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Tackling Malaysia's epidemic of overweight and obesity

One of the key areas that Vircle aims to assist parents with, is in teaching their children good food habits. To achieve this, Vircle has partnered with UKM and IMU, to found The Healthy Kids Initiative.

The Healthy Kids Initiative has a vision to make food a foundation for a successful life.

Good food habits are essential for kids to realise their full potential academically, as well as for them to grow up healthily.

Vircle spoke to two of the founders of the Healthy Kids Initiative – Dr. Shanthi Krishnasamy of UKM, and Dr. Yi Yi of International Medical University (Malaysia) – to get their perspective on the initiative and what they hope to achieve.

Vircle: Could you describe what the Healthy Kids Initiative is to our readers?

Dr. Shanthi: HKI is a partnership between UKM – IMU – Vircle in an effort to improve food habits of Malaysian school children as we believe that these habits should become a foundation for a successful life.

Our main aim is to profile nutrients in school meals using traffic light food labels (TLL). TLL is a tool/guide for consumers to visually recognise the health status of a food or beverage which then prompts them to make healthy choices. Studies have shown that it improves food choices in school children.

Vircle: How do you decide the Traffic Light Labels for school meals?

Dr. Yi Yi: The food/ beverages sold in a school canteen/cafeteria is profiled against total fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt to come up with a TLL for each food/beverage. This then allows us to provide suggestions to the canteen operators to improve the school menu if more food/beverages are in the red or amber category. We then implement these changes and see if there is an improvement in food choices. Parents and students remain the choice architects by retaining the ability to choose, but being gently nudged to make the healthier choices.

Some schools may have already implemented changes in their menu but if this is not measured (profiling before and after implementation), it is then difficult to assess these changes. This is where we come on to assist schools/canteen operators. We would still be able to see the changes by looking at purchase data before and after the implementation of changes in these schools based on our TLL profiling.

Vircle: Is there proof that TLL can change a culture of unhealthy eating – that we have in Malaysia – in other countries. And can Malaysia really change the way it eats?

Dr. Yi Yi: Yes, there are several successes in implementation of TLL in school canteens, hospital cafeterias and famous institutions such as Havard. Malaysians can certainly change the way they eat when they are empowered to make healthy food choices.

Dr. Shanthi: Traffic Light Labelling of school food is only one aspect of a wider program to change food habits of children. We also need to try understanding our populations needs, assess what they already know and also consider barriers and challenges in changing behaviours. Once we are aware of these, we can certainly empower our population. Australia provides a good example of a country that has successfully used TLL as part of a wider program to change the culture of eating.

Vircle: Can you explain what you see the role of Vircle within the Healthy Kids Initiative.

Dr. Shanthi: The Vircle app will be able to provide food profiles purchased by students from private or public-school canteen/cafeteria – providing visibility to parents on how healthily their children are eating at school. This data will also be used by researchers to identify potential improvements and to design intervention programs to improve children’s food habits.

In addition, it will also contain snippets on healthy eating, TLL profiling analytics, and the impact of a healthy diet which may nudge students to make healthier food choices the next time they purchase a meal or a snack.

Vircle will also be useful for canteen operators to improve and improvise their menu if need be.

Vircle: We understand you are currently conducting a food profiling survey, can you share some insights?

Dr. Shanthi: Yes, we are currently running a study to profile foods and beverages sold in our canteen and cafeteria. A large number of cooked dishes, snacks and beverages that were sold were in the red category. We had also asked the students about nutrition labelling. More than half of the students have heard of nutrition labelling, and they were aware of total calories, sugar, and total fat in a nutrient label. When asked what factors influence food choice, pricing was one of the most important factors.

We will be happy to share more of the results once this study is published.

Vircle: In what way if any has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the diet of Malaysian families?

Dr. Yi Yi: The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly had an impact on the family food environment. A recent Malaysian study showed that a large number of people started cooking their own food during the pandemic due to movement control order.

It was also interesting to note that people were doing so because they choose to be frugal and for hygiene reasons.

Cooking your own food is certainly a good way to ensure children are eating healthily. It is also a good idea to involve them in the cooking process.

Vircle: What is your long term goal with The Healthy Kids Initiative?

Dr. Shanthi: Our long-term goal through this initiative is to get more schools on board so we can assist them based on their needs. Right now, Malaysia is bottom in terms of obesity, overweight and diabetes rankings across the region. By helping as many children across Malaysia as possible to learn good food habits, through the use of TLL, we believe we can make a positive impact.

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