Alarm bells are ringing for Malaysian lawmakers after an Asia-wide study found that almost half of the country's population is now classed as obese.
The report, which was published last week in The Lancet, revealed that Malaysia is now the heaviest country in Asia with an obesity rate of over 45%—way ahead of second-placed South Korea, where 33% of the population being obese, followed by Pakistan (31%) and China (28%)
Most diabetics too
"Malaysia is not only the country in Southeast Asia with the most number of fat people; we also have the dubious distinction of having the highest number of diabetics in [Southeast Asia],” said Malaysia’s deputy health minister, Dr Hilmi Yahaya.
As is often the case, a country’s high obesity levels leads to the growth in diabetes rates, and Malaysia is no different. Last year, figures released by the Obesity Prevention Council showed that 3.6m Malaysians—or one-sixth of the adult population—suffered from the disease.
This is nearly double the number of diabetics in the country when the research period began, just eight years ago. Among Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups, Indians are the most overweight at 33.2%, followed by Chinese and Malays at 29.8% and 28.5% respectively.
Concerns over the associated increases in public healthcare costs have spurred the government into action to find ways to slow down the growing obesity rate.
”This is a very big problem because it has implication on diabetes, heart problems and others, and our prime minister has also asked the global science and innovation advisory council to work on this,” said Zakri Abdul Hamid, the government’s science advisor.
In 2010, 16% of the national healthcare budget was allocated to diabetes-related expenditure, putting Malaysia among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of public money spent on the disease.
No end in sight
Speaking to FoodNavigator-Asia, the president of the Malaysian Endocrine and Metabolic Society voiced concerns that there was little the government could do to stem the rise in obesity.
“Malaysia is looking at an increase in the obesity rate of between 20% and 30% over the next 20 years,” said Prof. Nor Azmi Kamaruddin, who blamed the country’s “foodie” culture and increasingly sedentary lifestyle for its people’s growing waistbands.
“Metabolic and insulin resistance go up with a high consumption of calories and simple carbohydrates, especially in sugar and rice, which coincidentally are two of the main staples in the Malaysian diet.
“While the government is taking steps, at the end of the day, it is still up to individuals to decide if they want to be healthy or expose themselves to life-threatening illnesses.”