FIA Video: Tackling Obesity in Singapore

Systems-level changes to encourage healthy living, and a shift in mindsets of parents, employers and the private sector, are needed to tackle the pressing problem of overweight and obesity in Singapore, says Professor Chia Kee Seng, Dean, Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore.

Professor Chia was a panellist during the launch of the “Tackling obesity in ASEAN: Prevalence, impact and guidance on interventions” report on 1 June in Singapore. The report, produced by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and commissioned by the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN), states that obesity cost Singapore about a total of US$0.4-1 billion in 2016, up to 9.64 per cent (direct and indirect costs) in healthcare spending, as well as up to six and 10 productive years lost for males and females, respectively.

People tend to think that obesity is only a problem in western countries, and not in Asia, said Professor Chia. However, by using the measurements of body mass index (BMI) and percentage body fat, he added, it is clear to see that Asian populations are facing a critical problem of overweight and obesity.

A person with 40 per cent of body fat faces an extremely high risk of chronic diseases, he said. While the BMI equivalent for this amount of body fat is 30 in a Caucasian adult, it is 27 for a Singaporean Chinese individual, and even lower for people of Malay and Indian ethnicities.

“At a BMI of 27, you don’t look fat or obese; in fact, you look pretty good,” said Professor Chia. “The reason is that the fat is found around our organs, rather than around the abdominal wall. And it’s the fat that is around our organs that kills us. So we have a big problem.”

Therefore, in order to address this problem, a change in mindset within the society is crucial, said Professor Chia. Parents need to realise that investments in their children’s education must also go toward building healthy habits, and not just wealth for a “good life” in the future. Employers need to recognise that they, too, are investing in the future of Singapore when they take steps to inculcate healthy habits in the workplace, particularly for those between the ages of 20 and 30.

The private sector, he added, needs to invest in research & development (R&D) and innovative technologies to educate consumers and promote healthy dietary choices.

Professor Chia Kee Seng, Dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health and National University of Singapore (NUS), joins a panel discussion on tackling the obesity epidemic in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), during the launch of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) ASEAN obesity report on 1 June in Singapore.

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