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People urged to cut calories as national prosperity and obesity levels rise hand in hand

‘Skinny’ Southeast Asia starts to battle growing bulge

Reuters

Many Southeast Asian countries are rolling out measures so people can make healthy choices before obesity turns into the full-blown epidemic seen in many Western countries.

Obesity is a priority for Singapore’s government, said Zee Yoong Kang, chief executive of the city-state’s Health Promotion Board.

“There’s some intuition that once obesity gets above a certain share of a population, it becomes more of a norm and then businesses and infrastructure accommodate the greater appetite, sucking in more people into that lifestyle,” Zee said.

While Southeast Asia still enjoys one of the world’s lowest obesity rates, it is seeing a rapid growth in the condition. Rising incomes, sedentary lifestyles and fattier, Western fast foods are exacerbating the situation for a region that has for decades focused on under- rather than overnutrition.

The obesity rate in Singapore climbed to around 14 percent in 2010 from 8.6 percent in 2004. In Malaysia, 1 in 2 adults is either overweight or obese, while the prevalence of obesity in Thailand almost doubled between 1991 and 2009.

The World Health Organization has urged governments to do more to prevent obesity, instead of risking the high costs once it sets in.

Malaysia is working on increasing awareness about obesity being a public health threat as part of its national strategic plan for noncommunicable disease. Obesity is a key cause of such conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

“A population with a high burden of (noncommunicable diseases) . . . will affect productivity and ultimately will negatively impact our economic development,” said Dr. Chong Chee Kheong, director of disease control at the Ministry of Health in Malaysia.

The “Nutrition Month Malaysia” initiative had “Eat right, move more: Fight Obesity” as its theme this year. The country also hosted the International Congress on Obesity in March.

Thailand is looking at various measures to beat the bulge, including a ban on the sale of carbonated soft drinks at state schools, said Krisada Ruangareerat, manager at the health ministry’s Thai Health Promotion Foundation. “The latest number in 2012 showed about 17 million Thais suffered from obesity . . . the number continues to rise by 4 million people a year,” Krisada said.

The foundation is also thinking of proposing a tax on sweet foods or those with high calories. “Thais consume 23.4 teaspoons of sugar per person per day, which is very high compared with an appropriate level of six teaspoons a day,” Krisada added.

“I think every government is at various stages of realization that prevention is better than cure,” said Simon Flint, the Asia CEO of gym chain operator Fitness First, which is expanding quickly in the region.

In Singapore, many child care centers are serving less fattening brown instead of white rice and public housing blocks have signs urging people to skip the lift and take the stairs. The government has rolled out an incentive-based weight management program for its residents to collectively shed 1 million kilograms over the next three years.

The city-state, home to 5.4 million people, is also working with several organizations to promote healthy living, including Fitness First and fast-food chain McDonald’s.

“It’s safer as a health authority to tell the kids no McDonald’s, but it’s more real and will potentially have a better impact if I work with McDonald’s to improve their product mix,” the health board’s Zee said in an interview. McDonald’s has committed to provide more wholesome options in its menu, he added.

Singapore, which is hoping to at least stabilize the rising obesity rate by 2020, recently launched a healthy living master plan and a food strategy that will see around 700 food outlets across its territory serving 500-calorie meals. The city-state plans to roll out another initiative for physical activity later this year.

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