June 9, 2017 5:40 pm JST

Obesity reaching 'epidemic levels' in Asia

Health care threat costing $166 billion annually: ADBI report

Indian teenagers enjoy soft drinks and a snack outside a street food stall in New Delhi. © AP

TOKYO -- Economic growth has resulted in a significant rise in living standards in much of Asia. But the newfound prosperity and associated lifestyle changes have brought with them an unwanted side effect. 

A study released by the Asian Development Bank Institute shows that an estimated 1 billion people in Asia and the Pacific are overweight or obese. The problem has reached "epidemic levels," according to the report, and results in the region spending approximately $166 billion annually.

According to the ADBI, economic growth has made food increasingly available at lower prices, increasing the amount of overeating and excessive weight gain. The ADBI defines being overweight as having a body mass index of 25 and obese as having a BMI of 30.

The report claims 40.9% of adults in the region were overweight in 2013, compared with 34.6% in 1990. China saw an increase from 13.2% to 27.9%, while the rate in Bangladesh also more than doubled from 8.0% to 16.9%.

The highest levels were seen in the Pacific islands, where the figure stands at 60.6%.

Many people in countries like Tonga and Samoa are turning to cheap, unhealthy food such as processed meats and soft drinks, according to a CNN report.

Central Asia has one of the highest rates of overweight and obese adults in the region, at 49.25%. In contrast, East, South and Southeast Asia had relatively low rates of 33.06%, 28.85% and 26.3%, respectively.

More worryingly, childhood obesity in Asia and the Pacific has started to take on "unseen dimensions." In 2014, 23% of children in China were overweight or obese, and the figure stood at 22.5% in Malaysia.

The financial implications for health care and the economy as a whole are huge. The sum of direct costs like medical care and indirect costs, such as absence from work, have the potential to severely undermine the economic and human development of the region, the report says.

The study estimates that the total associated annual costs are about 0.78% of the gross domestic product of the region, or $166 billion.

The ADBI research found that, while certain Asia-Pacific countries have some of the highest obesity rates in the world, the estimated direct costs remain relatively small compared with countries with lower rates. This implies there are millions of people who are not receiving adequate health care across the region.

The report argues a two-pronged approach is required to combat the problem, through both education on nutritional intake and physical activity, and improvements in health care provision.

"In developing countries, overweight people go to primary care centers for co-morbidities, not for weight management. Another obstacle can be that health care facilities are ill-equipped to receive obese patients. Hospital infrastructure needs to be upgraded to handle obese patients," said Matthias Helble, the report author and senior economist at ADBI.

He added, "we should think about how to actively use technologies to fight the pandemic." As an example, he cited smartphones as a tool to encourage physical activity through games such as Pokemon Go or or step-counting apps.

(Nikkei)

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