[SERI COLUMN]Korea feeling the ravages of obesity

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[SERI COLUMN]Korea feeling the ravages of obesity

A foreign traveler taking a cursory look at Seoul’s downtown streets may be startled to find so many slim women and men walking around.
But that can be gravely misleading, given that more than 30% of the population over 20 years of age are considered obese in this country, long proud of healthful traditional dishes.
As today’s children eat more greasy foods and sugar-laden snacks, the percentage is projected to go up to as high as 50 percent within two decades.
The reason for this ever-quickening slide toward corpulence is no mystery. The country has grown so rapidly in the past 40 years, which gave us the power to buy more food with high energy density (i.e., fattier and sweeter).
Meanwhile, the same industrialization brought us all different tools of convenience to make our lives easier, including the automobile, the computer and the washing machine. More food intake combined with less physical exertion was a surefire way to gain weight.
Of course, this story is far from unique to Korea.
As is well known, the obesity problem has already grown into an epidemic in the United States and Europe, causing hundreds of thousands of needless deaths from diabetes, heart disease and strokes. But not many people are aware that this problem is fast emerging as the No. 1 health threat in the developing world.
It may sound strange that the countries still grappling with the problems of hunger and malnourishment, not to mention lingering threats of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, are also burdened with a public-health challenge on the other extreme. But it is clearly true if one looks at some hard data.
In China, for example, a fifth of the population is overweight and the problem is getting worse as the country of 1.3 billion industrializes at blistering speed.
By WHO estimates from 2005, China will lose $556 billion to diet-related diseases in the period 2005-2015, not counting much-greater indirect costs such as lost workdays, impaired quality of life and premature mortality.
In an article he wrote in February of this year, Andrew Prentice of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said, “The double burden of disease ... threatens to bring the already struggling health services of many developing countries to their knees.”
One of the more costly diseases closely related to obesity is diabetes.
Many of those diagnosed as diabetic, if untreated, consequently develop serious conditions like blindness, kidney failure, foot ulceration and coronary disease, all of which require expensive medical treatment.
As people the world over are adding fat to their waists, the incidence of diabetes is also on the rise. According to the International Diabetes Foundation, the federation encompassing 190 diabetes associations worldwide, more than 230 million people (or 6 percent of the world’s adult population), today live with diabetes. That number is expected to grow to 350 million by 2025.
Seven out of 10 countries with the highest number of people with diabetes are in the developing world, including India and those in the Caribbean and the Middle East as well as China. By 2025, almost 80 percent of all diabetes cases will be in low- and middle-income countries, the IDF predicts.
What’s troubling more than anything is that diabetic patients in developing countries cannot get proper medical attention, taken for granted in the developed world.
A type-1 diabetic in Mozambique, for example, has a life expectancy of no more than a year because of the prohibitive cost of insulin injections. In Mali, the average life span after the onset of this disease is 30 months.
These figures stand in stark contrast to the developed world, where a diabetes patient can reasonably expect to live a long, normal life with inexpensive blood sugar-lowering drugs and insulin.
In Korea, it is estimated, there are more than 4 million people with diabetes, more than 8 percent of the total population. The figure is forecast to swell to 7.2 million by 2030. Nevertheless, the issues of obesity and related health problems such as diabetes don’t receive the attention they should.
Long accustomed to eating rice as a main meal, Koreans still take in more than 40 percent of daily calories from rice, rich in carbohydrates that are easily metabolized into sugar. Few restaurants in Korea serve dishes for the diet-conscious or vegetarians; restaurants everywhere drench their dishes with sugar to liven up the taste. Food processing companies are not even mandated to divulge nutritional information on the package label.
The government is doing nothing to prevent the potential health threats from developing into a full-blown epidemic. To tackle obesity and other diet-related diseases, policymakers should realize that this is an expensive problem requiring a multi-faceted approach involving treatment and prevention, public education and stricter regulation.

* The writer is managing editor of SERIWorld, Samsung Economic Research Institute’s English-language Web site. The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not represent those of the publication that carries it.

by Sangho Chung
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