Malaysians most obese in Southeast Asia

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The recent measure of the New York City Board of Health to ban the sale of large sugary soft drinks has turned the attention to a global problem: Obesity is on the rise, and also in Southeast Asia, where growing wealth makes people fatter.

Among Southeast Asian nations, Malaysia is the one with the highest rate of obese people, who are defined as having a body-mass-index* higher than 27.5.

One in six Malaysians are either overweight or obese, according to the Malaysian Health Ministry. And the prevalence of obese people is still on the upward trend, says Datin Paduka Santha Kumari, chairman of the Selangor branch of the Malaysian Diabetes Association.

“Malaysia is leading in the prevalence of obesity among Southeast Asian countries. Almost one in two Malaysians are either overweight or obese, placing them at a high risk for diabetes,” Kumari said.

A recent study showed that 22 per cent of Malaysians above the age of 30 were also diabetic patients.

Deputy Health Minister Datuk Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin said: “We view this matter seriously because an excessive intake of sugar could lead to various complications including diabetes.”

According to the study, the daily sugar intake among Malaysians was too high, at 51 grammes, which is above the World Health Organisation recommendation of 50 grammes.

Interestingly, university studies revealed that women in Malaysia were statistically more obese than men, with a higher rate among Indian and Malay women compared to Chinese women.

Globally, South East Asia and the Western Pacific region are currently facing an epidemic of diseases associated with obesity such as diabetes. India has the highest number of people with diabetes in the world and China occupies the second position. Systematic national data on prevalence of obesity is not available from any Asian country. Wide differences exist in its prevalence.

According to WHO statistics, Thailand has the second largest number of obese people in Southeast Asia despite the traditional and generally healthy diet of rice, fish, chicken and vegetables in the country. This food mix has not disappeared but is seriously threatened by the availability of  snacks and “convenience” food. It should also be noted that Thais, along with other Asian nations, prefer higher-calory white rice as opposed to the more healthy brown types.

In many developing regions in South Asia and Asia-Pacific, both obesity and undernutrition coexist mainly due to wide socioeconomic disparities. An example of an Asian country with both undernutrition and overnutrition paradox is the Philippines. While more than 30 per cent of preschool and school children were underweight, less than 1 per cent are overweight. However, more than 15 per cent of adults suffer from obesity.  The relationship between obesity and poverty is complex. In the world’s poorest countries, poverty is associated with malnutrition and underweight whereas, in middle income countries, it is associated with an increased risk of obesity.

Unlike in the US, where fast food is perceived as time-saving and cheap and often the preferred meal of the working poor, in Asia places like Burger King and Pizza Hut are the fare of choice for those with dispensable incomes. For a regular factory worker in Vietnam who makes around $5 a day, eating at KFC is completely out of the question. For those who can afford to eat at one of Pizza Hut’s air-conditioned restaurants in a shopping mall in Hanoi or Saigon, however, eating is part of the experience. The other part is equally, if not more, important: Consuming American fast food is the proof of one’s economic status in the world.

China is home to more than 380 million-plus people with weight problems. And recent studies indicate that the problem is especially prevalent among youth. In 2005, there were 18 million in China who were considered obese. In 2011, that number jumped to 100 million.

In this regard, Vietnam too is catching up with China. While 28 per cent of rural children suffer from malnutrition, according to the country’s National Institute of Nutrition, 20 per cent from urban areas suffer from the opposite, obesity.

* The body-mass-index is a measurement obtained by dividing a person’s weight in kilogrammes by the square of the person’s height in meters.