Obesity is climbing the fastest in Vietnam in Southeast Asia

20 July 2019 Vietnam

Cropped image of a person standing on weighing scales with grey background. (Shutterstock/VGstockstudio)Cropped image of a person standing on weighing scales with grey background. (Shutterstock/VGstockstudio)

Obesity is rising fast in Southeast Asia, putting a strain on healthcare systems and government budgets, particularly in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, according to research from Fitch Solutions Macro Research.

Vietnam had the biggest increase in the number of obese people -- those with a body mass index above 25 -- in the five years through 2014, at 38 percent, followed by Indonesia at 33 percent. However, as a proportion of the population, Vietnam still had the lowest share of obese at 3.6 percent, far behind Malaysia’s 13.3 percent and compared with Indonesia’s 5.7 percent.

“The improving economic standards in the region have brought about lifestyle changes, which in turn have led to a shift to more unhealthy diets,” according to the Fitch report. “Food of low nutritional value is more easily and widely available due to its low cost and the introduction and adoption of Western dietary habits.”

The health risks of rising obesity result in mounting healthcare costs for treatment of chronic diseases including diabetes and heart disease, the Fitch analysts said. Malaysia has the highest costs as a result of high obesity, making up as much as a 20 percent share of the overall of healthcare spending, they estimate.

The report doesn’t outline the steps taken since 2014 to combat obesity in Southeast Asia. Malaysia, for one, imposed an excise tax of 0.40 ringgit per liter on packaged sweetened beverages, from fruit juices to soft drinks, starting July 1. The levy excludes drinks prepared and served at restaurants as well as instant mixes.

Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea had a 38% increase in obese people in the five-year period, putting them at 5.8 percent of the population. In the U.S., the number of obese rose 8 percent to 33.7 percent of the population.

The jump in obesity in many countries through 2014 caps a longer-term trend in the Asia Pacific from 1990, when 34.6 percent of adults were overweight or obese. By 2013, that tally had risen to 40.9 percent, the data show.

The Philippines looked quite trim compared to its peers: Just 5.1 percent of the population was obese in 2014, with a growth rate of 6 percent from 2010 through 2014.