Obesity as a Global Problem.

Malaysia now has some of the highest obesity statistics of all the nations of South East Asia. According to a survey conducted in 2015 by worldobesity.org, 31.6% of males over the age of 18 are overweight, while 15% of the same demographic is obese; in females, the statistic is even higher – while only 28.3% are classified as overweight, 20.6% are considered obese. If these numbers didn’t give you pause for concern, they probably should: obesity is linked to type 2 diabetes, hypertension, gout, arthritis and a host of other medical conditions, which means that a generation that wrestles with obesity in its youth will likely have to tackle the associated ailments in its prime.

Yet this predicament places Malaysia in a position that is far from unique. All over the world, governments are facing similar issues. One of Malaysia’s closest neighbors, Brunei Darussalam, a nation with a population of just over 400,000, faces 34.5 percent of men aged 19 and above classified as overweight, while 27% are classified as obese; statistics are nearly identical in relation to women. Singapore fares slightly better than both countries, with 12% of adult men and 9% of adult women considered obese; however 34.5% of Singaporean adult men and 24.3% of adult women are classified as overweight. Further north, China faces nearly 12% in their adult male population, and 11% of adult females.

Overall, South East Asia is affected by the global obesity epidemic on a much smaller scale than much of the world. Indonesia’s adult male population only suffers from 16% overweight, with a miniscule 3% classified as obese, while women fared only slightly worse, with 24% of adult women overweight, and 9% classified obese. Thailand’s male population showed only a slightly higher figure, with 4.7% obese and 17.7% overweight; again, the female population stood somewhat higher at 25.2% overweight and 9.1% obese.

But SEA’s statistics are massively dwarfed by those in the western world. The United States showed a massive 35% of adult males as obese, and 40% of adult women. Mexico, a neighboring nation with drastically different living standards per capita, stood only slightly lower at 26.8% for adult men, and 37.5% for adult women. In Western Europe, The United Kingdom bears the standard of most portly nation, with obesity in England standing at 27% for both genders; In Scotland, 28% of adult men, 30% of adult women.

So Malaysians can take some comfort from the fact that as bad as the problem might seem, other nations fare considerably worse. According to an article published in The Telegraph, Malaysia doesn’t even make it into the top 20 most obese nations; it doesn’t make it into the top 20 least obese nations either, but it goes without saying that the middle of the scale is still better than the bottom!

And yet remains the question: how did Malaysia (and indeed the world) find itself with a weight problem?

Disclaimer: The opinions and observations are my own, and I am in no way an authority on world obesity.

It seems apparent to even the most casual observer that the global obesity epidemic is a recent development. On the one hand, humans are clearly designed to accrue subcutaneous fat, and yet clearly not designed to carry large quantities of it. This is because our pre-agricultural ancestors did not live according to scheduled meals, but ate when and if food was at hand; in such circumstances, the capacity to store fat was crucial to survival. The human body got rather good at collecting and holding on to fat, because there was generally very little of it to go around. Of course, most humans are no longer hunter-gatherers and can reasonably rely on the universal standard of 3 meals a day; we no longer need to hoard fat in the same fashion as our uncivilized forebears. However, our bodies have not evolved to fully cope with the ready availability of the two things we evolved to crave: sugar and fat. As our bodies follow their genetic programming to retain fat and subsequently increase our body weight, our skeletons and internal organs strain to cope with the extra load; this overload is part of what causes the myriad of disorders that follow.

And the problem hasn’t merely gotten steadily worse – it appears to have accelerated. A passing observation of Obesity statistics in the United States between the 1950s to the present, according to worldatlas.com, shows a whopping increase of 26 pounds in the average weight of adult Americans. And unfortunately, America is not unique in this predicament. Although the rate of climb for obesity contrasts greatly from country to country, it is apparent that this climb has risen steeply from the latter quadrant of the 20th century into the 21st. One way or another, the sad conclusion has to be faced: from the perspective of history, the obesity epidemic is a peculiarly modern problem.

So what is the root cause of the obesity epidemic?

