An insidious lifestyle disease

With the increase of sugar prices, I thought it might be good to share this piece I wrote awhile back:

While browsing my handy Evernote web-clipper, I came across an article I had forgotten about. The news report, published in November last year, stated the Health Ministry had found the average Malaysian consumes seven tablespoons of artificial sweetener, four tablespoons of sugar and three spoons of condensed milk in his/her drinks.

I must admit I was pretty shocked. I know we consume a lot of sugar, but not that much!

Deputy Health Minister Datuk Rosnah Shirlin, who had revealed this in Parliament, added that we have about 3 million Malaysians living with diabetes as at November last year – double the number in 2006.

And of course, she also revealed that our nation holds the Malaysia Boleh award for being the most obese nation in the region.

From my viewpoint, Malaysians apparently do not perceive being overweight or obese as a problem. National Heart Institute chief dietician Mary Easaw-John commented in a recent news report: “Often when I talk to patients who are obese, they give me excuses like ‘my whole family is fat but nothing has happened to them’, or my friend who said that ‘if I lose too much of weight, I will not look nice’.”

Interestingly, Land Development Minister Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing made the same sort of observation in another recent news report. He remarked: “I find it interesting that whenever people here see their friends slightly overweight, they tend to comment that he or she is looking ‘healthier’ to imply that they have put on weight … by doing so, they may not realise what you are trying to tell them.” Masing said obesity should not be seen as solely a medical problem, but also a social one.

The AIA Healthy Living Index Survey revealed the same. Conducted across 15 Asia Pacific markets to determine how the population of the region views health, it found that Malaysians didn’t think their weight was a concern, notwithstanding that they felt they were eating unhealthy food and not exercising enough.

This might explain why we have 3 million people living with diabetes. Just a bit about this ailment – there are three forms of diabetes, namely types 1 and 2, and gestational diabetes. Type 1 diabetes frequently occurs in children or young adults, although it can occur at any age. This condition sees the body’s immune system destroy pancreatic cells responsible for producing insulin, which the body uses to store energy from food (glucose).

Type 2 diabetes is when the body does not use insulin properly. As the demand for insulin increases, the pancreas gradually loses its ability to produce it, which means there will be loads of glucose floating around in the blood. Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy and is the most rare of the condition.

Usually, when one consumes too much sugar or simple carbohydrates, one develops type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90-95% of diagnosed cases in the West. This is why the condition is labelled a lifestyle disease – it occurs because of the lifestyle choices we make; in this case, the type of food we eat and the quantity in which we eat them – for example, seven tablespoons of artificial sweetener, four table spoons of sugar and three spoons of condensed milk in drinks on average.

It needs to be said that type 2 diabetes among children is on the rise. As with adults, the heavier a child is, the higher her risk of getting the disease. Personally, I think this is a greater threat to the nation than most of the supposed threats reported on the front pages of our local dailies in the last month.

Aside from medication, the “treatment” for diabetes is weight loss, nutrition modification and exercise. This reminds me of a viral online quote: “Would you prefer to exercise an hour a day or be dead 24 hours a day?”

Originally published in the Sun newspaper.