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Taylor’s Case Study: Fighting Obesity in Malaysia

Can a policy paper to moderate food advertisements on television change the obesity rates in Malaysia? Prof. Tilakavati shares more about her research project.

An estimated 6.6 million children under 5 years alone in Southeast Asia are currently overweight. Malaysia isn’t spared from the numbers either and, unfortunately, the World Health Organisation says that this number won’t be decreasing. To make matters worse, food habits cultivated as children carry on into grooming obese adults have not just poor physical and psychological well-being but potentially developing health issues of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and kidney failure 

While it’s easy to blame negligent parents, we must ask ourselves, whether the wider environment of children plays a significant part in promoting unhealthy food habits?

Professor Dr. Tilakavati Karupaiahat Taylor’s School of Biosciences, shares how her research on policy evaluation could help implement proper guidelines for advertisements on food and drinks ensuring that young children are not unfairly ‘groomed’ to unhealthy foods. 

How a Policy Paper on Food Advertisements Can Bring About Change

Q: What is the importance of understanding the extent and nature of your project towards food advertisements to young children?

A: I’m currently leading a policy evaluation project that compares the extent and nature of unhealthy food and beverages marketed to girls and boys across nine countries in Asia. This fits in with UN SDG 3 which focuses on ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all, at all ages. Specifically, we’re covering SDG 3.4 on noncommunicable diseases prevention linked to health systems in the management of national and global health risks.

Studies have shown that the peak viewing time of children is after school to before dinner and sometimes even later. This is also the period of maximum TV food advertising — and they’re mostly unhealthy foods. Ultra-processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages constitute the bulk of unhealthy foods featured in this food marketing. That said, children are vulnerable to what is screened on TV and increasing exposure of children to these foods, likely high in fat, sodium, and/or sugar, from a young age will shape food preferences all the way to adulthood. 

Malaysia’s rising numbers in obesity and non-communicable diseases are associated with dietary risks from unhealthy food practices which raise alarm bells and concerns for both the individual’s family and the nation. That’s why the essence of this project is to generate evidence and answer the question of whether or not policy change is called for to regulate food advertising targeting children.

To add to that, this research isn’t just serving our country, but it’s also serving 8 other Asian countries including Bangladesh, China, India, Mongolia, Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. These countries are using the same methodology to allow comparisons that will reflect on individual country regulations of the food industry and media. 

We receive technical inputs from INFORMAS (International Network for Food and Obesity Research Monitoring and Action Support) whose methodology we’re using, while the project is funded by the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada.

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Q: How would this research change policy and the way advertisements are produced?

A: Tackling the research of promotion on food from the angle of influencing policy change is important because if the evidence is overwhelming, it’ll stimulate the way trade pacts are developed, moderate social media platforms in relation to advertising content, and emphasise the whole government approach to public health. 

What is the use of the Ministry of Health in ringing the alarm bell on obesity and non-communicable diseases if related ministries do not prioritise the health of our Malaysian society? 

The larger picture of combining evidence from these 9 Asian countries, will lead to a uniform consensus on Food Regulation which should govern the advertising of high-risk foods and beverages across Asia. At the same time,   benchmarking to the nutrient profiling system mooted by the World Health Organisation will help countries monitor food marketing adherence to the food regulation

Q: What is the importance of understanding the extent and nature of your project towards food advertisements to young children?

A: The early months of the project which coincidentally began with the COVID pandemic were excruciating as virtual meetings with country teams faced cross-cultural and language barriers before we could roll up our sleeves and get to work. But by mid-2021 we worked out how to work together and started melding together as one Asian identity. We did this by also going one-to-one to help individual countries resolve technical details and financial woes. This year with cross-country travel easing and countries completing data collection, we began visiting one country to troubleshoot. Recently 4 countries, including us, met for the first time at the International Congress on Obesity 2022 and we were like ‘old friends’. 

My role isn’t just as Malaysia’s researcher but also to coordinate and give technical and financial support to all countries which require a team of fellow researchers behind me. We’re aware that among the 9 countries, some will be fast and some will be slow. As a project lead, my biggest relief will be when the last one reaches the goalpost and shares data with the individual country’s government and external stakeholders like the WHO. No country has been left behind thankfully

How a Policy Paper on Food Advertisements Can Bring About Change

Q: What’s the inspiration behind the research?

A: I wanted to stimulate my undergraduate nutrition research students towards societal well-being, challenge the norm, and develop a stakeholder spirit for Malaysia which will eventually nurture a young and fit nation. 

By profession, I’m a dietitian with many years of clinical teaching where our outpatients would bring in many many kids with obesity, not just adults, referred from the endocrine clinic. This actually started my passion to work with INFORMAS on all aspects of policies related to the food environment including food promotion and food retail.

Q: What are you looking to accomplish from this project?

A: Advocating stakeholders for policy uptakes and actions for promoting a healthier food environment in Malaysia. Fundamentally we need accountability which can be achieved through strengthening monitoring and evaluation efforts to support healthy and sustainable food systems. This also means stimulating more researchers into Food Environment research. The sustainability of this research is very important in the era of Food Systems accountability.

You too can make an impact through research projects. Learn how here

Postgraduate Students as Part of the Long-Term Solution

Q: How can research be a solution to those problems in the next 5 years?

Fundamentally we need accountability which can be achieved through strengthening monitoring and evaluation efforts to support healthy and sustainable food systems. This also means stimulating more researchers into food environment research. The sustainability of this research is very important in the era of food systems accountability.

Q: How can students be of aid to your research? And how can they benefit from it?

A: Postgraduates are the means for executing research. Without them, data collection won’t occur. They’re the biggest stakeholders too — they start helming the work progress, suggesting more work, identifying barriers, and facilitating solutions. Their benefit is receiving scholarship support, stipends if the grant is big, prestige through association, presenting data, travelling to conferences, and publications as first authors. The bottom line is capacity building should lead to continuing research activities as young researchers, and we need more who are engaged in them.

To all those looking to pursue a Master’s or Ph.D. degree ask yourself this question, why do you need a higher degree? Is it because you want to achieve the goal of getting employed or do you want to make a difference in society? It’s the latter that will drive you to excel and let your inner demons drive you.

Whether you’re looking for a suitable undergraduate or postgraduate programme, we’re here to help you find the perfect pathway unique to your needs!

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