The Republic of Nauru is the third smallest state in the world by land area, and the smallest of the Pacific island nations; its roughly 10,000 inhabitants dwell in the space of a mere 21 square kilometers. Nauru is also distinct as probably the most obese nation on Earth: According to the WHO’s 2007 estimate, the obesity rate stood at a staggering 71%! What’s even more staggering is the rate of increase in the obesity statistic. Like most pacific islanders, the traditional diet of Nauruans was a model of clean nutrition: home-grown vegetables, oceanic fish, fruit, etc. Basically, everything your doctor tells you is good for you. Bear in mind, Nauru is an island where natural resources and arable land are in short supply; yet with limited space and assets, Nauruans traditionally lived healthy lives supported by wholesome nutrition.

This changed with the advent of independence in 1968. With autonomy came industry, and with industry came modernization. In this case, industry came in the form of phosphate mining, which reconfigured the economy of the tiny nation, seemingly overnight. With the influx of capital, attitudes toward not only to work but also lifestyle and by extension nutrition were drastically changed. Traditional food sources were replaced as dietary staples by imports of processed foods, which Nauruans became largely dependent upon as the majority of the working population become incorporated into the mining industry and were largely unable to find the time or the motivation to fish or tend gardens. Over time, imported foods high in sugar and saturated fat became accepted not only as dietary norms but also apparently as cultural conventions. The resulting exponential increase in waistlines was not treated with alarm because the traditional perspective of obesity as an illustration of prosperity combined with the collective sense of abundance that came with the influx of capital.

In the simplest explanation, rapid modernization conspired with deep-rooted social attitudes to turn a fit and healthy nation into the fattest place in the world. With modernization came a corruption of healthy attitudes toward labor and exertion, and an erosion of the traditional lifestyle that kept Nauruans fit and healthy. With the eventual collapse of the mining industry, the majority of islanders became even more reliant on the importation of cheap, processed foodstuffs, unable to afford more healthy alternatives.

The story of Nauru underlines a common theme in the tale of modern obesity: the importation and, in many cases, the eventual domestic manufacture, of high-sugar, high-fat, nutrient-poor processed foodstuffs do seemingly correlate with the increase in obesity not only in the Pacific but also in South East Asia.

What’s especially interesting about processed food is that it’s a surprising social leveler. Throughout world history, traditional perspectives on obesity have often, not just in the pacific but in Europe as well, actually portrayed it in a positive light. Obesity has historically been seen as a demonstration of affluence. This is of course simple to explain: In pre-industrial society, only the very rich could afford to get fat. Processed food has changed this standard irreversibly because it allowed the poor to eat as unhealthily and excessively as the rich. Indeed, in conditions of deprivation, poor populations are encouraged by circumstances to rely on inexpensive, readily available and industrially produced alternatives. This is why a Nation like Mexico can demonstrate obesity statistics similar to those of an affluent nation like the United States; indeed, this is probably one the best explanations as to why the global statistic for obesity has climbed so high, so fast. Modernity has, in the most uncompromising terms, simply made the poor, or at least the non-rich, fatter. This is true not just for South East Asia, but for western nations as well. In the United States for example, where unlike in the Pacific viable alternatives to processed food are relatively accessible to the under-privileged, the allure of junk food loaded with refined sugar, hydrogenated fat and refined carbohydrates have proven to be far too popular options for far too many people.

If modernity has removed the social distinction that once came with obesity, it has also undermined the core factors which once conspired to counter it. A primary example of this is the integration of the automobile.  Walking is undoubtedly a reliable, inexpensive and low-impact means of exercise, and until the massively expanded availability of cars throughout South East Asia, walking was a prominent aspect of the everyday lives of millions of South East Asians. This simple exercise, combined with the rigors of everyday life, meant that most South East Asians simply didn’t get fat, despite culinary traditions that extolled the incorporation of natural fat. Of course, all this changed with the availability of cars, which not only remove the physical exertion out of travel, but are also coveted symbols of status and prosperity. Similarly, the previous lack of video games and television meant that children preferred to spend their free time outdoors engaging in activities which developed their muscles and built coordination and motor function. Indeed, prior to the advent of modernization there was probably very little in the everyday life of the average southern Asian which might be considered truly sedentary.

