South-East Asia is Getting Fatter, Faster

The number of obese adults in the ASEAN Six increased at a faster rate than that of the United Kingdom and the United States of America from 2010 to 2014, according to data gathered by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

This statistic was one among several key figures on obesity and its economic impact, highlighted in an inception report on “The Current Landscape and State of Health in Relation to Obesity in South-East Asia”, prepared by the EIU for a study commissioned by the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) and the Health Promotion Board of Singapore. Key findings from this inception report were presented to government, regulators, academia, civil society and the food industry from around the Asian region at the official launch of the study, by EIU at the recently concluded 2nd annual ARoFIIN Roundtable held in Singapore.

According to the EIU inception report, based on World Health Organization (WHO) data, Indonesia experienced a 33 per cent increase in the number of obese individuals, while Vietnam saw a 38 per cent increase, Malaysia a 33 per cent increase and Thailand a 27 per cent increase. During this same period (2010 to 2014), the number of obese individuals in the United Kingdom and the United States of America increased by only 10 per cent and 8 per cent, respectively.

The inception study also correlated with WHO figures, which indicated that rates of obesity are rising faster in many lower- and middle-income countries, as compared to that in higher-income countries, and that childhood obesity is a particular concern in these countries.

Dr Simon Baptist, Chief Economist with the EIU, says that more evidence is needed on the economic impact of obesity in ASEAN and, importantly, which policy responses by regulators, the food industry and governments make sense in an ASEAN context.

“The current prevalence of obesity in many ASEAN countries is low by global standards—although with some exceptions for childhood obesity—but the rate is rising fast and the large populations of some countries mean that they have some of the largest numbers of overweight and obese people.”

“While it is early days yet and we are just kicking off this study, initial research indicates that childhood obesity rates are growing faster in the ASEAN Six than in Japan, the UK and USA,” he said.

According to Dr Baptist, the initial findings from the report show that obesity rates in the ASEAN Six are generally higher in countries with higher GDP per capita.

“Continued and rapid economic growth is therefore expected to rapidly increase the prevalence of obesity in these countries. Economic growth is typically accompanied by increased urbanisation, which provides easier access to food that is high in refined carbohydrates, saturated fat and sugar, and low in fibre – all which have been linked with obesity,” says Dr Baptist.

Being overweight or obese increases an individual’s risk of diseases and conditions such as heart disease or stroke, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. The EIU inception study points to research that shows that South-East Asia is already facing an epidemic of chronic, non-communicable diseases, which now account for 60 per cent of deaths in the region.

“Obesity is shaping up to be the number one risk factor impacting health more so than infectious diseases that we in the healthcare sector worry about,” says Mr Zee Yoong Kang, Chief Executive Officer, Health Promotion Board, in the official ARoFIIN launch video presented at the 2nd ARoFIIN Roundtable.

“If we do not address obesity, we’ll see a huge epidemic of chronic conditions, especially diabetes. Governments (in the region) need to be aware that this would be the number one healthcare challenge that we could face over the next two to three decades,” says Mr Zee.

“The Current Landscape and State of Health in Relation to Obesity in South-East Asia” report will be the first time that the economic impact of obesity will be looked at across ASEAN. The final report, which is expected to be completed at the end of October 2016, will indicate the scale of both the direct and indirect economics costs of obesity, as well as assess policy interventions, says Dr Baptist.

The Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) was established in January 2015, to leverage public-private partnerships and bring together experts from across government, academia, industry and civil society, to initiate and sustain a regional, multi-stakeholder dialogue on the role of food innovation in tackling obesity and chronic disease. ARoFIIN is convened by the Health Promotion Board (HPB), the Agency for Science, Research and Technology (A*STAR), the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) and Food Industry Asia (FIA).

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