10/13/2004, 00.00
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Fight against obesity starts at school

Affluence leads to continent-wide eating disorders. In China alone there are 60 million obese people but the government is planning countermeasures.

Singapore (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Overweight children beware . . . Singapore has a diet plan just for you. It involves schools separating chubby pupils from their classmates and conditioning their bodies until they shed excess kilos.

One example, that of 10-year-old Mona Siow, who has been trying to lose weight for four years. "I feel sad to be overweight when I look at other people and they're so skinny and can wear so many clothes," Mona said. At 1.42 metres (4.7 ft), she weighs almost 58 kilos (126 pounds) and ought to lose about 17 of them (38 pounds).

Although the school does not restrict what Mona can eat, teachers do meet with her parents regularly to recommend healthier ways to prepare their daughter's meals at home. Mona said she used to hate eating vegetables, but has since grown to like them.

The school-based intervention programme sets rigorous and inflexible standards. No one can leave it until they lose the excess weight or complete schooling.

More than a decade ago, Singapore's leaders decided that the best way to win the battle of the bulge was to begin with the generation growing up on a diet of fast food, television and computer games. Add little or no physical activity and it is easy to see how obesity became a problem.

As part of its strategy, the government has also launched a campaign directed at the adult population. Every September, the city state holds a month-long fitness campaign aimed at getting the entire population to eat healthy food and stay active. Under this year's banner of Fighting Obesity 12,000 people sweated it out in a mass aerobic beach-side workout. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took part, with TV cameras capturing him punching, stomping and sweating with the others.

Despite its flashy side, obesity is an important and growing problem in Asia. In China for instance, the number of overweight people nearly doubled (97 per cent) in the last ten years and now affects more than 60 million people. In cities, 12 per cent of all adults and 8 per cent of all children fall in the obese category, proportions that are expected to rise in the future.

Growing affluence and lower physical activity explain eating disorders. "Many people, especially in the cities, eat calorie-rich food containing oils and saturated fats," China's Deputy Health Minister said. To counter this, "we must launch a campaign that informs people of the basics of good nutrition," he added. (DS)

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