While many Western countries are already battling a full-blown obesity epidemic, Southeast Asia is fighting to prevent the same unhealthy fate by encouraging people to take the stairs, banning carbonated soft drinks at school, and working with fast food restaurants to create healthier choices.
"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 Yoong Kang, chief executive of Singapore's Health Promotion Board, told Reuters.
In Singapore, the obesity rate has been rising one percent every year. Currently, one in nine adults 18 to 69 are obese. After the Health Promotion Board (HPB) discovered the steady increase from its National Health Survey, the One Million KG Challenge was launched this year to incentivize weight loss. The participants hope to collectively lose one million kilograms or over 2.2 million pounds. Efforts are already seen in many childcare centers, which are serving healthier brown instead of white rice. Officials have also implemented signs urging people to skip the elevator and take the stairs in all public buildings.
"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," Kang said.
The HPB provides starter kits, self-monitoring tools, resources, and online weight management tracking in order to help participants achieve their goal. Those who have proven to be committed to the weight loss and have achieved their goals will win prizes such as cars, holiday packages, and shopping vouchers in October.
"Building up confidence levels is the crucial first step towards tackling obesity and I help my clients build theirs by showing them a photograph of a fat me," said Sean Chin, a personal trainer practicing in Singapore, who fought his own weight battles for years. He went from 24 percent body fat down to just nine percent in a seven-year period.
"My mantra? If I could, you can," Chin said.
In many ways, the obesity threat is more than just a public health crisis. Obesity is the leading cause of non-communicable diseases (NCD), such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. In the United States, more than one-third of adults are obese, which costs an estimated $147 billion in annual medical costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every obese adult in the U.S. costs $1,429 more than those with normal weights because of the risks associated with such a tremendous, unhealthy weight gain.
"A population with a high burden of NCDs ... will affect productivity and ultimately negatively impact our economic development," Dr. Chong Chee Kheong, director of disease control at the Ministry of Health in Malaysia, told Reuters.
Malaysia has been making efforts to work away from their new title as being the fattest country in Southeast Asia, with continued obesity rates on the rise. Currently, 15.1 percent of the country’s adult citizens 18 years and older are obese, which is still less than half of how many citizens are obese in the United States. In terms of overweight, Malaysia ranks highest with 44.2 percent of its citizens weighing into an unhealthy body mass index.
But Malaysia isn’t comparing itself to the U.S., only looking to avoid joining the ranks. The Malaysian Associated for the Study of Obesity hosted the International Congress on Obesity in March, which focused on approaches to manage the epidemic on a global scale. They’ve even focused their theme of this year’s Nutrition Month Malaysia initiative towards battling excessive weight gain called, “Eat Right, Move More: Fight Obesity.”
Thailand isn’t far behind, with 32.2 percent of its citizens overweight. According to Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, in just two years the obesity rates increased from 10 million in 2005 to 17 million in 2007. The country’s children don’t follow too far behind, with obesity growth rates of 36 percent in preschool-aged children and 15 percent in school-aged children.
"The latest number in 2012 showed about 17 million Thais suffered from obesity ... the number continues to rise by four million people a year," Krisada Ruangareerat, manager at the health ministry's Thai Health Promotion Foundation (THPF), told Reuters.
The THPF 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 said.
Sugar, especially when delivered through liquids, has shown to increase obesity rates. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are investing a combined $25 billion in developing countries over the next five years, according to Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director from the Center for Science in the Public Interest headquartered in Washington, D.C. In response, Mexico levied an excise tax on sugary drinks and snack foods to cut consumption by five percent, a trend many countries may soon follow to battle obesity.