More needs to be done to tackle obesity

BRUNEI Darussalam is the highest-ranked country for obesity prevalence in adults among Asean countries, according to the Global Nutrition Report 2016.

While not exactly flavour of the month or a popular topic, the findings above should send alarm bells ringing loudly among the country’s population and authorities.

Encouragingly though, we’re now seeing more and more government- and private sector-organised health and fitness related events being held throughout the country, such as the Bandarku Ceria, Beach Bunch’s Beachathon, Pusat Ehsan Walk Run Cycle, Zumba classes and so on.

All these definitely help alleviate Brunei’s obesity problem – for sure they’re part of the solution.

On the other hand, there needs to be self initiative to live an active and healthy lifestyle on the part of the country’s citizens and residents themselves.

And when we speak of healthy lifestyle, obviously there’s a dietary component that comes into play as well in addition to the physical activity aspect.

And it is this diet component which forms the basis of whether we end up being overweight or not.

If the studies and results of the Global Nutrition Report 2016 are anything to go by, then it’s glaringly clear that we as Bruneians have got this diet portion way off point, ie we are eating way too much, and eating too much of bad food at that.

To tackle our country’s obesity problem, we need to understand the psychology behind and address the underpinnings of why people overeat – and overeat badly.

I am by no means a medical practitioner or dietician, but being interested in health and good nutrition, allow me to provide my two cents’ worth.

I believe there are a number of primary – or more obvious – reasons: Genetic predisposition (ie certain individuals have genes which cause greater than average appetite and low metabolism, and affect satiety), childhood dietary conditioning (parents feeding and weaning their children on sweet foods, or junk food at an early age), depression, lack of health or diet awareness (ie not being very particular about food choices, and consume fried and sugary foods regularly without much whim), lack of diet education at schools, and lack of healthy foods at school canteens (which I’ve personally experienced growing up in Brunei, and highlighted by renowned chef Jamie Oliver as a huge problem in UK schools).

Another less obvious reason which can set one – especially high-risk individuals (people genetically predisposed to being overweight as mentioned in preceding paragraph or those suffering from depression) – on the obesity path is our environment itself.

Let me provide a personal account to illustrate this point.

I grew up in Kuala Belait, probably the second-sleepiest town in Brunei after Bangar. It is a nice place to spend one’s childhood and teenage years in: Quiet, zero traffic congestion, virtually no crime, low air pollution, the list goes on.

However, beyond school hours and time spent time playing sports such as football, badminton or basketball, there is a dearth of out-of-house activities for us to fill our spare time with.

There are no major shopping districts or hangout spots in our country to walk around or spend time outdoors as is the case with our neighbours.

An easy example to relate to is Singapore.

We do not have major shopping precincts or urban areas lined with blocks upon blocks of pavements and walking areas such as in the case of our city-state neighbour.

The closest example I can think of in our country is the Gadong commercial area where The Mall is located.

We as Bruneians are virtually dependent on motor transportation to get around (which obviously is not our fault). Our environment means that there is no culture of walking (beyond recreation) among Bruneians.

Beyond school or working hours, residents in Singapore can hang out at malls, walk along Orchard Road, or take the MRT and get around the country. They can go rock climbing, visit the country’s many museums, go to music festivals, or stroll through the many urban parks in the city.

For them, there is never a shortage of things to do beyond the confines of home.

In the Netherlands, there is a strong cycling culture.

In Australia, a heavy sports and beach culture is prevalent, not to mention the endless list of activities to do and things to explore there.

This all means that the citizenry in these countries are physically active and occupied, and kept away from a sedentary lifestyle, which in my opinion, naturally and gradually nurtures a culture of eating and overeating – which leads to obesity.

To tackle this problem, we can’t change our country totally, but what we can do is organise more social – not just fitness-related – activities in Brunei.

Outdoors activities such as the government’s Ku Ceria initiatives, running, cycling and walking events, and Surf Fest at Tungku Beach earlier in the year are great, as are the Francophonie Week events.

It would also be nice to see more beneficial activities such as hackathons, coding contests, writing competitions, national e-sports events, and swimming or tennis tourneys being held in the country.

The Brunei Government is working hard to address this health problem and I believe our country is on the right path to overcoming this issue.

More can – and should – be done, however.

– Observer