Recent statistics shows that Malaysia has the highest obesity rate in South-East Asia. In Singapore, Malays form the bulk of obese cases and accompanying non-communicable diseases such as heart failures and diabetes. The rate of such cases has shown no sign of abating.
Naturally when race and nationality get headlined negatively, some within the demographic instinctively argue of biased reporting and gets defensive. It is pertinent to note that the objective of this article is not to vilify any particular segment of society. Rather, it is aimed at understanding the roots of health & nutritional problems, and the changes that led to it, as well as the changes that must transpire if we are going to be serious about saving future generations from this epidemic.
Before the industrial revolution, male inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula made their living mostly as farmers, fishermen, sailors, miners, loggers, shipbuilders and rickshaw pullers. In the meantime, you will find the women sweeping the house and the lawn, tending the garden, toiling the kitchen, doing the laundry, weaving crafts for sale and heaving buckets of water from wells some distance away; all the while caring after little younglings that may number in the dozen. It was a trade and lifestyle that requires hard labour and lots of energy.
Being the most viable and abundant, rice became the energy source of choice. Although the yields are seasonal, rice were easily stored in porcelain/ceramic vases; ready to be cooked whenever needed and without needing preservatives or some special preservation method. The common staple was further supplemented by an assortment of dishes rich in dietary fats such as coconut milk, peanut gravy or some other exotic dish.
These days, when one imagines exotic dish, Beef Rendang automatically comes to mind. However, it is pertinent to note that although cattle were not scarce, beef was not something that lists on the daily menu for most commoners back then. Apart from the obvious cost (since raising one means needing adequate resources), the meat from the cattle would also have to be consumed within a day or two from the time of slaughter. Not even the current world burger-eating champion can finish an entire cow within that timeframe. Hence, beef was something consumed only on occasions, and which usually includes the entire village lest the meat goes to waste.
The more sensible accompaniment to rice would have been fowl, fish and, less frequently, goats. The portions are naturally smaller and therefore more practical for daily consumption. This essentially meant that prior to the industrial revolution, people were eating fresh food. There wasn’t even a choice of “I’ll munch later when I’m good and rested”. It was ‘eat now or the food will go bad’ and ‘replenish today cos tomorrow will be another tiring day’. From the outlook, it would seem that the lifestyle had been more or less hand-to-mouth. People worked hard and consumed whatever they harvested from day to day. The daily staple was high in carbohydrate and provided them all the energy they needed to get them through the day. Intake and output matches.
If you haven’t noticed it yet, the obvious factor behind these dietary options was the issue of preservation; particularly refrigeration. While spices were the age-old method of preserving most food products, meat requires refrigeration. With the advent of technology and the onset of the industrial revolution, refrigeration became a convenient way of enabling a steady supply of meat all year round. On top of the daily intake of rice, people began to eat more meat. Initially this was great because it gave us more energy to do the things we needed to do. Some even saw it as enabling them to come closer towards matching the physical build (and imaginably the prowess) of Westerners.
Chemical preservation followed closely behind and even overtook refrigeration as the method of choice. Today, it is near impossible to find food or basic ingredients that have not been touched by chemical preservation. Our food now lasts longer than it would naturally and food types that would have otherwise been an occasional indulgence have turned into daily fare. Effectively, the industrial revolution changed not only our access to food but also its makeup and the manner with which we consume.
But what of our lifestyle? Are we still exerting that high amount of energy our forefathers used to in their daily lives? It is indisputable that just as the industrial revolution changed how and what we eat, it has also changed the amount and intensity of physical activity we get up to. We get up at 6, prata at 6:30, sit in the bus/train at 7, sit behind the desk at 8, ciggy at 10, lunch at noon, dinner at 8, supper at 10 and sleep at midnight. The only time we expend some energy is PERHAPS (yes it’s a big one) that futsal on Friday evenings. Or maybe the annual marathon where we force our bodies to go the distance; either from vanity or because it would be a great time to imagine getting healthy with groupies.
In stark comparison, we now consume more energy a day than we can expend in a week. We eat as many times a day as did our (great)grandparents. We chuck in nasi lemak on Monday, nasi ambeng on Tuesday, nasi rawon on Wednesday, nasi mandi on Thursday, briyani on Friday, steak on Saturday and nasi minyak on Sunday. Don’t even get me started on festive binging.
We are wayyy off-balance. We now consume more energy than our bodies really need and we expend too little the amount than required to maintain it. Our internal systems are laden with an inordinate amount of chemicals. Chemicals that are carcinogenic as well as inhibitive to the breakdown of food in your digestive system. We ignore the fact that unspent energy turns into fats, and that continuing such a pattern would give you a massive store. There’s only so much you can discharge through the rear. The rest of it will spread across your body and take up whatever space it can, commonly and visibly around the mid-section. What most of us don’t see is its effect on our blood-circulatory system; how plaque from all those junk that the digestive system can’t get rid of slowly lines the arterial walls. Or how the regulation of insulin go haywire.
LIVING THE CHANGE
So we go organic and we’ll be fine? Sadly, no. Although going organic is a great start and certainly the healthier food alternative, the elephant in the room that most people miss is our behaviour. We eat what we eat and live how we live mostly driven by convenience. It was convenient to refrigerate meat. It was convenient to use chemical preservatives. It was convenient to rely on machinery. It was convenient to pretend-fitness. It was convenient to just chug in much-hyped supplements without finding out what's in it exactly. It was convenient to just look at the numbers on calorie-counters/treadmills/weighing scales and imagine that hitting them would have us all set.
This tendency to simply go for what’s convenient is taking a toll on us. We can’t outsource our personal well-being to someone else. We have to begin accepting responsibility for our own health and craft strategies around our limitations. We have to be cognizant of how our dietary and physical activity patterns have a big impact on our lives. If there is anything to be learned here from our forefathers is that there are no quick fixes. Eat right, and only as much as your body needs. Avoid what it doesn’t. Start to learn more about local herbs and vegetables that are actually treasure troves of nutrition and remedy. Begin to understand how those enzymes can do to and for you. Get your whole body working instead of just 'exercise'. Discover the many different muscles you have and what they are capable of. Push, pull, carry, lift, squat, jump, kick, swing… anything. Train hard. Live well.
- Sadali Ami