A few weeks ago, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin posed Malaysians a question on Twitter: Considering we should eat more healthily, what do you think about restricting the operating hours of Mamak shops?
I was somewhat puzzled by that. Limiting their operating hours won’t make Mamak shops any healthier; it just means you have to tapau (take away) your roti telur and eat it at home. On top of that, many on social media criticised the idea, saying the real problem is that eating healthily is expensive.
But is it?
For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to equate eating healthily with having a good amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet. I don’t think anybody is saying it’s expensive to use less oil or less salt. But it is true that there’s a perception that vegetables are pricey.
Let’s say, for example, you need to choose between a scoop of spinach at RM2, or a piece of chicken costing RM3. I can imagine people saying the piece of chicken makes you feel more full, and RM2 for some leaves that leave you wanting more seems ridiculous. (I’m using Kuala Lumpur food prices, by the way.)
It’s true that in terms of ringgit per calorie, vegetables come out looking bad. By my calculations, chicken costs about RM4 per 1,000 calories, while kangkong is RM20 per 1,000 calories (you have to eat a lot of it to gain that many calories from it). Most people need to eat between 2,000 and 2,500 calories a day. That much in the form of kangkong would cost you between RM40 and RM50, which does seem excessive. But of course, you don’t only eat leafy green vegetables. You eat a balanced diet.
The Health Ministry publishes a Malaysian Food Pyramid document which, among other things, advocates two servings of fruits and three servings of vegetables a day. The World Health Organisation recommends a little more than this. Regardless, if you eat two or three bananas and one to two cups of kangkong, that’s your daily intake. However, 59.1% of Malaysian adults consumed fruits below the recommended two servings a day and 81.7% consumed vegetables below the recommended three servings a day (National Plan of Action for Nutrition of Malaysia III 2016-2025). For me, that is a relatively low bar that most of us are failing to surmount.
Because it’s not that expensive. Based on KL market prices, a family would expect to spend at least RM200 a month on fruits and vegetables, and perhaps as high as RM1,000 if your tastes run to imported foodstuffs (like apples and avocados).
According to Bank Negara Malaysia and the Department of Statistics Malaysia, Malaysian households spend between 30% and 40% of their income on food. I would argue this means even families on the B40/M40 (lower and middle income groups) borderline that spend around RM2,000 a month on food should be able to afford enough fruits and vegetables to eat healthily. Even families deep within the B40 segment that spend half that on food should still be able to aim for a balanced diet (although getting enough quality calories overall might be challenging).
So why are people instead saying fruits and vegetables are expensive? Because they are – if you are buying them from the restaurant.
Let’s go back to our one cup of kangkong at a restaurant, weighing about 50g. When cooked down with soy sauce, that might represent a RM2 serving at the shop. That’s about eight times as much as what you would pay for the raw ingredient at the market. Whereas 100g of chicken which may sell for RM3 would cost RM1 in the grocery basket. This sort of imbalance, on top of the fact that a cup of vegetables doesn’t fill you up as much as rice or chicken, means that vegetables are considered an add on luxury rather than an essential part of the meal.
But we know that, in fact, vegetables are crucial. A 10-year cohort (ie, longitudinal) study across 18 countries concluded that people who ate between three and four servings of fruits and vegetables each day were significantly less likely to have cardiovascular issues or to die during the study (The Lancet, 2017). Three apples a day might, in fact, keep the doctor less busy with you.
If you do eat out a lot, and you do find vegetables an expensive extra, there is only one clear solution, I feel: You need to have them available at home. You need to explicitly have healthy options on your shopping list, you need to have adequate stock in your larder, and you have to actually eat them. If that means writing down “eat fruit for breakfast” on your To Do list, then that’s what is needed.
I am proud to say that I almost always have some bananas on the side, and a pile of apples in the fridge. Carrots keep for a long time and so does celery, and they are some of the less expensive imported vegetables.
Of course, ideally restaurants should try to provide more economical alternatives. Maybe more fresh fruit, or vegetable dishes that are not fried to death or soaking in santan.
But that would be driven by customer demand, and if you don’t care enough about your health to eat a proper diet, then why should your local Mamak shop ever change?
In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.