ever is. So, we must try.

This article was published in The Star on the 4th of June 2020 and the Malay Mail on the 3rd of June 2020

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