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Southeast Asia Takes Action Against Obesity as Rates Rise

Jun 09, 2014 12:12 PM EDT

Even with some of the lowest obesity rates in the world, many countries in Southeast Asia are growing Increasingly concerned about their rising obesity rates, launching initiatives to curb the problem before it becomes a national health issue.

A recent study published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) details a comprehensive analysis of overweight or obese population rates over the last three decades, finding that not one country (of the 188 included) has reduced its obesity rate in approximately 33 years.

This includes Southeast Asia, a region with some of the thinnest people in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO has long led the crusade against obesity, noting in past reports that obesity is not only prevalent is most developed countries, but is also of "epidemic" proportions in poorer countries where nutritional education is lacking.

However, even the WHO regards the obesity problem in Southeast Asia as a low priority, lumping it in with a general agenda against all noncommunicable diseases (NCD), such a high blood pressure and alcohol abuse.

"A population with a high burden of NCDs ... will affect productivity and ultimately negatively impact our economic development," Chong Chee Kheong, director of disease control at the Ministry of Health in Malaysia, told Reuters.

Malaysia recently hosted the 12th International Congress on Obesity (ICO), a discussion about what Asian countries can do to halt rising obesity rates before they become a public health problem that will cost billions to reverse. Obesity, Kehong says, is a high priority NCD now, as every one of two adults in Malaysia is overweight or obese, according to a Reuters report.

Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand have all faced recent rises in the obesity rate.

Beyond hosting last Month's ICO, the Malaysian government has also aimed this year's "Nutrition Month Malaysia" at fighting obesity in particular, handing out "fight Obesity" guidebooks, launching carnivals around that theme, and even funding anti-obesity and nutrition education roach shows in primary schools.

The Thai Promotion Health Foundation (TPHF) has also recently set its sights on fighting obesity, going as far as to ban the sale of soft drinks at state schools. A tax on sweet food might even be in order, if a proposal by the TPHF finds support, according to Reuters.

Singapore too has jumped on the "fight obesity" bandwagon, launching a "healthy living master plan and food strategy" that is helping nearly 700 food outlets serve meals under 500 calories. Simultaneously, the Singapour Health Promotion Board has begun educating people on the importance of maintaining a healthy body-mass-index (BMI) - although the BMI system has recently come under fire in countries like the United States and United Kingdom, where BMIs may not necessarily reflect the true health of young people.

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