SINGAPORE: Singapore needs to do much better in communicating to the public the importance of eating well, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Monday (Nov 26).
There has to be a sustained effort in putting out information on the health risks of diabetes and how serious the issue is, he added, as he outlined three mindset shifts needed to effectively tackle the disease.
Mr Tharman was kicking off the inaugural Ministerial Conference on Diabetes attended by representatives from countries like the United States, Malaysia and Finland.
“We have to tackle a basic problem in human psychology - the pleasures of a slice of chocolate cake are immediate, while the costs to health are hidden and set in much later, but with potentially severe consequences,” he said.
Mr Tharman, who is also the Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, said this in elaborating on the “most critical” mindset shift - that among individuals.
It is the individual who has to see the benefits of adjusting his or her habits, and feel good about doing so.
“As it stands, however, exercising more and eating healthier stuff is almost always at the top of the list of failed new year resolutions. So there is a lot to be done here,” he said.
Almost half a million Singaporeans live with diabetes, higher than the global prevalence, leading the Government to declare a war against the disease in 2016.
DEVELOPING GOOD HABITS FROM YOUNG
Mr Tharman made a case for acting more decisively to develop good eating habits from young, to shape the tastes and preferences of children here.
Seventy per cent of children who are overweight at age seven remain overweight as adults he said, adding that this has a direct impact on chronic diseases such as diabetes.
While the Government has been putting in more effort in schools by prohibiting the sale of sugary drinks and other drinks without the Healthier Choice Symbol, parents heavily influence what their children consume, he said.
“There is still much to do to change eating habits among children, including adolescents. A lot depends on what happens daily outside of school hours, and over weekends and the holidays,” he said.
Children whose parents consume more sugar-sweetened beverages are much more likely to consume more of such drinks themselves, he said. Parental education is therefore critical, he said.
“Parents must understand that when we invest resources and time in developing our children, helping them develop healthy habits for life has to be a part of this. And it has to start young,” he said.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SCREENING
Mr Tharman also put the spotlight on early screening, as he said that far too often, people find out they have diabetes only when severe symptoms manifest.
He, however, pointed to encouraging numbers through the Screen for Life Programme, under which Singaporeans over the age of 40 pay a maximum of S$5 for screening tests done every three years, and for the first follow-up consultation if needed.
Almost 46,000 people were screened under the programme in the first year after it was enhanced in 2017, a sharp rise from the 1,300 in the year before implementation.
“Costs should not be a barrier to screening and care,” he said.
GOVERNMENT, EMPLOYER MINDSET SHIFTS
Mr Tharman also spoke about how every Government sector has to be involved in tackling diabetes.
“It takes a coordinated, whole-of-Government approach to promote healthy lifestyles,” he said.
He gave the examples of infrastructure agencies placing fitness corners in housing estates and developing an extensive Park Connector Network of cycling and running paths and the National Environment Agency installing water dispensers at more hawker centres.
He also urged employers to promote good health at the workplace.
He gave the example of SBS Transit as a company that takes responsibility for its employees’ health.
SBS Transit provides bus captains with free health screening and modified work schedules for those with chronic conditions like diabetes.
Bus captains may request to be assigned to shorter feeder services to allow timely medication and meals to regulate their blood glucose levels.