THE obesity epidemic is rapidly escalating in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, where a recent report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) highlighted that the country has the highest obesity and overweight prevalence in the region — 13.3 per cent and 38.5 per cent of the population, respectively.
This is leading to a huge economic burden, with the cost of obesity spiralling to US$1-2 billion (RM4.3-8.6 billion) last year — equivalent to between 10 and 19 per cent of the country’s healthcare spending.
This makes the country the second-highest spender in Asean for obesity-related health problems, according to the report commissioned by the Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN).
To address this healthcare burden, a paradigm shift is needed. This includes more attention on preventive healthcare; consumer, especially childhood, education on healthy nutrition, multi-stakeholder partnerships and knowledge exchanges.
Obesity in Malaysia is largely driven by rising income — more money means greater access to food, and often times, unhealthy food choices. This, coupled with the high-calorie food that is consumed daily and a lack of exercise, is making more people gain weight faster.
More critically, the issue is amplified by a lack of awareness and the general view held by most Malaysians that obesity is a cosmetic issue rather than a health issue, with many failing to make the connection between obesity and non-communicable diseases, such as heart attack, stroke and diabetes, which account for nearly three out of four deaths.
Solving the obesity crisis requires tailored strategies that fit within the local environment.
More importantly, it requires strong partnerships and open engagement between the government, food industry and civil society — from both the public and private sectors.
Taking into consideration the important roles that each of these parties play will be vital in tackling obesity.
For example, government bodies and agencies set the strategic direction for obesity prevention and ensure that necessary measures and policies are well implemented. That said, initiatives at a national level, especially those targeted at the diverse health and food industry, can be quite limited.
This is where the private sector plays an equally important role, by recognising the significance of promoting healthier choices as a core part of their business.
Fortunately, the country’s food industry is steadily incorporating this as part of their business plans.
Business leaders are increasingly engaging with the government and other public players on ways they can provide better food options through product re-formulations and “healthier choice” labels.
They also work closely with the government and other non-profit professional bodies through the annual Nutrition Month Malaysia (NMM) programme.
This is a collaborative initiative of three professional bodies, namely the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, Malaysian Dietitians’ Association and Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity, and is supported by the Health Ministry.
A worthy illustration of a public-private partnership approach, the NMM is a national community education plan that sees different players working together to encourage the public to adopt healthier lifestyle through outreach events and activities.
There are also several other examples of collaborative community nutrition promotion programmes between these professional bodies and corporate companies, targeting specific groups like children, and pregnant and lactating women.
These examples highlight how a multi-stakeholder approach can efficiently reach out to the community.
It would be difficult for one sector to work alone to solve a country’s obesity crisis.
This is where public-private partnerships can be a part of the solution — by bringing the food industry, academia, civil societies and public sector together in a strategic alliance to identify and recommend intervention that can have an impact on the country’s obesity problem.
For the public and private sectors to collaborate successfully, there has to be a transparent and honest dialogue. Companies in the private sector need to identify and be open about any conflicts of interest that their respective businesses may have in relation to the promotion of a healthy and obesity-free lifestyle, and manage these appropriately with the public sector.
This transparent engagement will create trust between stakeholders in both sectors, which is important in the collaboration to meet the goal of educating consumers and encouraging a healthier lifestyle.
In this fight against obesity, we need serious systematic intervention paired with a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder approach.
A great deal is required from various parties to combat and reduce levels of obesity; but at the end of the day, creating trust through an open and honest dialogue between both sectors will ensure there are engaging means taken to solve the issue for the benefit of all.
Dr Tee E-Siong, is President of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia.