Pound the alarm: Obesity crisis still continues even in a pandemic

Published July 5, 2021, 5:06 PM

by Johannes Chua

The pandemic has made two opposite crises more glaring. On the other side is the rise of malnutrition among those in economically-challenged communities, while on the other end is the rise of obesity, especially for those who have less physical activities during the pandemic.

With work-from-home arrangements for the working population and the easy access of fried food and sweet drinks via delivery apps, obesity is seen to sharply rise not only among the adult population but also among the children. With more time at home (and more time for Netflix and online games), kids’ time for physical education drops to a historically low level. If there is one “unseen” effect of the pandemic that would loom after this COVID crisis is over, is another health disaster involving expanding bellies and rising blood pressures.

This obesity crisis is not something new. In fact, in 2017, a study published by the Asian Development Bank Institute called “The Imminent Obesity Crisis in Asia and the Pacific: First Cost Estimates” reveal that “over the past two decades, Asia and the Pacific have not only experienced rapid growth, but in parallel saw a rapid increase in overweight people and obesity. The latest available data indicated that over 40.9 percent of adults in the region are overweight compared to 34.6 percent in 1990.”

The authors of the study indicate that “obesity and overweight are among the main risk factors of non-communicable diseases. The rapid spread of excess weight thus implies significant additional costs for health systems and the economy as a whole.”

In concluding the study, it said: “Obesity is thus a serious threat to the prosperity of the region and calls for urgent action.”

Data in the study showed that all countries in the Southeast Asia region, which includes the Philippines, posted positive growth when comparing obesity rates in year 1990 and year 2013. Our country posted 37.6 percent growth, while Vietnam had the largest percentage growth – 125.9 percent.  What was alarming with the study is the fact that the average percentage growth of obesity rate was the highest in Southeast Asia at 38.6 percent, beating that of Central Asia (16.4 percent), East Asia (31.5 percent), South Asia (22.1 percent), and the Pacific (9.1 percent).

Recently, the World Population Review unveiled in its website the “Obesity Rates” of all countries. In an introductory note, it singled out a particular area. It said: “Some regions of the world, such as Southeast Asia, have seen alarming increases in obesity rates within the past five years.”  

Southeast Asia, with its rising obesity rates, seems to be in a paradox, too. The World Population Review noted that obesity rates are rising in urban centers, while malnutrition still persists in rural areas. For example, Vietnam, the site noted “has a large number of malnourished and underweight citizens. Vietnam struggles with an increase in obesity while simultaneously addressing those who are not receiving enough nutrition, forcing the government to adjust policies in different regions.”

Obesity, it said, seems to be increasing in cities while undernourishment in prevalent in rural populations. This situation may also be the same in our country.

Based on 2021 population, the site revealed that among Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia has the biggest percentage of obese adults, at 15.6 percent. This is followed by Brunei (14.1 percent), Thailand (10 percent), and Indonesia (6.9 percent). Our country stands at 6.4 percent. So for a population of 111,046,913, the number of obese adults is almost seven million Filipinos.

To be clear, the definition of obesity (according to the ADB study) is the “condition where the body accumulates excess body fat to the extent that it impairs physical function and increases the risks of certain illnesses. The Body Mass Index (BMI) is the widely accepted method of classifying a person based on her/his weight and height.”

Essentially, a person’s BMI is computed by dividing the weight in kilograms by the square of the height in meters. Based on the World Health Organization definition, persons with a BMI greater than or equal to 25 are considered overweight, while those with a BMI greater than or equal to 30 are considered obese.

Even with the vaccination, some health experts have said that COVID is here to stay. We would find ways to address it and maybe adapt to it. But we shouldn’t forget the crisis that is now right before our eyes. The pandemic has surely raised everyone’s BMI and that 6.4 percent may rise further considering how sedentary a lot of our lives were during the lockdown. It may not be the best time to go out and visit the malls or gym, but it now time to shut the TV, to start exercising at home, and to begin a healthy diet.