June 15, 2017

Obesity and Overweight Represent a Growing Public Health Threat in ASEAN Countries

According to a report commissioned by the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) and produced by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), "Obesity is a growing public health burden, not just in affluent countries but also in many developing nations at all income levels." The report, Tackling obesity in ASEAN: Prevalence, impact, and guidance on interventions, further explains: "Increases in obesity prevalence are driven by a range of interlinked factors, including rising incomes, urbanization, shifting lifestyles and genetic factors that may trigger obesity among individuals in once food-scarce environments. Obesity incidence is also rising steadily, bringing with it new challenges. The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is no exception to these trends."

Importantly, the EIU report notes that "if action is not taken, countries could find themselves fighting a range of related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke, as well as a range of chronic diseases including musculoskeletal disorders." Furthermore, "For some countries, this challenge will emerge as they continue to battle a range of communicable and infectious diseases, as well as undernutrition in some portions of the population, placing a great strain on public health systems."

The report concludes that "obesity and overweight represent a growing public health threat in ASEAN countries. Although the region currently has among the lowest rates of prevalence globally, it is likely that this reflects its relatively low income status, which will change as countries grow their economies." Moreover, the correlation between economic development, urbanization, rising incomes and increasing obesity suggests that ASEAN countries are going to face substantial difficulties related to obesity and the NCDs it causes, including cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease."

Encouragingly, the report "has identified several promising pathways for the future:
  • Interventions that target food intake show high promise in terms of impact (reducing obesity) at both the individual and population level.
  • Physical activity plays an important role in preventing and reducing obesity, and governments can positively influence people's access to exercise facilities in ASEAN countries, especially in schools.
  • There is an urgent need for simpler food labeling that can have a greater impact on consumers and help them make informed choices.
  • Alliances between government, the health community and the food and beverage industry are being trialed globally and will be critical to success. The private sector can play a constructive role in developing new food products with lower sugar and fat contents.
  • Obesity in childhood is hard to reverse and can lead to chronic illness, highlighting the importance of child-focused obesity measures. Options include restricting the availability of high-fat or high-sugar foods in school environments, investing more in school exercise infrastructure, restricting child-focused advertising for energy-dense or high-sugar foods and encouraging exclusive breastfeeding in early years. Physical education must also become a more central part of the school curricula in ASEAN countries, backed by investment that ensures that educational establishments have the necessary facilities. Controlling the obesogenic environment may be advisable in school canteens and play areas and in the outside vicinity. Energy-dense, nutrient-poor food and beverages advertisements aimed at children can pose a health threat.
  • Education campaigns should not be dismissed. There are widespread misconceptions about obesity among ASEAN populations, including a lack of understanding of its origins and consequences. There are also cultural challenges, including the presence of unhealthy ingredients in national dishes and social norms that consider fat a sign of health in children. Simple educational campaigns and more effective food labeling can help to tackle complacency and promote healthier choices."
The goal of the paper is to help guide ASEAN's "policymakers, health organizations and industry to work together and tackle the rising threat of obesity in the region." What strategies do you think should be implemented to reduce the growing public health threat caused by obesity in ASEAN countries?

Aaron Rose is an advisor to talented entrepreneurs and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of Solutions for a Sustainable World.

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