MANILA’S EMERGING OBESITY: IGNORE OR ADDRESS IT?


Erle Frayne Argonza

Nutrition-related issues and problems in the Philippines constitute a long list. Among all the related issues and problems, hunger stands out as the most highlighted today. While there is no question about highlighting hunger and addressing it with determination, over-focusing on this single issue tends to mask the other issues involved.

Among the emerging issues and problems in nutrition, I would handily pinpoint obesity as the most focal. Needless to say, it challenges development stakeholders to highlight the issue as well, and address it on the same level as hunger is being addressed today. Addressing it would mean resorting to public policy tools, strategies and programs at a national level, and creating necessary institutional frames to accelerate the problem’s solution.

While doing the study on fair trade & food security for the KAISAMPALAD in 2005 (this NGO is a national center for fair trade & food security), I stumbled upon both problems of hunger and obesity. At that time, the latest data from the Social Weather Stations regarding hunger indicated a 12% incidence, a figure that I found alarming as anything past the 8.5% index is considered significant. So I included the hunger issue among those food insecurity ailments that must be salved pronto, recommended policy measures, and even recommended the formation of a Hunger Fund as the multi-stakeholder executor of the anti-hunger mission.

The same study made me stumble upon the findings of nutritionists of the state’s Food and Nutrition Research Institute, which indicated a 25% obesity at the turn of the millennium. That average had its expressed distribution among age groups, with varying indices per age bracket. What was alarming at that time was the 25% Phliippine obesity rate was already 5% above the global average of 20% (the USA’s was 66%).

While I was aghast at the obesity incidence, admittedly I wasn’t prepared to tackle it then, and so I remained silent about the matter in the final research report, save for citing indices of over-weight across age brackets. Today the obesity incidence had risen well above the previous 25%, and certain popular media estimates indicate well pass the 30% mark already (we still need some more update nutrition research on the subject).

Obesity is markedly higher than hunger in the Philippines, surpassing the latter by over double the incidence. The problem with hunger studies is that the methodology is often subjective, since they employ surveys (e.g. asking the informant if s/he has been eating sufficiently or not. In contrast, obesity measures are objective and very exact, as calibration entails the use of weighing scales administered by licensed nutritionists.

I admit that I still am relatively unprepared to tackle the issue as of this day, that is as a development issue. I can only think now of the typical lifestyle intervention to address it, such as combining physical regimen with diet program and a total lifestyle change. Being athletic and a health buff (I was formerly Silver Medalist in national powerlifting –middleweight division), I often offer myself as a prototype of an optimally balanced physical-nutritional wellness person, even as I can easily lecture on lifestyle change and personal intervention to address obesity.

I would end this piece by tossing the query to my fellow Filipinos in the country and to friends overseas: will Manila continue to ignore obesity altogether?

[Writ 28 July 2008, Quezon City, MetroManila]

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