In Asia’s Fattest Country, Nutritionists Take Money From Food Giants


“It’s more cooperation,” he said.

But some nutritionists say Malaysia’s dietary guidelines, which Dr. Tee helped craft, are not as tough on sugar as they might otherwise be. They tell people to load up on grains and cereals, and to limit fat to less than 20 to 30 percent of daily calories, a recommendation that was removed from dietary guidelines in the United States in 2015 after evidence emerged that low-fat diets don’t curb obesity and may contribute to it.

Corporate funding of nutrition science in Malaysia has weakened the case against sugar and processed foods, said Rohana Abdul Jalil, a Harvard-trained diet expert based in the rural state of Kelantan, where obesity is as high as in the biggest cities.

“There’s never been an explicit, aggressive campaign against sugar,” she said.

She works in Kota Bharu, the state’s capital, where vendors set up food stalls outside schools, dosing out cups of soda from big plastic bottles and hawking chocolates and puffed corn and rice snacks flavored with squid, shrimp and cheese.

Dr. Rohana runs an obesity awareness class and was surprised to learn that many who attended it were not aware of the dangers of excess sugar consumption.

Photo

Malaysia’s health minister, S. Subramaniam, said the government’s job was not to be a watchdog over big food companies.

Credit
Rahman Roslan for The New York Times

“I knew that sugar caused diabetes but I didn’t realize it caused obesity,” said Wan Maznah binti Hamzah, an employee in the public works department, adding she has now cut down sharply on cakes, ice cream and other sweets.

Elyza Ismail, who lives in a house beside rice paddies and has a business selling plus-sized clothes, said before she attended the class, she did not know that Milo, the Nestlé breakfast drink, contained so much sugar.

“I had this idea of Milo as healthy and strong,” Ms. Elyza said, repeating an advertising slogan that has echoed in the ears of Malaysians for years.

Dr. Rohana, who doesn’t take research money from companies, is promoting a back to basics approach: whole grain rice and other natural foods that are native to Malaysia.

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