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Part 2: The Weight of Today - From Screen Time to Stress, the Impact of Digital Lifestyles

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

In a world dominated by technological advancements and lifestyle choices, obesity silently emerges as a significant public health concern. Beyond the superficial view of weight gain, obesity is a complex issue transcending age, gender, and socioeconomic status, impacting millions globally. Obesity is categorized into four main factors: food, physical activity, environment, and genetics. Additionally, contributing factors encompass diseases, stress, and medications. The fundamental aspects contributing to obesity are food and physical activity. In essence, when the intake of food lacks a corresponding expenditure of energy through physical activities, the surplus energy is stored as fat in the body.

Shockingly, in many countries, obesity claims more lives than starvation—a stark reminder that our modern lifestyle and societal structures are contributors to a health crisis. In Malaysia, the 2019 NHMS findings showed a rising trend in weight gain among adults as follows;

A primary culprit in the escalating obesity rate is the big shift in our lifestyles habits, and choices. As our lives intertwine further with the digital world, the rise in obesity becomes intricately linked to technological advancements. This blog helps us understand why obesity has become more prevalent now than ever before and we explore how our reliance on technology has reshaped how we live, work, and eat.

Sedentary Lifestyle

We live in a tech-centric era where convenience and connection are just a click away, however, this ease comes with a downside. Our smartphones and digital devices have turned us into screen-time champions, replacing physical activities in our daily lives. From endless movie binge-watching to hours on social media and desk-bound work, our routines have become increasingly sedentary. The consequence? A surge in obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCD), is linked to our lack of movement. Shockingly, a study in 2016 tagged Malaysia as one of the least physically active countries globally, with a whopping 60% of adults leading sedentary lives. This lack of movement burns fewer calories and messes with our metabolic health. Urbanisation too has altered our living environments. The increased reliance on cars, limited green spaces, and the convenience of escalators and elevators have reduced opportunities for physical activity. Environmental factors, such as air pollution, have also been linked to obesity, creating a perfect storm for weight-related issues. Breaking the cycle is crucial. Experts recommend at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate physical activity every day to maintain a healthy weight, longer if you are looking to lose weight. Here are some statistics to show how Malaysians are affected;

Employees spend an estimated 44 hours stuck in traffic

86% of Malaysians spend at least 6 hours sitting a their desks

80% of Malaysian teens are not physically active

Processed and Fast Food Culture

In an age of perpetual screen time, we find ourselves bombarded by irresistible ads that lure us towards processed and fast food, conveniently catering to our fast-paced lifestyles. These ads sell the idea that these quick bites are the answer, even though they're often loaded with sugars, unhealthy fats, and salt, and offer little nutritional value. Advertising tactics create a real tug-of-war between choosing fresh, natural foods and going for the easy, not-so-healthy options. Despite knowing the health risks, it's tough to break away from the convenience these foods offer. This struggle isn't just for adults—it's hitting kids too. Busy parents find it challenging to whip up nutritious meals at home, adding to the rise in less healthy eating habits and the risk of obesity in both adults and children.

Processed and fast foods are associated with higher body mass index, less successful weight-loss maintenance, and weight gain. In Malaysia, poor diet is the main cause of obesity. These statistics show the eating, ordering, and spending patterns of Malaysians in recent years.

64.1% of Malaysian adolescents eat out daily

76% of Malaysians ordered their meals on food delivery apps

41% of Malaysians spend between RM20-RM30 per order

Sleep Deprivation

Adequate and quality sleep provides numerous benefits for overall health and well-being, including supporting immune function, helping the body defend against illnesses, promoting cardiovascular health by regulating blood pressure, reducing the risk of heart disease, aiding in the maintenance of a healthy weight, and metabolism as well as for stress reduction and preventing or managing mood disorders.

It is recommended that adults get between 7 - 8 hours of night sleep daily. However, in modern lifestyles, characterized by round-the-clock connectivity and long work schedules, we often get insufficient sleep. Sleep deficiency is linked to many chronic health problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression.

A generation ago, no one had ever heard of sleep apnoea. However today, it has become common among Malaysians and almost everyone knows of a relative or friend who has sleep-related problems. Poor sleep patterns disrupt hormonal balance, increasing appetite and cravings for unhealthy foods, thereby contributing to weight gain and obesity. Leptin and ghrelin are hormones that regulate appetite, and when you aren't getting sufficient sleep, the production of these hormones is altered in a way that creates increased feelings of hunger. Increased hunger tends to lead to increasing calories and weight gain.

So, how do Malaysians fair when it comes to sleep?

Malaysian adults only get 6.4 hours of sleep on average

33.8% of Malaysians suffer from sleep related symptoms

9 out of 10 Malaysians have insomnia

Stress and Mental Health

Did you know that people with enduring mental health problems are two to three times more likely to develop obesity? Chronic stress, anxiety, and depression, along with mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, can lead individuals to turn to food as a coping mechanism. Which may result in making unhealthy dietary choices, ultimately contributing to overindulging and weight gain. This emotional eating, coupled with hormonal changes triggered by stress, can lead to weight gain and even other diseases such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) in women. Food can become a source of comfort or a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult emotions. Recognizing and addressing these psychological factors is crucial in the fight against obesity.

PCOS serves as a noteworthy illustration of how lifestyle factors such as diet, sleep, and sedentary habits can contribute to the development of health issues. While PCOS is a condition one is born with, symptoms typically manifest during puberty, although onset may occur later, extending into the early twenties for some individuals. The array of symptoms associated with PCOS is diverse, ranging from women experiencing reproductive, metabolic, and psychological consequences associated with this condition. Lifestyle and dietary choices may indirectly influence the likelihood of PCOS occurrence, as exposure to these factors has been linked to the manifestation of the condition in susceptible individuals.

Urbanization and Environmental Factors

Obesity isn't solely a matter of individual choices; it's profoundly influenced by the environment in which people live. Access to healthy, affordable food options can be limited in certain areas, making it challenging for individuals to maintain a balanced diet. Socioeconomic factors, neighborhood safety, and even the availability of recreational spaces can affect physical activity levels, further contributing to weight gain.

As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, it becomes clear that the rise of obesity is not a simple consequence of personal choices but a reflection of systemic influences. To address the obesity epidemic effectively, it is essential to recognize and address these underlying factors, fostering a culture that promotes physical activity, healthy eating habits, and overall well-being. Only through a holistic approach can we hope to reverse the trends of obesity and create a healthier future for generations to come.

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