Childhood Obesity in Singapore: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions

As a general rule, obesity tends to rise as societies become more prosperous and urbanised. Given that Singapore is primarily urban, the odds for lowering obesity are not in its favour. However, the country’s focus on pedestrianism, green spaces, and public transport have all mitigated overall obesity rates, with Singapore being one of the two ASEAN countries to have seen a drop in obesity over the past 10 years. 

Regardless, obesity among Singapore’s children is currently on the rise. A 2023 report by Channel News Asia pegged the proportion of students under 18 who were overweight at 16 per cent in 2021, from just 13 per cent in 2017. Local paediatrics specialists have also reported a spate of obesity-related illnesses in children that were once only commonplace in adults. 

Why is Childhood Obesity Rising in Singapore? 

Since the 1960s, childhood obesity in Singapore has risen in step with the increase in the consumption of sugary, fatty foods. The early 2020s, however, saw a serious spike in childhood obesity rates as many children became less active during the lockdowns. 

Beyond these more obvious factors, rising relative poverty has also been tagged as one of the biggest catalysts for childhood obesity in Singapore. Parents who are under financial stress tend to spend more on filling, preservative-laden carbohydrate-rich foods and far less on healthy foods like vegetables and quality proteins. In addition, poorer families tend to have less time and disposable income that could be dedicated to exercise and leisure time often go towards more economically viable sedentary activities. 

Physical Impacts of Childhood Obesity 

 Childhood obesity is associated with a wide range of short and long-term health impacts.  

  • Children with obesity are much more likely to be also obese as adults. 
  • Children who are obese are more likely to be affected by asthma, which may further limit their ability to do physical exercise. 
  • They are also more likely to have poor quality sleep resulting from sleep apnea. This condition may lead to an assortment of consequences, including poor school performance. 
  • Childhood obesity is associated with higher rates of polycystic ovary disease (PCOD). This is because obesity increases insulin resistance and compensatory hyperinsulinemia, which then disrupts normal hormonal balance in adolescent females and ultimately contributes to PCOD. PCOD, in turn, increases the risk for metabolic syndrome and glucose intolerance. 
  • Children with obesity are at far higher risk of developing hypertension than their peers with normal weight, making them susceptible to a wide assortment of serious illnesses. 
  • Obesity puts children at grave risk of paediatric liver disease as well as Type 2 diabetes. 

Mental Health Effects of Childhood Obesity 

Children with obesity are also likely to face a wide array of mental health issues. 

  • Meta-studies exploring the relationship between childhood obesity and mental health confirm significant risk factors for depression and anxiety, particularly among girls. 
  • Depression and anxiety can further deepen sedentary behaviour, putting affected children in a feedback loop that worsens their obesity and overall well-being. 
  • Social anxiety and social phobias are also correlated with childhood obesity. These conditions can have a serious negative impact on a child’s social skills and their future personal development. 
  • Children with obesity aremore likely to develop psychiatric disorders. 
  • Affected children are more likely to be socially excluded by their peers, often with life-long consequences to their self-image. 

How Can Families Prevent Childhood Obesity 

Though paediatric experts can make specific recommendations on diet and exercise, the responsibility of preventing and mitigating childhood obesity also falls on parents and other authority figures in the home. Key strategies families can try include: 

  1. Modelling Healthy Eating Behaviours

Enforcing healthy habits for children but not everyone else in the household can cause a feeling of “othering” that sabotages long-term efforts at weight management. If everyone in your home is on board with healthy eating, children are more likely to take a positive view of dietary restrictions. 

  1. Engaging in Physical Activities as a Family

Once children become obese, engaging in exercise can become both mentally and physically challenging. Exercising as a family can help offset this challenge by providing bonding opportunities that may motivate a child to stay active. 

  1. Implementing Healthy Sleep Routines

Disrupted sleep can cause children to consume more calories to keep their energy levels up. Set a strict lights-out rule for your children and enforce zero screen time after their homework is done to limit their additional caloric intake. 

  1. Not Fat-Shaming Children

Fat-shaming has historically been prevalent in Asian societies, including in Singapore. Though shaming is often touted as a form of motivation, the current understanding of obesity and its link to mental health issues suggests that it may be potentially harmful to children. Children are extremely impressionable and any negative experiences they have related to their obesity can cause serious mental health issues that could, in fact, worsen their eating habits in the long term. 

Learn the True Nature of Childhood Obesity 

Contrary to popular belief, childhood obesity is not due to a weakness in character nor is it inevitable for at-risk individuals. It is a serious disease with physical, mental, and social implications that can be self-reinforcing if parents do not provide affected children with the help they need.
Fortunately, families can take practical measures to mitigate the worst effects of obesity in children. More importantly, these measures are worth doing; even modest drops in weight can shave off some of the risks faced by children with obesity. Through learning the risks and mitigation strategies associated with childhood obesity, parents can play a pivotal role in promoting the health and happiness of their children. 

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