Bid to tackle obesity no light matter

SINGAPORE - With obesity rates rising in Singapore, the country has embarked on a concerted effort to trim the fat.

On Saturday, the Health Promotion Board launched the One Million KG Challenge, in a bid to get Singapore residents to shed the pounds in exchange for freebies and chances to win prizes such as a $10,000 shopping voucher and even a car.

Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower, highlighted the seriousness of the issue on Saturday by pointing out that 1.7 million Singaporeans are already at risk of obesity-related diseases. They have a body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to 23, which puts Asian bodies in the "fat" zone.

Six in 10 of these Singaporeans are either pre-diabetic, or suffer from at least one chronic condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

"It is urgent we curb the increase in obesity and heighten awareness on the importance of healthy weight management," said Dr Khor. Like in many other countries, the overweight and obesity trend in Singapore is rising, and "the rate at which the trend is rising is rapid", she added.

Obesity in Singapore grew by about 0.15 percentage point on

average each year between 1998 and 2004, but from 2004 to 2010, this shot up to about 0.7 percentage point annually, according to the National Health Survey.

Conducted once every six years, the survey showed that in 2010, 10.8 per cent of Singaporean adults aged between 18 and 69 years were obese - almost double that in 1992.

The United States, where more than one-third of adults are obese, is a warning to Singapore.

"We want to be proactive, and take preventive actionÂ… so we won't get into obesity-related problems, many of which the US is facing," said Dr Khor.

She hopes the carrots offered by the One Million KG Challenge would nudge more Singapore residents onto the road of healthy weight management.

Dr Khor, who noted she is conscious about weight and has a BMI of 20, was among the around 1,200 people who signed up for the Challenge on Saturday.

Participants and curious onlookers tried out the various wellness activities on display and were served samples of healthy food options such as skim and soy milk.

They also had a chance to redeem prizes by simply weighing themselves at kiosks to find out their BMI and health risks.

Incentivising weight loss has been shown through research to be an effective long-term way to lose excess weight, said HPB chief executive officer Zee Yoong Kang.

Weight management in groups or communities can also have a more long-lasting impact, said dietitian Soh Wan Keem.

"When we see our family, friends and colleagues taking on healthy eating and being more active in physical activity, we are more motivated to do so."

The challenge, which is costing HPB about $4 million excluding prizes sponsored by partners, is the latest among a suite of initiatives to combat obesity.

Restrictions on advertising of food and drinks that are high in fat, sugar and salt to children will take effect from January next year.

These guidelines will be incorporated into the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice, and are intended to tackle childhood obesity.

"We expect more serious issues in the health of our young adults here in 10 to 20 years," said Dr Lee Yung Seng, a senior consultant in the National University Hospital's division of paediatric endocrinology. "Childhood BMI, for a child as young as seven, can predict his risk of cardiovascular disease later in life."

Last year, a $20 million Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC) opened its doors, with the focus on studying diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

"The key thing is to enjoy your food in moderation, don't indulge in anything in excess," said Professor Jeyakumar Henry, director of CNRC, a joint venture between the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and the National University Health System.

He lauded HPB's challenge as an effective means to raise awareness about healthy lifestyles, but cautioned: "We should be concerned about obesity in Singapore but not be obsessive about it, because losing too much weight too quickly is also dangerous."

Additional reporting by Lee Jian Xuan

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