Fighting Childhood Obesity In Southeast Asia

This file photo shows an Indonesian doctor checking a child, Arya Permana at his home in Karawang, West Java. (AFP Photo)

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the prevalence of childhood obesity has increased at an alarming rate globally.

Southeast Asia has seen an upward trend in childhood obesity during the last 10 to 15 years. An estimated 6.6 million children under five years are currently overweight in the region. 

Moreover, the growing paradox of under-nutrition and obesity in the same population, commonly described as the double burden of malnutrition, impacts the health status of the population, and is straining national health capacities.

The Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) has estimated that the cost to the Asia-Pacific region for overweight or obese citizens is US$166 billion a year. The rapid rise of obesity in the region is incredibly worrying because overweight children are at higher risk of becoming obese adults and then developing serious health problems such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and liver disease.

Matthias Helble, an economist at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said that rising wealth over the last 20 years has played a major role in the rise in obesity levels, adding that an affluent new lifestyle has caused a rise in the consumption of convenience and processed foods, which often contain excess fats and more salt and sugar.

Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are all considered to have “public health concerns” caused by both, undernutrition and excess weight, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). 

In a 2019 article published on the WHO website titled 'Sugary drinks tax important first step, but obesity in Malaysia demands further action,' it is said that Malaysia is the “fattest nation in Asia” and has the second-highest child obesity rate among children in ASEAN aged five to 19 years, with 7.1 percent of children under the age of five being overweight.

In Indonesia, 12 percent of children under five years of age – 2.89 million – are overweight.

Is ASEAN Doing Enough?

To combat obesity in Southeast Asia, most ASEAN countries – Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Brunei, Lao PDR, and Malaysia – have opted for an easier solution, which is to impose a sugar tax or commonly known as soda tax.

Whereas Singapore has launched a war against diabetes. It was reported the island-state has one of the highest rates of gestational diabetes in the world. It is estimated that more than 6,000 pregnant women suffer from the condition every year – and more than 4,000 of them will develop the disease in their lifetime. Moreover, SingHealth, the country’s largest group of healthcare institutions said that around 40,000 Singaporeans have diabetes.

Singapore has adopted different strategies that incorporate a growing number of studies that have debunked the effectiveness of a sugar tax. For instance, research from Duke University and the National University of Singapore released in December 2010 tested larger taxes and determined that 20 percent and 40 percent taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages would largely not affect calorie intake because people would switch to untaxed, but equally caloric, beverages.

Nevertheless, a 2019 study by YouGov revealed that two in five Singaporeans support the implementation of a sugar tax.

WHO Framework for action
Source: World Health Organisation

Developing and implementing a comprehensive action plan against childhood obesity is costly and requires an overhaul to the daily routines of children in school and at home. Governments would need to make a significant commitment to embed at least some of the effective and feasible policy actions aimed at increasing physical activity and promoting healthy eating among children.

An example would be a campaign started in England 10 years ago to provide free healthy meals for all children aged between four and seven. This has resulted in a seven percent drop in obesity among four-and-five-year-olds, the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported.

Although costly, ASEAN countries would need to take a stronger stand in their policies to tackle childhood obesity as well as its prevalence among adults. Considering that Southeast Asia now accounts for about 20 percent of all diabetics globally, it is indeed a major concern that would require heavy spending for a long-term solution. 

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development includes obesity as a non-communicable disease (NCD), and a concerning factor to sustainable development. As part of the Agenda, heads of state and governments are committed to developing ambitious national responses, by 2030. This is to reduce by one-third premature mortality from NCDs through prevention and treatment.

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