RESEARCHERS have found a steep spike in obesity rates among children in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years and are now calling for more action to be taken to encourage healthier lifestyles and improve healthcare systems.
Sridhar Dharmapuri, a food safety and nutrition officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Bangkok, said number of overweight children under five rose 38 percent between 2000 and 2016 in the region, and the problem is growing.
“The rate of growth in obesity in Asia-Pacific is higher than in many other countries,” Dharmapuri said, as quoted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“While the United States leads the way on obesity rates, the number of overweight children in Asia-Pacific is rising rapidly, and many countries in this region are now among the most health-threatened in the world.”
A study by the New England Journal of Medicine published last year said China is home to the largest population of obese children, owing to its urbanisation, a lack of physical activity, and unhealthy diets.
The percentages of obese children are lower than the adults but according to findings, that rate is increasing and is especially evident in countries like China, India and Indonesia. China has 15.3 million obese children – the highest number in the world – while India is a close second, with 14.4 million obese children.
At least a third of the world’s population, or two billion people, are either overweight or obese and struggling with health issues.
Adult obesity rates are highest in the United States, Mexico, New Zealand and Hungary, and lowest in Japan and South Korea, according to a report on member states by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
But the rapid rise in obesity among young people in Asia-Pacific is worrying because overweight children are at higher risk of becoming obese as adults and then developing serious health problemslike type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and liver disease.
Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand are among the most overweight countries in Southeast Asia, while Samoa, Tonga and Nauru are the most overweight in the Pacific. Australia also has high rates of obesity.
Many of these nations are also struggling to tackle malnutrition among their citizens. The cost to the Asia-Pacific region of citizens being overweight or obese is US$166 billion a year, a recent report by the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) said.
Rising wealth levels over the last 20 years have played a major role in the rise in obesity levels, researchers say.
“The region has undergone economic growth, so food has become available at a relatively cheaper price,” said Matthias Helble, an economist at the ADBI in Tokyo. “For the last 20 years the economic growth has been almost uninterrupted,” said Helble, who has researched obesity levels in the region for three years.
The “obesity time bomb” will be discussed by the 46 member governments attending the FAO conference for Asia and the Pacific, which starts in Fiji from Monday.