In a study of the geographical clustering of body mass index (BMI) among adults in Malaysia, clusters of high BMI among men were found in suburban areas with moderate and high access to fast-food restaurants.
As most men are employed, they tend to spend more time outside with long working hours, where eating out and greater processed food intake have become inevitable. This, coupled with greater access to restaurants, lowers the frequency of home cooking.
When eating away from home, decisions tend to be spontaneous, quick, influenced by appetite, financial constraints, and whether the environment facilitate spending on healthy or unhealthy diets.
The availability, accessibility, and affordability of unhealthy foods makes eating unhealthily easier and reinforces its preferences and demands, thus creating a vicious cycle of an unhealthy environment where the appetite control system is desensitised.
Therefore, weight management can be challenging in an environment that belittles the willpower to eat healthily.
In Malaysia, fast food consumption is prevalent among rural (32.7 per cent once a month), suburban (17.4 per cent at least once a week), and urban (25 per cent, more than four times per month) communities, especially among university students. At the same time, only 5 per cent of our population eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily as recommended.
Habitual fast food consumption has been associated with taste preferences for fried and sweet foods, higher calorie intake, higher intake of sugary beverages, and lower intake of wholegrains, fruits, and vegetables, throughout the remainder of the day, and even on a non-fast food day.
Meals from fast food restaurants are mostly high in calories, fats, trans-fatty acids, and salt, and beverages are the largest driver of differences in calories. Frequent and long-term consumption of these foods will strengthen the expression of obesity-related genetic variants and increases the risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.
Besides chronic inflammation, fast food consumption also impairs the host’s defences against viruses, increasing the risk for severe Covid-19 morbidity and mortality.
Therefore, in conjunction with World Obesity Day, let’s all focus on creating a healthier food environment. Besides fast food franchises, all restaurants are also responsible. Here are some recommendations:
- Fast-food industry should make healthier options available at all times, e.g. corn, fruits, vegetable salad, low-fat milk, wholemeal buns, granola, plain water, non-caloric beverages, etc.
- Restaurants must reduce the amount of sugar and salt used in cooking and food preparation, besides offering fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in the menu.
- Customers must make their demands for healthier food choices known to the industry.
The war against obesity is a public health war which we cannot afford to lose. It takes collaborative efforts to fight a challenge so great.
Kimberly Wong and Prof Dr Moy Foong Ming are from the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.