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A weighty problem for governments

A new study shows more emerging, middle-income countries, like China and India, are now facing a rise in obesity. If they don't want to be saddled with a hefty healthcare bill in the future, experts say governments need to start implementing changes now.

SINGAPORE: If you think obesity is just a problem affecting rich Western countries, think again.

A new study shows that more emerging, middle-income countries, like China and India, are now at the heart of a "fat" explosion.

And if they don't want to be saddled with a hefty healthcare bill in the future, experts say governments need to start implementing changes now.

New research from the medical journal The Lancet found that about a third of the world's population was either obese or overweight last year.

That's 2.1 billion people.

The breakdown may surprise you.

The heaviest country was the United States, with 13 percent of the world's obese people.

But behind that were China and India, which together are home to 15 percent of the world's obese.

EIU's global healthcare analyst, Ana Nicholls, said: "In terms of where the concentration is coming from, it does seem to now be shifting to big population countries.

"You have to put this in context. In terms of overall obesity rates, Asia still ranks pretty low. It's below 4 percent for most countries in the region, compared to over 30% in countries like the US and in parts of the Middle East."

It's a double-edged sword.

Expanding waistlines are a sign of a healthy and growing economy.

But being overweight raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer - all are expensive diseases to treat.

For now, healthcare costs in the region remain low.

According to the World Bank, China spends US$322 per person a year while India, US$61 per person.

For Indonesia, it is US$108; Japan, US$4,752; Korea, US$1,703; Singapore, US$2,426; and Thailand, US$215.

The figures are low, compared with US$8,895 per person in the US.

But the rate of obesity in the region is growing rapidly.

And given the magnitude of their populations, these countries could be facing a massive healthcare bill down the road.

Frost & Sullivan's global partner and China managing director, Dr Neil Wang, said: "Every year, for China alone, the healthcare will be billions.

"That's going to be a huge number to tackle - the problem of diabetes, hypertension and other problems associated with being overweight, with obesity."

It's a problem governments aren't taking lightly.

Some are already taking steps to help minimize the impact of a surging rate of obesity.

EIU's Ana Nicholls said: "Korea has had for many years now a well-regarded nutritional programme of education.

"Japan has taken a rather draconian approach of having mandatory waistline measurements.

"China has had some educational programmes in place.

"In other countries, it's only just starting to happen and it's mainly focusing on the educational level."

Experts say these policies can take up to two decades to deliver benefits.

So, now is the time to trim waistlines if governments want to protect their bottomline. 

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