Are we getting fatter because we’re getting poorer?

It had been reported on the Straits Times yesterday that our nation is getting fat. I can imagine a reader pinch his belly, give it a smack and post a comment to laugh it off.

Weight gain is not a laughing matter. There is the obvious medical danger of dying a terrifying and painful death, but I am not so much interested in this.

I am more curious what the national weight gain says about our economy.

You might suppose getting fat is a problem of the rich. It is not. There have been studies documenting how obesity is a problem plaguing the bottom to middle tiered citizens.

When workers are starved for time and have insufficient disposable income, they make poor lifestyle choices which leads to poor health.

This scenario should sound familiar to you:

Many of us wake between 6am-8am to prepare for the day. Those of us with children may wake earlier. We then spend about an hour commuting (or trying to commute because of congestion/breakdowns). Then work will occupy us up until 7pm and then another hour is wasted commuting home. The hours after 8pm will have to be rationed between family, friends, private time, self-enrichment or a profit making sideline.

We are time starved. And being time starved calls for quick meals.

What food choices can one make that is cheap and fast in the mornings? Fried economic bee hoon is a popular choice. It costs no more than $4, even with sausages, chicken wings, hash browns and luncheon meat. Loaded with calories and sodium, it fattens you fast and raises your blood pressure. The other hawker choices aren’t terribly healthy either: nasi lemak is mostly fried and carbohydrate laden. Noodles are mostly carbs with little or no fibres.

In fact, any meal at the hawker center is mostly unhealthy. Hawker-fare evolved from a time when Singaporeans were poor. It is mostly carbs, some meat, a patronising piece of vegetable and enough sodium to kill a small animal. Back then, these dishes were designed to be cheap and fast to produce and sell. This is the same food we are eating today.

I would be very curious to know if the food to salary ratio in the 1960s is any different from the 21st century.

What about pancakes, cereal and fruit? They are either expensive or take too much time to prepare. Even a packet of fresh fruit at the hawker center can cost as much as a bowl of noodles.

Wholesome meals take time to prepare and it isn’t as simple as saying “wake up earlier”. Family, MRTs, bosses and clients all want a piece of our time, there is just no way to keep waking up earlier and earlier to fit everyone in the schedule.

Most Singaporeans will want to spend whatever time that is left on income generating activities or personal development courses (in the hopes that it will lead to a promotion). Each person is already burdened with the impression that Singapore is an expensive place to live in and it is made even more expensive when being pressured to keep up with friends.

I’d like to see more studies done in this area. The link between bodyweight and the economy can give us a clearer picture of how our policies and wages are affecting our health.


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