Shifting gears: Multifactorial approach needed to combat rising obesity in Malaysia

 “An escalated effort is needed to address the burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Malaysia”, says an expert. The call comes as nearly half of Malaysians fall into the obese category; not surprisingly, the burden of NCDs is correspondingly heavy. Already a substantial number of pre-school and schoolchildren in Malaysia are overweight or obese as was found the South East Asia Nutrition Survey (SEANUTS) study.1 Thus, obesity and its detrimental consequences for health are a growing concern in Malaysian society.

Growing Child 9At the opening ceremony of the 9th Asia Pacific Conference on Clinical Nutrition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Deputy Director-General of Health (public health) from the Ministry of Health Malaysia, Datuk Dr. Lokman Hakim, said that “More than 60 percent of deaths around the world are attributed to NCDs, which is double the percentage caused by communicable diseases, maternal-related conditions and nutritional deficiencies combined. Once considered the disease of the affluent, it is now affecting developing countries,” he said.

There are two types of risk factors for NCDs – modifiable and non-modifiable. Examples of non-modifiable risk factors are age and heredity.2 “Modifiable risk factors refer to, for instance, unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, tobacco usage and alcohol consumption,” Lokman explained.

Well-grounded and effective measures to address the modifiable risk factors of NCDs are needed at global, regional, national and local levels. For Malaysia, a combined effort from all stakeholders may be necessary to prevent an unhealthy lifestyle, obesity and the development of NCDs.

Here the government plays a central role in creating an environment that empowers and stimulates families and communities to make beneficial life-enriching commitments to healthy eating and physical activity. As health is paramount to a country’s progress and economic success, strong messages on the importance of addressing modifiable risk factors for NCDs must be continuously conveyed to policymakers. Healthcare providers must play their role as well and ensure the policymakers’ buy-ins.

Additionally, the significance of healthy eating and physical activity needs to be communicated to everyone. The message needs to be conveyed starting from the primary school level, where children can be taught to distinguish between good and bad dietary advice. Children can be engaged in regular physical activities and be educated about the types of physical activities best for health needs.

“Universally, one in three people gets little or no physical activity,” said Lokman. The sedentary work and living culture in Malaysia may not conducive for physical activity, despite its undeniable cost benefit. The boom in the fast food industry may also contributing to the problem making unhealthy food cheaper and more accessible in comparison to healthy food.

“At the moment, Malaysia has the most obese population in the Southeast Asian region, with 44.2 percent of the population being obese”, said Lokman. NCDs pose a heavy economic burden because of elevated healthcare costs and decreased productivity. With the current ageing trend of the population, the disease incidence is likely to increase as well. In closing, he said. “We must all do our part to prevent that from happening by advocating healthy living.”


  1. Poh BK, Ng BK, Siti Haslinda MD, et al. Nutritional status and dietary intakes of children aged 6 months to 12 years: findings of the Nutrition Survey of Malaysian Children (SEANUTS Malaysia). Br J Nutr 2013;110(S3):S21-S35. doi:10.1017/S0007114513002092.
  2. Chronic diseases and their common risk factors. World Health Organization Facing the facts #1; 2005. (, accessed 04 January 2016.)