With the number of overweight and obese people in Southeast Asia swelling at an alarming rate, have governments left it too late to fight the flab?
With almost half of the adult population in Malaysia considered overweight, his exasperation at the state of the country’s health is well founded. While Malaysia is by far the fattest country in Southeast Asia, it is not alone in its increasingly plump standing.
Thailand and Singapore, the region’s respective silver and bronze ‘heavyweight’ medalists, were the first to experience this classic curse of economic development, which is now affecting nations such as Cambodia and Myanmar.
In less than a generation, countries in Southeast Asia have transformed from an active to a sedentary lifestyle. Motorcycles and cars have replaced bicycles, while television and video games have supplanted outdoor activities. Joining the ranks of fast food nations, Southeast Asia is quickly tapping into soft drinks and high-salt foods as its middle class eagerly shows off its economic prowess.
The issue is particularly alarming for the region’s youth. Since 1990, overweight prevalence in Southeast Asia has more than quadrupled in pre-school children, and teenage obesity has become an issue in many capital cities. The region is now facing an epidemic of diseases associated with obesity, such as diabetes. More than 23 million adults live with the ‘silent killer’ in Asean; though it is believed that only half the people living with diabetes have been diagnosed.
Late off the starting blocks, regional authorities are beginning to take note of the impending health disaster. Malaysia plans to distribute 100,000 skipping ropes to schools across the country, while Singapore intends to restrict unhealthy food advertisements aimed at children and has introduced morning ‘mall walks’. During last year’s Buddhist lent, Thailand organised a weight reduction campaign, which promoted losing weight as a means of gaining merit during the holy season. Yet in a country where half of the monks are overweight, calling on religion for help could prompt big fat smiles.