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The data is a few years old now (2011), but nevertheless the graphic above is telling.

Just in case the text is too small to be easily read, the figures represent the nations of Southeast Asia (in alphabetical order) with their respective sizes reflecting the overweight prevalence (%) for adults of both sexes (overweight being defined as a Body Mass Index >25 kg/m2).

Initially I saw a correlation between wealth and weight, namely that the richer a country was the heavy its citizens were, but that theory falls down when Singapore’s relative wealth is considered.

I suspect a better explanation can be found in the income columns at the right of the graphic below (from the link here).


If my hunch is correct, the countries of Southeast Asia reflect a correlation between growth in citizen wealth and growth in citizens weight, peaking at the upper middle income band (Malaysia and Thailand), before tapering off when high incomes are reached (Singapore).

Perhaps the most interesting statistic from the second graphic are the health benefits for females moving from upper middle income bracket to the high income bracket. When transposed into a Southeast Asian context this could mean that the key difference between upper middle income Malaysia and high income Singapore is not the males, who would be slightly weightier than their Malaysian counterparts, but the Singaporean women who would be much lighter and thus healthier than their Malaysian neighbours. I’m interested in any readers who could shed light on this possibility with reliable data.

In any event simple measures of wealth are clearly not the whole story, with Vietnam and Philippines featuring broadly comparable levels of wealth (or poverty) but significantly different weight profiles. An initial guess suggests diet is a significant factor, but have no expertise or data to back that up.

The really bad news is that, if my hunch is correct, as the nations of Southeast Asia move closer to Singapore’s living standards their citizen’s weight will continue to grow. Unfortunately they are living in a world where all of Southeast Asia matching Singapore’s resource consumption to sustain its living standards is simply unachievable, and these countries could never crest the serious health concerns linked to upper middle income lifestyles.

That would mean, unless the economic model underlying high income countries such as Singapore changes drastically, that Southeast Asia’s future lies in an enormous growth in waistlines, weight related diseases and premature deaths.