Weight of the world on all stakeholders to fight obesity

Public and private sectors need to work together to combat major health issue in South-east Asia

The obesity and overweight epidemic is escalating rapidly in South-east Asia, including in Singapore.

According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the country faces the second-highest prevalence of overweight in South-east Asia at 32.8 per cent, second only to Malaysia (38.5 per cent).

Across the region, obesity rates increased by an average of 28 per cent between 2010 and 2014. In particular, the obesity prevalence rate in Indonesia and Vietnam has grown over three times as fast as those in the UK and the US.

While the current prevalence of obesity in South-east Asia is still relatively low compared with global standards, there is no doubt that the obesity rate in Asean is climbing, with some countries experiencing high levels of childhood obesity.

Obesity in most parts of the region is partly driven by rising incomes - greater disposable income can mean greater access to specific types of food, and oftentimes food that is energy-dense and lacking in nutrients.

This, coupled with high-calorie food that is consumed daily and a lack of exercise among the region's population, is making more people gain weight faster. Of course, there are many other issues, such as society, infrastructure and education, that also impact obesity rates.

More critically, policy-
makers in South-east Asia often do not prioritise obesity as a public-health concern given more pressing issues like malnutrition and, at times, food shortages.

This is further amplified by the general lack of awareness about the associated dangers of obesity such as its connection to non-communicable diseases, including diabetes.

To address this public healthcare burden, a paradigm shift in focus and strategies is needed.


This includes more attention being placed on preventive measures, better education on healthy nutrition, especially for children, that leads to positive behaviour change, as well as multi-stakeholder partnerships and knowledge exchange to foster stronger engagement between the public and private sectors.

Solving the obesity crisis requires tailored strategies that fit within the local environment.

More importantly, it requires strong partnerships and open engagement between the government, academia, food industry and civil society.

Some examples of multi-sectoral partnerships across the region include the Singapore government setting aside funds from its $4.5 billion Industry Transformation Programme to help businesses in the food industry develop safer, higher-quality food products that are lower in sugar, salt and fat content.

Seven major drinks companies, including Nestlé, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, will limit the sugar content of drinks they sell in Singapore, as part of the campaign to fight diabetes.

They have signed an industry pledge to remove drinks that contain more than 12 per cent sugar from their portfolios of sugar-sweetened beverages by 2020.

Meanwhile, firms in Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines have also collaborated with their local governments to raise awareness and promote behavioural changes towards healthy lifestyles.

For the public and private sectors to collaborate successfully, there has to be transparent and honest dialogue.

Companies in the private sector need to be open about any conflicts of interest their businesses may have in relation to the promotion of a healthy and obesity-free lifestyle.

Creating trust through an open and honest dialogue between both the public and private sectors with the players that can make a difference is critical to curbing one of the biggest health challenges the world has ever encountered.

The author is executive director of Food Industry Asia (FIA). 
This article was published in The Business Times on Wednesday.