Is our BMI truly a reflection of ourselves, or is it a product of our environment? Here in Malaysia, you might feel that the phrase “a melting pot of culture and flavours'' is overused when describing the food scene. Just walk along the heart of Bukit Bintang, and you will not only see the cliché brought to life but also witness a culinary battleground. The vibrant chaos unfolds on the bustling streets, where the urbanites navigate a labyrinth of food options. Fast-food joints entice with their bright neon signage and savoury aromas, while hidden gems tucked between towering buildings whisper promises of healthier choices. With the never-ending list of food options, it did not really come as a surprise when the National Health and Morbidity Survey reported in 2019 that one in two Malaysian adults carried the label of being overweight.
To answer the question of whether our Body Mass Index (BMI) is influenced by external factors, one can look no further than the field of urban planning. As of present, numerous studies have explored the effects of the built environment on our body weight. For instance, a person living in a walkable neighbourhood is more likely to be physically active than those living in less walkable areas. Despite these findings, the area of the food environment in Malaysia remains vastly understudied. This is where a senior lecturer from the Faculty of Built Environment, Dr. Noor Hashimah binti Hashim Lim comes in. Observing the predominant emphasis on physical planning over health concerns in urban planning, Dr. Hashimah embarked on an interdisciplinary research journey, seeking to fuse the realms of urban planning and health.
Dr. Hashimah is one of the pioneers in Malaysia who has seamlessly integrated both built environment and food environment in her research. Surprisingly, her study has revealed that the food environment wields a more significant influence on our BMI compared to the built environment. The study further noted that the distribution and distances of various food sources, including supermarkets and healthy food restaurants to fast-food chains, proved meaningless if residents were unaware of their presence. This underscores the vital role of visibility and accessibility, particularly in terms of affordability, determining the impact of these food sources on an individual's dietary choices. Dr. Hashimah also mentioned, “This highlights the potential in studying the food environment, including not only your home but also the places where you spend the majority of your time such as work and school.”
According to Dr. Hashimah, while both income and education play pivotal roles, it is evident that education takes the lead in shaping healthier lifestyles. Contrary to expectations, earning a higher income does not guarantee the knowledge to make informed dietary decisions. They may find themselves in a paradox. While they have easier access to healthier choices, they also have plenty of tempting indulgences. This emphasises the intricate relationship between income, education, and the ability to make health-conscious choices.
In the long run, it becomes apparent that solutions to this conundrum extend beyond individual choices. Instead, it requires a harmonious collaboration: individuals making informed decisions, urban planning optimising spaces for health, and governments implementing policies that promote health.
However, it is crucial that we find a balance in our pursuit of a healthier society. We shouldn't be too hard on ourselves for our weight, recognising the variety of factors at play, but at the same time, we must embrace a sense of responsibility for our well-being.
Dr. Noor Hashimah and her researchers carrying out data collection in understanding the environmental effects on BMI of urban dwellers.
Dr. Noor Hashimah Hashim Lim
Department of Urban and Regional PlanningFaculty of Built Environment, Universiti Malaya
M. Rafee Majid, Musarrat Zaman & Noradila Ruslik
Ilya Maisarah Thariq
As a Biomedical Science student with a keen interest in languages and microbiology, Ilya Maisarah finds excitement in navigating the realms of scientific exploration. Eager to share Universiti Malaya’s research with a wider audience, she aims to bridge the gap between discoveries in academia and public awareness.