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COMMENTARY

Societies need to work together in the fight against obesity

Today is World Obesity Day and a day to share ideas on how to arrest that steadily growing waistline.

Obesity is a leading cause of diabetes, which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called a "health crisis" in his 2017 National Day Rally speech. He reminded us that "it is best to drink water, but ultimately, what to drink is a personal choice". While most have that inner voice telling us to eat a little healthier, exercise a bit more and get our regular health checkups, the occasional craving for something sweet pops up - and everyone needs room for guilty pleasures.

For many, however, the problem is more complex. One reason why it is so hard to treat obesity is that being overweight is still quite stigmatised and difficult to talk about. Some believe that obesity is due purely to lifestyle choices; others believe it stems from inability to pay for healthy food or for demographic reasons.

Studies in Denmark, however, show that failed diets and dropouts of weight-loss programmes are less influenced by economic and demographic factors than by the degree of social support. In other words, we have to work together to fight obesity. The World Health Organisation (WHO) now officially recognises obesity as a disease. While this is a significant development that could lead to improved strategies and medical treatment, we should place people at the core of our actions - actions to improve the social environments we live in, rather than focusing on individual responsibility and blame.

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A PEOPLE-CENTRIC APPROACH

Denmark is actively committed to fighting obesity and diabetes, but cannot yet claim victory. Over the last 33 years, no country has successfully found the cure to reverse rising obesity levels. Globally, the number of people with obesity has tripled over 40 years.

The Danish government recently launched an action plan for the treatment of diabetes and obesity, one which puts people and social relations front and centre. Only through understanding, respect and recognition of obesity as a chronic disease, governments and healthcare services can prioritise and fund effective prevention and treatment to reduce the burden on individuals and societies as whole.

Central to adopting a people-centric approach is allowing those who are obese to live their lives with fewer - not further - restrictions. Keeping one's obesity private, unlike other diseases, is a practical impossibility. It is the first thing one sees, the first thing one shows. It affects all aspects of interactions in one's work life, social life and love life. These struggles should be understood.

The response can take the form of multi-disciplinary social services, training of healthcare workers and, most importantly, a public discourse on obesity in line with concealed diseases such as diabetes and stress. The responsibility of ending weight stigma lies at a personal, public and political level. It calls for collaboration between media and the masses.

SLIMMING THE ECONOMIC BURDEN

It is important to improve the lives of those suffering from obesity, but it is also important to act for the sake of society as a whole. The cost of obesity forms a significant proportion of a country's GDP. In Singapore alone, the estimated cost of obesity was S$2.77 billion in 2016, from lost productivity and healthcare spending. Given the obesity forecasts, the economic burden will only rise.

Direct costs include physician visits, outpatient costs, hospitalisation costs and prescription medications. Indirect costs include premature mortality, disability and increased work absence. Worldwide, lost productivity accounts for between 54 and 59 per cent of the obesity-related economic burden. Individuals with obesity have an additional 3.1 days of absence yearly. An additional 5.1 days a year is lost in reduced productivity compared to employees of normal weight.

Obesity is directly linked to a range of chronic diseases responsible for the majority of deaths caused by non-communicable diseases. These include cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and various forms of cancers. Weight loss of just 5 to 10 per cent immensely reduces the severity and improves quality of life. The consequences of obesity and diabetes are felt far and wide, and now is our chance to ward off unhealthy eating habits before they become entrenched for life in future generations.

A global vision for humanity and a set of joint responsibilities were adopted to cope with social and economic development issues when 193 countries signed up for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. The goals do not directly address obesity, but indirectly, they address all its side effects. A central goal is ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all, with a target to reduce premature mortality from non-communicable diseases by a third by 2030.

The world is united on sustainable development. Singapore is fighting the War on Diabetes and Denmark is a global leader in diabetes treatment and holistic social care. Through open dialogue and sharing lessons learned, we can move the dial on obesity. World Obesity Day advocates an end to weight stigma, and the day is an important anchor to change the way we speak about being overweight and end isolation.

Let World Obesity Day inspire us to fight obesity together.

  • The writer is the Ambassador of Denmark to Singapore.
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