- A little background on Ms Balaratnam
Indra Balaratnam is a professional dietitian with 18 years of experience. Presently she runs her own private practice , Indra Balaratnam Nutrition- a Food Expert Clinic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she helps her clients to manage their health by eating better. She specializes in health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, pregnancy, post-surgery recovery, sports/fitness, and children’s nutrition. She is a trusted opinion leader and a professional speaker for regional conferences, seminars, workshops, TV and radio talk shows.
A nutrition culinary expert as well, Indra develops healthy recipes for global food corporations. She writes a fortnightly column called “EAT WELL” in the national newspapers The New Straits Times and she has a monthly nutrition column in Health & Beauty magazine. She is the co-author of the nutrition cookbook “Healthy Eating—Recipes for thePalate” (Marshall Cavendish Publishing 2004; translated into Bahasa Malaysia) and “Healthy Family Meals” (Marshall Cavendish). Asian
- What is your personal opinion on how Malaysia has managed to take the honorary role of being the fattest nation in SEA and Asian region?
The majority of Malaysians – whether urban or rural – still lack awareness on the importance of nutrition and a regular healthy lifestyle to manage their body weight and good health. We do not have the mindset to proactively prevent obesity amongst ourselves and our families when obesity is in fact a risk factor for developing other chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart diseases, cancers, kidney failure and high blood pressure.
This was apparent in The Health Report Card by AIA, where AIA asked 200 young children to rate their parents’ lifestyle choices. A majority of the children felt that their parents did not make their own health and wellbeing a priority and did not take care of themselves on a regular basis. The survey was an eye-opener for many working Malaysians who never realised they were compromising their health.
- What are some of the eating habits and lifestyle habits of Malaysians versus their neighbouring countries that have caused this? Is it due to culture or is it because the general state of society is becoming more affluent? Is there also a gender bias or racial bias to the situation?
As food is easily available in Malaysia and inexpensive eateries and stalls are open till late or even 24 hours a day, Malaysians have a tendency to eat out as a leisure activity. So often, eating becomes a mindless activity. We won’t eat because we are hungry, but because it is something to do to pass the time.
I cannot say if there is a racial bias or gender bias, but from my observation, parents even take young children out for late night suppers as a social activity. This can be a potential factor for childhood obesity, which is a growing concern in Malaysia. As nutrition practices are based on the family unit, parents inevitably influence the lifestyle habits of their children.
- How do you think we can change the situation?
We can begin to change the situation by first making a healthy nation a value that is prioritized by our Government, apart from just emphasizing financial prosperity and modernization of the nation. The rakyat must be made to understand that a healthy nation will provide the human resources that we need to become a developed nation. At the ground level, it is important to have sustainable health initiatives starting from early childhood up to the workforce level. Activities and initiatives must be sustainable so that it is ingrained in our culture, not the occasional fun activity here and there. The only way to sustain it is to build it into the environment and have constant motivation and rewards for embracing a healthy lifestyle.
- What should a country aspire for in terms of health levels? We often hear a saying that “there are no fat people in Vietnam”. What should Malaysian’s aspire for?
As Malaysia is multi-racial and is still at a developing nation stage, we should aspire to keep our health levels in line with our life expectancy age, so that our adult years are not spent combating long-term chronic diseases that burden the resources of the individual and the nation as they age. For that we need to set in motion a more preventive health care initiative and system.
- You yourself are a well-known and experienced dietitian, what do you personally practice for a safe and healthy lifestyle? What would you recommend the average Malaysians do to maintain a healthy body?
Over the years, I have learnt one thing. Since you can’t change the environment that you live in, you can adapt and hold true to what is important to you. I now personally practice self-priority and better time management, so that I can do what I need to do to maintain my idea of a healthy lifestyle while juggling my busy career and family, like every working adult in Malaysia. This is what I recommend the average Malaysian to do too. We can’t change the hot weather, the food temptation and stress of a fast paced urban city, but we can adapt.
For example, I go for my daily morning brisk walk before I start work so I have no excuse that I’m tired or it’s raining in the evening. I end my day by early evening so I can cook a simple proper meal at home and not eat out so much. I turn off my phone and ipad and not let the stress of work emails eat into my personal down time. I essentially put my wellbeing as a priority and learn to say no to unimportant things that add stress. When you make yourself a priority, you will cherish your health and wellbeing so much more.
- What books do you have by your bedside right now?
Right now, I am reading Paulo Coelho’s “The Devil And Miss Prym”. I like books that explore the human thought process. It’s always interesting to understand what makes a person choose to do what they want to do. What I am trying to say is, like your own health, you may not see it as important right now as other things are a more pressing concern for you at the moment. But when the time comes, you will know what is most important. That time will come inevitably, that’s how life works. Just don’t wait to put yourself last, when it’s too late and you’ve run out of options.
The answers to the following questions is attributed to Jamie Yu, Chief Officer of AIA Health Services.
- The rise and rise of healthcare costs in Malaysia is also one of great concern to many citizens since many resort to private hospitals due to the long wait at government hospitals. There has been much speculation that the high cost of healthcare is due to the fact that there are insurance claims. Is there any truth to this?
Technological innovation in the medical field is extremely fast-paced. This is great, as it allows our generation to be able to be diagnosed a lot quicker, and to enjoy treatments that are effective and non-invasive. However, these new medical technologies come at a cost, and with each new technology that is introduced, the cost of diagnosis and treatment becomes more expensive. Health care economists estimate that 40-50% of annual cost increases can be traced to the use of new technologies. This is why people have to be sufficiently insured. You may think your dollars will cover the cost of treatment today, but what about 10 years down the line? Will you be able to afford the best available treatment then?
- How does having medical insurance help? Is it truly beneficial to the citizens?
Life is full of uncertainties and we do not know when we may face a medical condition that would require extensive treatment. Having medical insurance give you peace of mind knowing that you are financially prepared to face whatever medical challenges life has in store for you. Medical insurance is not a preventive measure or a cure. However, not having to worry about your finances will enable you to focus your thoughts and energy on your recovery. Little things such as being able to afford a private room and not having to wait long hours to be admitted can make a big difference when you’re ill.
Medical advancement has also resulted in newer and more effective treatments for killer diseases like cancer, especially when detected early. Unfortunately, these treatments are likely to be beyond the reach of most Malaysians as only 22% of the population has insurance coverage for the 36 critical illnesses of which cancer is one of them.
Without medical insurance, a cancer diagnosis can quickly result in catastrophic payments for a household and ultimately even lead to medical bankruptcy. Patients may be unable to continue working due to their symptoms, treatment, or side-effects, and this can further add to the family’s financial burden.