Does prosperity lead to obesity?

KUALA LUMPUR: Kinabatangan MP Datuk Bung Moktar Radin has declared that there is a high rate of obesity among Malaysians because they are prosperous and well-fed.

Is obesity the result of affluence?

In exploring the issue of obesity, experts interviewed said prosperity is not the main reason for obesity.

Although a higher disposal income means better ability to buy more food, obesity is related more to the level of awareness and education and the will to adopt healthy lifestyles, said senior consultant endocrinologist Prof Datuk Dr Mafauzy Mohamed.

Dr Mafauzy said that the rich and the poor alike in Malaysia tend to overeat, the reason for the high obesity rate.

On Thursday, Bung Moktar said that there was a high rate of obesity among Malaysians because they are prosperous and well-fed.

He said that the Opposition cannot claim that the country was not prospering because, he argued, the number of obesity-related deaths and diseases were high and that Malaysians are fortunate as its people “can afford to overeat”.

Bung Mohktar raised the argument in response to Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (PKR-Permatang Pauh), who claimed that the rakyat was suffering.

Dr Mafauzy said that both the rich and and the poor can make efforts to eat more healthily.

The poor for instance, could grow their own vegetables and fruits in villages, he said.

Based on The Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Tackling Obesity in Asean” report released on June 1, Malaysia’s obesity prevalence is 13.3% while 38.5% of the population is overweight.

Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, coronary vascular disease, heart attack, stroke, and even cancer.

Worldwide, at least 2.8 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese.

An estimated 35.8 million (2.3%) years of healthy life are lost due to overweight or obesity, according to the World Health Organisation.

Mortality rates increase with increasing degrees of overweight, as measured by body mass index.

There is increased risk of co-morbidities for body mass index 25.0 to 29.9, and moderate to severe risk of co-morbidities for body mass index greater than 30.

The Malaysian Dietitian’s Association president Prof Winnie Chee said that although obesity is linked to increased income and purchasing power, it is not limited to the rich.

Lower income groups can suffer obesity too as they tend to have poorer quality diets and lack physical activity, she said.

Chee said this is partly because unhealthy street foods are affordable in Malaysia.

Dietitian Nur Hayati Azmi said it is inactivity that leads to obesity, not whether a person is rich or poor.

“It depends on their lifestyle. Rich or poor, many here are inactive,” she said.

Nur Hayati added that her richer patients tend not to have the time to exercise, while the poorer ones tend to eat affordable food that are also high in bad fats and sugar, and in big portions, while they also lack exercise.

However, Nur Hayati admitted that the wealthy tend to have better access to knowledge on healthy lifestyles and they would join fitness clubs to get fit.

She said the poor too can stay healthy with limited funds by choosing wisely and exercising in the park.

The trend is now changing as the young tend to adopt a healthier lifestyle because parents bring their children to the playground, she said.

While the educated and uneducated still need to catch up on adopting healthier habits, there is a different scenario in the United States.

It has been found that Americans with more education and higher income have lower rates of chronic diseases, including obesity, compared to people with lower education and income levels, according to Health, United States, 2011, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hence, prosperity coupled with greater awareness and education should not, or must not, bring about obesity. If it does, then perhaps some policies need re-examination or new ones need to be introduced.

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