By: Helen McClure
How obesity is perceived depends upon your culture and which part of the world you’re from. In the Western world it has been stigmatised. This isn’t necessarily about gluttony or self-discipline, however. As stick-thin models strut their stuff on the catwalks, and toy-shop shelves are stuffed with plastic dolls flaunting unrealistic proportions, children grow up seeing svelte figures as the ideal.
Ironically, obesity is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide and it is one of the most serious public health problems facing us in the 21st century.
This is not helped by the other image of personal weight. In the poorer corners of the world, being overweight is a status symbol of wealth. It highlights that someone has the money to buy food, when others are starving.
The world is growing
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 12 percent of the world’s population (1.5 billion adults), aged 20 and over, were considered to be obese in 2008.
The WHO obesity study puts Nauru, a South Pacific island country in Micronesia, at the top of the list with 71 percent of its population of just over 9,000 being overweight or obese. This compares to 31.8 percent in the United States and 24.9 percent in the United Kingdom. In most countries, more women than men are obese.
Like waistlines, the problem is an expanding one. In 2008, 10 percent of men and 14 percent of women in the world were obese, compared with five percent for men and eight percent for women in 1980.
The issue is no longer that adults are becoming overweight later in life, but that children are obese, causing growth, psychological and life threatening issues. Nearly 43 million children under the age of five were overweight in 2010. This isn’t just a health issue, but a social and educational one too.
When compared to the rest of the world, Singapore’s statistics make easier reading. In the 2008 WHO report, only 6.4 percent of Singapore’s population were considered overweight or obese, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue. And the problem will only become more serious. Fast forward just two years to 2010 and, according to a survey released this year by Singapore’s Health Promotion Board, four in ten Singaporean adults between the ages of 18 and 69 were overweight. Of these, one in ten were obese, a statistic that has more than doubled since 1992. And the rate is increasing by about one percent a year.
What’s the problem with being obese?
Put simply, obesity kills. In fact 2.8 million people a year die from being overweight or obese.
Problems include adverse metabolic rates; effects on your blood pressure; higher cholesterol, which clogs your arteries; and insulin resistance, leading to diabetes. The risk of heart disease, strokes and type 2 diabetes increase with an increasing Body Mass Index (BMI), the calculated ratio of your weight and height. A raised BMI also increases the risk of a range of cancers including breast, colon, prostate and kidney.
The technical bit
Obesity is a medical condition. It essentially means that there is so much body fat that it has a detrimental impact on your health and your longevity.
Managing your weight means that there is a common sense argument that you need to put fewer calories into your body, than you take out, through waste and exercise. However, some people are more genetically susceptible to obesity, and it can be caused by certain medications and endocrine disorders.
Obesity is measured by your Body Mass Index (BMI). Your BMI is a measurement calculated by dividing your body weight by the square of your height. If this exceeds 30kg/m squared you are considered to be obese.
For example, if you are a man with a height of 1.8m and your weight is 100kg, the equation would be 100/(1.8 x 1.8). You’re BMI would be 30.9 and you would be in the obese category.
What’s the solution?
In Singapore, there have been several initiatives designed to bring this under control including the One Million KG Challenge, a national weight management programme to help people collectively lose one million kilogrammes. The scheme, the first national incentive-based programme of its kind, started in March this year, and the first season ended in October. Developed by the Health Promotion Board, it attracted 80,000 people. The second season will start in January 2015. The programme encourages participation in fun activities with the chance to win prizes such as holidays, shopping vouchers and days out. Sign up is free.
Education also plays a huge role in getting people to understand their bodies and what to put in them. One of the main myths surrounds the digestion of fats. Not all fats are bad for us, although any fat should be taken in moderation. Some are essential, but eat the wrong ones and you’ll see the needle on the scales go up.
The simple rule is that if a fat is solid at room temperature try to avoid eating it. This includes saturated fats such as meats and dairy, along with hydrogenated (trans) fats such as fast and processed foods. Fats that remain liquid at room temperature are healthier, and they include mono- and polyunsaturated fats from nuts, fish and plants. These “good” fats can even protect your body from heart disease.
Fat is one essential ingredient that makes food tasty, however. That’s why expats in Singapore joke about newbies putting on the Singapore Seven: whether that’s seven pounds, kilos or stone really depends on how many times you eat out. When you first arrive in a new country, especially when you’re staying in a hotel, it’s hard not to eat out. And eating out means tasty food, which means higher fat content.
Celebrity chefs have joined the swelling ranks of the healthy brigade. Jamie Oliver is well known for campaigning for healthy food on both sides of the Atlantic, by highlighting the content of fast food and trying to educate children to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. The international success of the BBC’s “Great British Bake Off” has also brought the issue of obesity centre stage. At 79, presenter and cook Mary Berry is the epitome of health, despite being labelled the “Queen of Cakes”.
According to Mary, sitting down to eat family meals, and eating smaller portions, is what’s needed if you are to keep your weight in check.
“If people could just do those two things, learn to enjoy smaller portions and not eat between meals, I really think it would help combat obesity,” she has said.
So it seems a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing is the key to a healthy life.