Updated: Nov 11
Singapore, like many other countries, faces challenges related to weight loss and the health of its population. Some problems are common to all developed societies, others are uniquely Singaporean. No matter where you come from, or where you live, it is possible to find opportunities for health. Taking advantage of them can be harder.
Starting with the Stats
According to the government “Based on the 2019/2020 National Population Health Survey, the crude prevalence of obesity (10.5%) among residents aged 18 to 74 years in 2019-2020 had returned to the previous level seen in 2010 (10.5%) after a slight decrease in 2013 (8.6%) and 2017 (8.6%).
Obesity was more common among males (11.9%) compared with females (9.3%) in 2019-2020. In terms of age groups, obesity among adults aged 30 to 59 years was around 12%, almost double that of those aged 18 to 29 years old (6.6%).”
For the Asian population that makes up most of Singapore’s residents, a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 18.5 to 22.9 is considered healthy. A BMI over 23 means that your health is at risk. A BMI of greater than 30 is considered obese. Note that these Asian BMI cut off numbers are different than those for other ethnicities, the risk of diabetes being a key factor involved. But what is contributing to Singapore’s rising levels of weight gain?
Singapore’s Unique and Fantastic Food Culture
Singapore has a world renowned rich food culture, with a wide variety of delicious local and Asian cuisines. While these foods are flavourful, many are high in calories and fats, low in fibre. Popular local dishes often involve highly processed foods, rich sauces and frying, which can contribute to weight-related issues if consumed excessively.
You can't outrun a bad diet. Kopi and French toast, iced mocha frappucinos, soft drinks and bubble tea, will beat a workout every time.
Plus we are under constant attack, yes attack, by marketing from the fast food and processed food giants – MacDonalds, KFC and Nestle’ (think ultra-processed breakfast cereals and Milo beverage) to name but a few. Plus the ease of ordering-in relatively cheap food, 24 hours a day, contributing to expanding waistlines. Somehow even sugar sweetened, soft drink beverages have ‘Healthier Choice’ food labels although the recently applied Nutri-Grade labelling provides better health recommendations to the public.
Celebrations of Food and Culture
With a multi-ethnic population comes multiple opportunities for cultural celebrations and feasting. Celebrations of culture and racial harmony are beautiful, but the constant barrages of holiday related feasting can add weight that for many is hard to lose. Plus, like in any medium to large size company, birthday cakes and post-holiday treats abound.
A Sedentary Lifestyle and a Fast-Paced Lifestyle
Singaporeans, like many urban populations, often have sedentary jobs that involve long hours of sitting. A highly developed, efficient public transport network – it is fantastic – also reduce physical activity. This lack of physical activity can contribute to weight gain and obesity.
The fast-paced, work dominated, lifestyle in Singapore can lead to unhealthy eating habits. People might opt for convenient, but often less nutritious, fast food due to time constraints. Poor work-life balance is a common complaint for many.
Stress and Mental Health
High-stress levels due to the competitive work environment and the high cost of living can lead to emotional eating and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Stress and sleep issues are common issues that most people face sooner or later.
Physical Activity in the Tropics
Nearly everywhere in Singapore, downtown or at home, has excellent access to parks, waterfront spaces and outdoor areas for fitness activities. Government planning and investment have created a longevity promoting “engineered Blue Zone version 2”.
Outdoor exercise is sweat inducing in the tropical climate, and when it rains it pours. This provides plenty of excuses not to exercise, even if we can make the time to do it. Notwithstanding, there are thousands of gyms and sports clubs, airconditioned or outdoors.
For those that enjoy the outdoors, there are plenty of opportunities for running, cycling and swimming. From Parkruns and trail runs, to rucking and round the island cycling. However, the challenge is to get more people exercising, and that requires carving out the time for exercise and the motivation.
Exercise is for the Military
Singapore’s national service requirement is both a health blessing and a curse. Yes, half the population have to, and are encouraged to, maintain a basic level of fitness for their service requirements. At the same time, exercise is related to conscription and, if you’ve done military training or been on a school sports team, punishment.
There can also be a ‘I can get fit when I have to mentality’. Great motivation for when health, fitness, has to be achieved in advance of the IPPT (Individual Physical Proficiency Test) but ignored by some for the rest of the year. As well as after their service commitment has finished.
Cultural Perceptions and the Singapore Aunty
Cultural attitudes toward body image and weight can influence how people perceive their own bodies and what actions they take to manage their weight. These perceptions can vary widely among different communities within Singapore.
Loving aunties around the world encourage their nieces and nephews to eat up. Singaporean aunties have a unique talent and access to tasty treats that makes, that takes, the likelihood of weight gain to the next level. More kueh lapis, anyone?
It is important to note that not all these challenges are unique to Singapore. From Sydney to Singapore to Santa Monica, we share similar lifestyle and health issues. We also have fantastic opportunities for health.
Yes, the diet can be unhealthy and Yes, it can be health promoting. Yes, exercise can be hard and Yes, we have the opportunity to exercise everywhere. Yes, work-life balance, stress and sleep can be poor. Yes, we have the ability to address all these issues - with the right insights and the right plan, personalised to our own unique lifestyles.
Successfully managing one's weight has profound implications for health, both for the risk of diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Our coaching based programmes support sustainable weight loss and long-term health. Physical activity, sleep, stress, work-life balance, social relationships - the pillars of health – all have a role to play. This requires lifestyle change, where we, at The Whole Health Practice, dedicate our energy and support our clients on their unique journeys to health.
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Singapore HealthHub Obesity in Singapore: It's Not a Small World