23 May 2024

Obesity is a major public health problem, both internationally and in Thailand.

In 2022, according to the World Health Organization, 1 in 8 people in the world were living with obesity. Between 1990 and 2022, the obesity rate more than doubled among adults and quadrupled among children and adolescents worldwide.   

In Thailand, obesity is continuing to rise. A study in 2022 revealed the prevalence of overweight and obesity in the country had reached 47.8%, increasing from 34.7% in 2016. Thailand had the second highest proportion of overweight and obesity in ASEAN after Malaysia. And the number of people who are overweight or obese increases every year.

When it comes to losing weight, many people don’t understand the importance of nutrition, making it difficult to attain their goals. Some are confused about eating less to lose weight and what constitutes proper nutrition. To help them lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way, Thai PBS World talked to Assoc. Prof. Chaowanee Chupeerach, deputy director of Mahidol University’s Institute of Nutrition about the benefits of good nutrition and how it can help people lose weight.

Good nutrition supports weight loss, she stressed. The first step is for people to find out if they are a healthy weight. One of the most common ways to measure obesity is the body mass index (BMI), a value derived from the weight and height of a person.

According to the BMI score for Asia, normal weight is between 18.5-22.9, overweight is between 23-24.9 and obese is over 25.

“If your BMI reading falls into the overweight category, that means you have an energy imbalance,” Chaowanee said, adding that the imbalance is generated by unhealthy dietary consumption and inadequate levels of physical activity.

Weight decreases happen when the number of calories burned by the body exceeds the number of calories consumed over a period of time.

“The key to losing weight is to burn more calories than you take in. This cannot be achieved if you don’t change your eating habits,” she said.

Asked what good nutrition means in practical terms, she explained that it involves eating a wide variety of foods to get all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals we need to be energetic as well as healthy both physically and emotionally.

“It also means staying away from added sugar, foods with high amounts of salt and sodium and processed foods and limiting your consumption of these foods,” she said.

According to her, the main nutrients the body uses for energy are carbohydrates, fats and protein. “Be mindful of what you eat. Meals must be balanced and include a good source of protein, carbs and healthy fat to meet your dietary needs,” she said, urging everyone to eat in moderation and maintain variety, balance and adequacy in their diets, as this can help with weight loss, weight control and staying healthy.

Eating less and exercising more can be effective for weight loss in the short term but in the longer term, it can leave people feeling hungry and have a negative impact on their health, she said.

Chaowanee noted that proper nutrition can help people lose weight as foods that are high in nutrients will help them feel full and satisfied. When they are not satisfied with the food they’ve eaten, they will often keep on eating even if they are not hungry.

Whole foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, she noted. “Fiber fills you up and helps you feel fuller for longer throughout the day. Your body needs vitamins and minerals for energy,” she said.

The expert also encourages people to arm themselves with health literacy skills. “With these skills, you should be able to understand the concept of BMI, the nutritional labels and make proper decisions related to health, the adverse impacts of excess weight and why you need to lose weight,” she said.

Losing weight is not easy

Many people blame obesity on unhealthy eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle but it’s not that simple. Other factors can affect body weight and obesity, some of which are out of our hands.

Speaking at a seminar to mark World Obesity Day last month held by a leading healthcare company, Dr. Olarik Musigavong, obstetrician, gynecologist, and reproductive medicine specialist at Chaophraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital, said 40-70% of variations in body size are due to genetic factors, citing studies. He added that stress can also have a significant impact on eating habits.

Medication is associated with increasing the risk of obesity. Environmental factors and a sedentary lifestyle also contribute to weight gain.

Obesity is associated with emotional problems including depression. People with excess weight have a 55% higher risk of developing depression over time, Dr. Smith Arayaskul, an anti-aging specialist at Samitivej Sukhumvit Hospital said, citing studies. Children and adolescents with obesity are more likely to experience bullying, he added.

Dr. Pimpanit Condee, a psychologist and behavioral expert from Nudge Thailand noted that behavior modification contributes to weight loss and weight management. She suggested people who want shed extra kilograms control their home environment.

“For example, you may put your running shoes and gym clothes next to your bed. It’s a reminder that you have to go to gym. Fill your fridge with health foods and drinks. Or keep tempting foods out of sight. And have low-calorie snacks ready to eat,” she said.

Assoc. Prof Dr. Petch Rod-aree, president of the Thai NCD Network Association, noted that obesity increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, stroke, diabetes, liver disease, sleep apnea, chronic back pain, sexual dysfunction and certain cancers. Treating obesity, obesity-related conditions and their complications costs more than a billion baht a year. Annual medical care expenditure ranges from 134,000 to 421,000 for a patient with cardiovascular diseases and chronic kidney disease.

A report by BMJ Global Health predicts that Thailand’s economic impact of overweight and obesity will grow to 4.9% of the country’s GDP on average (around 853 billion baht) by 2060 if the prevention and treatment measures it has implemented do not improve.

Dr. Petch has called on the government to take more action to tackle obesity and urges people to make healthier choices which can help reduce pressures on the healthcare system and healthcare costs.

By Thai PBS World Feature Desk