It is not much of a stretch to say that eating is a national pastime in Malaysia. We Malaysians love our food! And how can we not, given the diverse culinary delights available to us every day? While enjoying food is certainly among the simple pleasures in life no one should deprive themselves of, it is not an excuse to neglect one of the key components of well-being – eating nutritionally balanced meals. However, eating healthily can be quite a challenge in our fast-paced modern lifestyle, and the worrying results of our poor eating habits are being brought to light.
According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Country Profile in 2011, Malaysia ranked first in the prevalence of overweight adults in Southeast Asia, at 44.2%. More recently, in 2014,it was estimated that 73% of deaths in the country resulted from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – which are non-infectious, non-transmissible diseases such as cancer, heart diseases, osteoporosis and hypertension.
Ironically, most NCDs are considered to be preventable because they are caused by risk factors that we have control over, i.e., unhealthy diets and physical inactivity.
The Quarter-Quarter-Half Principle to Healthy Food Portions
Any discussion on healthy eating will probably include the food pyramid, a visual guide for meal planning where the number of servings for each food group is based on individual caloric intake. The Malaysian Food Pyramid was first introduced in 1999 and revised in 2010.
Recently, the Ministry of Health (MOH) developed the Malaysian Healthy Plate, which better communicates the recommendations from the Food Pyramid and Malaysian Dietary Guidelines. It provides a visual representation of what a healthy meal should look like.
Preparing a balanced meal based on the Malaysian Healthy Plate model is as easy as following these five steps:
• Step 1: Using a 10 inch (25cm) plate, imagine there is a line that goes through the middle, dividing the serving space in half, and one half is divided in two. Now, there are three sections on a plate – two quarters and one half.
• Step 2: Fill the first quarter of the plate with carbs, which are a major energy source. Rice is the staple food for most Malaysians, but other foods that fall in this category include noodles, bread, cereals and wholegrain products.
• Step 3: Fill the second quarter with a protein source. This section is for the meats and beans. Fish, poultry, meat, eggs, nuts, legumes and tofu belong here.
• Step 4: Fill the other half of the plate with vegetables and add one serving of fruit. This ensures a diet rich in fibre and all the essential vitamins and minerals. This largest portion of the plate can be filled with leafy greens and fibre-filled fruits such as apples, oranges, bananas and papaya.
• Step 5: Finally, complete the meal by drinking a glass of water. Staying hydrated is just as important as eating a balanced diet. Although plain water is preferable, you can opt for unsweetened beverages or milk and milk products to accompany a meal.
Is the Healthy Plate for me?
The beauty of the Malaysian Healthy Plate is that it can be adapted to suit almost any of our usual favourite dishes. Whether it is nasi lemak, meehoon soup, capati and dhall, or a western meal, the quarter-quarter-half rule can be applied.
Prof Winnie Chee, chairperson of the Technical Working Group on Malaysian Healthy Plate, clarified, “The Plate has been developed primarily for adults to help in controlling calorie intake and portion for weight management and to prevent NCDs. However, pictorially, it can be generalised for all age groups.For children, the plate size is recommended to be smaller at 9 inches, instead of 10 inches, to fit smaller serving sizes of the food groups. From adolescence onwards, the 10-inch plate size is suitable to be used.”
She then went on to explain that portions on the plate can be adjusted to meet individual nutritional or medical needs for specific cases.“The various age groups may require more specific advice, such as increased calcium, iron and folate intake for adolescents, pregnant and lactating women, and increased portion sizes for those who are underweight, elderly or frail. It would be prudent for such individuals to seek advice from nutritionists or dietitians to obtain more individualised recommendations,” Prof Winnie said.
The Pyramid or the Plate?
The Malaysian Healthy Plate is based on similar principles as the MyPlate, which was introduced in the US in 2011. Prior to the Plate, the food pyramid was the comprehensive diet guide worldwide, since its introduction by the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the early 1990s. With the easy-to-follow Plate approach, does that mean the food pyramid is no longer relevant?
“We still maintain the Malaysian Food Pyramid.The Malaysian Healthy Plate is used to assist the practical application of the principles of the food pyramid in meal planning. In other words, the purpose of the Plate is to pictorially show the proportion that one should eat for main meals on a daily basis,” explained Prof Winnie.
She also reminded that the Plate is meant to supplement, not replace, proper nutritional knowledge and practices. “The Pyramid is still important to understand the necessary food groups to be included in our diet. Eating a variety of foods within each food group is important to ensure adequate nutrient intake. The portion sizes recommended for the different calorie requirements according to gender, age and activity levels still apply, along with other principles such as eating less sugars, salt and fat, and being physically active.”