* Obesity problem steadily increasing in Southeast Asia
* Personal trainer shows picture of "fat me" to motivate
* Official wants to stop fat before it becomes the norm
By Himani Sarkar
SINGAPORE, June 9 Singapore's Sean Chin had a
body fat percentage of 24 percent seven years ago. He is now
lean with just 9 percent fat and as a personal trainer he works
daily with clients at their homes to help them fight the flab.
"Building up confidence levels is the crucial first step
towards tackling obesity and I help my clients build theirs by
showing them a photograph of a fat me," he said with a smile.
"My mantra? If I could, you can."
To complement such efforts and nudge others to take the
first step, many Southeast Asian countries are rolling out
measures so people can make healthy choices before obesity turns
into the full-blown epidemic seen in many Western countries.
Obesity is a priority for the government, said Zee Yoong
Kang, chief executive of Singapore's Health Promotion Board.
"There's some intuition that once obesity gets above a
certain share of a population, it becomes more of a norm and
then businesses and infrastructure accommodate the greater
appetite, sucking in more people into that lifestyle," Zee said.
While Southeast Asia still enjoys one of the world's lowest
obesity rates, it is seeing a rapid growth in the condition.
Rising incomes, sedentary lifestyles and fattier, Western
fast food are exacerbating the situation for a region that has
for decades focused on under- rather than over-nutrition.
The obesity rate in Singapore climbed to about 13-14 percent
in 2010 from 8.6 percent in 2004. In Malaysia, one of two adults
is either overweight or obese, while the prevalence of obesity
in Thailand has almost doubled between 1991 and 2009.
The World Health Organisation has urged governments to do
more to prevent obesity, instead of risking the high costs when
it sets in.
BATTLING THE BULGE
Malaysia is working on increasing awareness about obesity
being a public health threat as part of its national strategic
plan for non-communicable disease (NCD). Obesity is a key cause
of NCDs like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
"A population with a high burden of NCDs ... will affect
productivity and ultimately negatively impact our economic
development," said Dr Chong Chee Kheong, director of disease
control at the Ministry of Health in Malaysia.
The "Nutrition Month Malaysia" initiative had "Eat right,
move more: Fight Obesity" as its theme this year. The country
also hosted the International Congress on Obesity in March.
Thailand is looking at various measures to beat the bulge,
including a ban on the sale of carbonated soft drinks at state
schools, said Krisada Ruangareerat, manager at the health
ministry's Thai Health Promotion Foundation (THPF).
"The latest number in 2012 showed about 17 million Thais
suffered from obesity ... the number continues to rise by four
million people a year," Krisada told Reuters.
The THPF is also thinking of proposing a tax on sweet foods
or those with high calories. "Thais consume 23.4 teaspoons of
sugar per person per day, which is very high compared with an
appropriate level of six teaspoons a day," Krisada added.
"I think every government is at various stages of
realisation that prevention is better than cure," said Simon
Flint, the Asia CEO of gym chain operator Fitness First, which
is fast expanding in the region.
SINGAPORE ON A FITNESS DRIVE
In Singapore, many childcare centres are serving
less-fattening brown instead of white rice and public housing
blocks have signs urging people to skip the lift and take the
The government has rolled out an incentive-based weight
management programme for its residents to collectively shed one
million kgs (2.2 million lb) in the next three years.
The city-state, home to 5.4 million people, is also working
with several organisations to promote healthy living, including
Fitness First and with fast-food chain McDonald's.
"It's safer as a health authority to tell the kids no
McDonald's, but it's more real and will potentially have a
better impact if I work with McDonald's to improve their product
mix," the health board's Zee said in an interview.
McDonald's has come forward to commit to provide more
wholesome options in its menu, he added.
Singapore, which is hoping to at least stabilise the rising
obesity rate by 2020, recently launched a healthy living master
plan and a food strategy that will see some 700 food outlets
island-wide serving 500-calorie meals. It plans to roll out
another initiative for physical activity later this year.
"Nutrition has to go hand-in-hand with exercise. Drastic
changes will backfire," said Chin, the trainer. "Appreciate
healthy food and your body will thank you in its own way."
(Additional reporting by Rachel Armstrong in SINGAPORE,
Manunphattr Dhanananphorn in BANGKOK and Trinna Leong in KUALA
LUMPUR; Editing by Michael Roddy and Neil Fullick)