Monday, October 15, 2012

Malaysia - Malaysia weighed down by obesity problem

Numbers are worrying - almost half of all adults there are obese or overweight

When William Tan was still in his 20s, playing basketball and hitting the gym were part of his exercise regimen. But since switching jobs, the marketing executive, now 33 and bogged down by a more hectic work schedule, has seen the kilos pile onto his 1.76-metre frame. "I got busy. Then I got lazy. I wanted to enjoy my free time, eating and drinking," Tan said.

In just six years, his weight climbed from 76 kilograms to 84 kilograms, moving him from the "acceptable" to the "overweight" range. "At my age now, it's harder to lose weight than it was in my 20s," said Tan, who is also busy preparing for his wedding next year.

Not just Tan but thousands of other Malaysians like him are also weighed down by excess fat. In fact, their expanding waistlines have Malaysian authorities worried about their health and the strain this would put on the public health-care system.

The numbers are worrying. In 1996, only 5 per cent were obese, which means their body mass index was above 25. A decade later, this figure had almost tripled to 14 per cent. Last year, it rose to 15 per cent, in a country of more than 28 million people. These days, almost half of all adult Malaysians are overweight or obese - a level some doctors have described as "alarming".

About 20 per cent of Malaysians over the age of 30 have diabetes, dubbed a silent killer disease, up from 14 per cent in 2006. Another 33 per cent who are above the age of 30 have high blood pressure, or hypertension, another silent killer.

Deputy Health Minister Rosnah Shirlin told Parliament last year that Malaysia's obesity rate was the highest in South-east Asia and ranked sixth among Asia-Pacific countries. Recently, she had more bad news: Three in four Malaysians do little or no exercise.

The Health Ministry has run numerous campaigns and advertisements on how to stay healthy, but Tan can attest to the challenges of losing weight.

Like many people living in Kuala Lumpur, he spends one to two hours stuck in the capital's rush-hour traffic every day, guaranteed to exhaust anyone remotely thinking of going to the gym.

Furthermore, Malaysians love to celebrate every festive occasion with lots of good food, which is often high in fat, sugar and salt, said Malaysian Medical Association president S.R. Manalan.

"High crime rates have also encouraged Malaysians to drive everywhere and park as close as possible to the nearest exit, which cuts down on their walking," he noted.

Health care is heavily subsidised in Malaysia and the country's health-care bill has skyrocketed from 12.6 billion ringgit (US$4.1 billion) in 2001 to 33.7 billion ringgit in 2010.

Teo Cheng Wee

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