Obesity: A growing worldwide epidemic

Obesity: A growing worldwide epidemic

SINGAPORE: The world will be feeling the weight of obesity on its shoulders with the global annual medical cost of treating obesity expected to hit US$1.2 trillion (S$1.6 trillion) by 2025, announced the World Obesity Federation.

In eight years, 2.7 billion adults worldwide will suffer from obesity and being overweight, estimated the Federation. It added that obesity is responsible for a significant proportion of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including heart disease, diabetes, liver disease and many types of cancer.

Using this year’s World Obesity Day (Oct 11) to weigh in on the impact of obesity, the World Obesity Federation - along with the Lancet and the World Health Organization (WHO) - has released new data that shows the increasing number of obese adults and the financial consequences of not treating obesity.

Obesity around the world

For instance, the United States is expected to experience an increase in the estimated percentage of adults living with obesity (from 34 per cent in 2014 to 41 per cent in 2025), according to the data. Not treating obesity could set the US back by US$555 billion in eight years.

In Singapore, the percentages of adult Singaporeans who were overweight were 31.7 per cent for men and 21.2 per cent for women in 2014. By 2025, the percentages are estimated to increase to 36.5 per cent for men and 21.7 per cent for women, according to the World Obesity Federation. 

Male Singaporeans who were obese in 2014 made up 5.5 per cent of the population, while women made up 5.9 per cent. The World Obesity Foundation estimated these percentages will increase to 7.1 for men and 6.6 for women in eight years' time.  

The WHO defines obesity as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30kg/m2 and above. Singaporeans, as with other Asians, tend to have higher amounts of abdominal fat at lower BMIs, said Dr Tham Kwang Wei, president of the Singapore Association for the Study of Obesity - an affiliate of the World Obesity Federation.

Hence, a Singaporean with a BMI that falls between 23kg/m2 and 27.5kg/m2 would be considered overweight, while someone with a BMI higher than 27.5kg/m2 would be deemed as obese, explained Dr Tham, who is also senior consultant with the Department of Endocrinology at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and director of SGH’s LIFE (Lifestyle Improvement and Fitness Enhancement) Centre's Obesity and Metabolic Unit.

“Going by the lower BMI cutoffs, the percentage of Singaporeans who are overweight and obese are actually 32.3 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively,” said Dr Tham, citing the 2010 National Health Survey.

By urging governments worldwide to invest in the prevention, early intervention and treatment of obesity, the World Obesity Federation targets to reduce mortality from NCDs by 25 per cent and halt the rise in obesity by 2025. 

For instance, the World Obesity Foundation projected that the healthcare cost of not treating obesity in Singapore will rise from US$723 million in 2014 to US$1,521 million in 2025.

Dr Tham feels that Singapore “can achieve” the World Obesity Federation’s target as there is “concerted effort across the board” through the implementation of health screenings and lifestyle campaigns such as the Health Promotion Board’s latest efforts to get hawker stalls to serve healthier dishes.

"Recently, soft drink manufacturers in Singapore have agreed to reduce the sugar in their drinks. But more can be done, especially food marketing that targets children," she said. "For instance, sugar taxes to curtail the availability of sugary drinks to children can be considered," she said.

Addressing childhood obesity is crucial as 70 to 80 per cent of children who are obese remain obese as adults, said Dr Tham.

Compared to the US or Western Europe, Southeast Asia is deemed as less prone to obesity in The Global Nutrition Report in 2016, said Dr Lee Chung Horn, endocrinologist at Gleneagles Medical Centre. Still, there is concern as “body weight is correlated with conditions like diabetes mellitus, hypertension and heart disease and cancer,” he said.

“Many Singaporeans are unconcerned about weight. They worry about making a living. On the other end of the scale, we have Singaporeans whose belief in fitness and health is skin deep. Their main concern is to be physically attractive,” said Dr Lee.

Minimising “waistlines, love handles, cellulite and wobbly chins” is of greater importance to them than blood pressure and fasting glucose readings, he said. “They latch on to fads and unscientific cures.” 

Source: CNA/bk