ASEAN countries facing the highest costs of obesity in 2016 are: Indonesia (US$2 to 4 billion), Malaysia (US$1 to 2 billion) and Singapore (US$400million to 1 billion). Obesity also reduces productive working life by an average of four to nine years in Southeast Asia.
For Singapore in particular, obesity prevalence among young adults aged 20 to 30 years old has increased three-fold in the last 15 years, making it like an epidemic, according to Professor Chia Kee Seng, dean, Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. Professor Chia also shared that without proper intervention, Singapore will have one million diabetics out of a population of five million by 2050.
Historically, the prevalence of obese and overweight people has been low in ASEAN. However, obesity prevalence rates have more than tripled in low and middle-income countries through 1980-2013. The implications of this trend are severe—obesity is linked to many non-communicable diseases and is reducing life expectancy, which has serious consequences for household income, economic growth and productivity in ASEAN.
The report analysed obesity in ASEAN through consumer and healthcare practitioner surveys, an intervention effectiveness analysis, and an economic impact assessment. It was found that total costs of obesity represented as a percentage of national healthcare spending in the ASEAN are highest in Malaysia (10 to 19 percent) and Indonesia (eight to 16 percent). They are lowest in Vietnam (one to three percent) and Thailand (three to six percent).
Workers with obesity-related conditions—including type 2 diabetes, cancer, and stroke—in the ASEAN country sample are less productive than their healthy counterparts. They effectively contribute to the economy for between four and nine (productive) years less than the working-age population average.
The intervention effectiveness analysis evaluated various interventions targeted at individuals or the entire population sample, broadly categorised into: physiological, psychological, food-based or activity-based interventions. Interventions targeted at food and exercise show greatest promise in the fight against obesity.
Amongst food-based interventions, low glycaemic index diets were found to be the most effective, based on the strength of the evidence base. Low-calorie, low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets have also shown promise as reliable, targeted interventions to combat obesity. However, food-based interventions cannot be directly legislated or regulated. Reducing portion sizes, taxing specific food types and implementing ‘choice environment’ measures can be effective instruments.
Although developing countries in ASEAN have other challenges to overcome, the long-term economic cost of obesity and its connection to several non-communicable diseases suggest that acting early would be prudent.
To cater to consumers who are increasingly demanding healthier options, food manufacturers can produce food that is healthier by lessening calories and having a range of healthier ingredients—such as brown rice and wholegrain noodles.