But one of the biggest problems with these traditional counter-factors to obesity is that, as forms of labor, they carried with them a certain stigma. This isn’t merely a couch-potato fetish; If only the rich in pre-modern society could afford to become obese, this was also partly because the rich could afford to avoid physical exertion. The mentality was demonstrated in Nauru with the advent of rapid modernization: with the consequent influx of capital, Nauruans simply did not see why they should exert themselves, and saw no benefit to it. Throughout the world this prejudice toward exertion and labor has been deeply embedded since the advent of urbanization; convincing a population steeped in this mentality to supplement the strenuous everyday physical activity of their forebears with something like regular exercise may prove to be a battle upward a very steep hill.

So we can come to a fairly informed assumption that at least two major if not crucial contributing factors to the obesity epidemic can be identified: modern lifestyles (along with the accoutrements that come with them), and unhelpful traditional attitudes towards physical exertion.

Of course the history lesson is all well and good, but what does it mean for the average Joe? Well, we can try to take an objective look at concurrent lifestyle trends and try to make improvements.

Unless your job involves ‘breaking rocks in the hot sun’, it’s pretty likely that your everyday routine does not require a high consumption of sugar. We crave sugar not merely for its energy-endowing properties, but because of the way it makes us feel. This fact is not lost on the manufacturers of carbonated drinks and junk food. Refined sugar is an enormous presence in the modern diet; most of us, wherever we are, probably consume way more of it than we need or could ever use in the course of an average day. In fact, given the overall lack of physical exertion which most of us face in our daily routines, it’s likely that that even those supposedly healthy sources of sugar are probably unnecessary and even problematic. Simple things like fruit juice, consumed in massive volume by modern urban populations, are full of unnecessary amounts of sugar that can potentially be almost as counter-productive to a healthy waistline as straight-up coca cola.

The same judgement can largely apply to fat as well. Fat is actually essential to human health and well-being, since there are a number of vitamins which are only soluble in fat, and are stored in fat (this is partially why extreme reductions in body-fat index can have negative side-effects). Everyone should be eating a certain amount of fat every day. However, not all fats are created equal. The biggest issues regarding fat in the modern diet are the popularity of deep-fried foods and the incorporation of trans-fats, or hydrogenated fats. Both of these are staples of the fast food industry, which is partly why the fast food industry is so heavily responsible for the global obesity epidemic.

If it needs to be stated out loud: Everyone needs to be eating less fast food. Fast food is an institution now so wholly ingrained into the modern environment that there are even McDonald’s restaurants in Cuba. The idea of easily accessible, readily available food that tastes good and gives us a temporary sense of emotional elevation clearly appeals to a huge proportion of the global population (which is why McDonald’s pulls in $41,000,000,000 a year), yet in most cases the composition of fast food simply opposes every basic rule of healthy eating. Refined carbohydrates, high sugar, hydrogenated fat, a distinct deficiency in fibre and vital nutrients – for the most part, modern fast food is the polar opposite of what a healthy diet should look like, which is why it’s no wonder that the nation which culture most whole-heartedly embrace it correlate to the nations with the biggest slices of the obesity pie.

Finally: The human body evolved to meet physical demands which the average modern city-dweller can largely only imagine. The fact that we as a species managed to overcome our comparative lack of muscle or agility, or the absence of naturally endowed weapons like claws, to thrive and rise to the top of the natural food chain is almost as much a testament to the capacity of our bodies to cope with incredible demands for endurance, adaptability and physical stress, as it is to our brains. Like it or not: the human body demands physical activity; it was designed around it. It was not designed to sit behind a desk all day staring at a tiny glowing screen. The overall lack of physical activity in the modern human represents an aberration in the physiological and metabolic equilibrium. In its absence, recreational exercise in some form or other is an absolute must.

by Arthur Rutt