On Pointe - Healthy meals and smart kids

THE DAY has not yet started but you're probably wondering what to eat for dinner. Your days are not counted in hours but by meals and you're happy to drive a longer distance, if the restaurant comes with high recommendations and instagramable envy.

In general, it's safe to say that we are obsessed with food. After all, instead of saying how are you, we ask "have you eaten?"

We show more of our affection for one another through food. We love feeding people and fighting for the cheque when out for a meal with friends.

That's just how we are and it's our way of life. We're always full because food is in abundance here.

But that's what's killing us. We keep eating even when we don't need to and it shows.

Our children are the most obese in Southeast Asia. If that isn't alarming, one in four Malaysian children is obese.

According to a joint report by Unicef, WHO and Asean, Asean countries face a crisis of under-nutrition, overweight, stunting and wasting.

Overweight and undernutrition in the young places them at greater risk of becoming overweight adults.

But why are our children so unhealthy?

First, our lifestyles have changed. There is less physical activity. It's harder to see kids playing football or badminton thanks to screen time and safety issues.

Second, the change in eating habits. The McDonald's generation is raising this generation of children and it shows. Packed and processed food are convenient compared to a homemade meal for recess.

Understandable with work commitments and traffic jams, it is harder to find time to prepare healthy meals or fit in regular supermarket runs.

Add to that convincing a child so accustomed to the magical taste of high salt, high sugar, high fat that a blander meal is better, can be trying especially after a long work day.

Third is the easy access to junk food and sugary drinks which means higher intake of trans-fat and sugar.

Filling up with food that has low nutritional value which then causes energy imbalance. Couple that with physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles, and it spells disaster.

Fourth is the rising cost of food. It is not only cheaper to buy quick meals that are high in salt and fat than it is to make a healthier equivalent.

Our basic ingredients vegetables, fish, meat are generally imported. Local farming is a dying occupation and our industrialisation vision has somehow forgotten that no matter how wealthy or developed a country, self-sufficient food production is crucial.

So here we are now, with a younger generation that is worryingly unhealthy.

But obesity prevention is not just about parents instilling good eating habits, it is about responsible advertising, regulating what is sold in school canteens, ensuring that vendors outside the school are not allowed to operate or if they are, then the food sold outside has to be healthy.

It requires ministries to work together not in silos to ensure that nutrition and an active lifestyle are simultaneously included as a priority.

This double-burden of nutrition affects the economy – in the long run, it affects cognitive ability, increases a child's susceptibility to illness which inevitably affects the child's ability to learn.

If the seriousness of this needs to be measured in monetary terms, then perhaps the loss of human capital, health costs and productivity of the economy and country make it a priority.

The reality is that, as much as we think children do not want to eat healthier food if that is what is served or at least the option of a healthy meal is available, then that might at least get children thinking about what they consume.

It also means that parents know that their child can get a healthier meal in school. But first we need to make health, nutrition and fitness a priority not just a one-off campaign but a lifestyle, because one in four children being obese will soon become one in three and one in two.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com