While Hong Kong does not have catastrophic obesity levels compared to Kuwait, the United States or Argentina — all of which have obesity rates above 65% — there is an alarming trend that pervades through Hong Kong’s perceived reputation as a healthier society.
The city’s largest obesity clinic at the Prince of Wales Hospital has seen growth in obese patience among those aged below 30. In fact the heaviest patient it ever treated was only 23 years old and weighed 200 kilograms.
Dr Simon Wong Kin-hung, consultant at the hospital’s department of surgery said in the past, there used to be just one in every 10 cases, but this increased to three to four in every 10. The number of cases has increased from 92 to 152 in the past five years.
Another alarming trend is that more patients are younger ones, between ages of 20 and 30, and waiting time has become a stretch at 18 months, while another year for surgery, which involves removal of 75 per cent of the stomach or creating a bypass between the upper part of the stomach and the small intestine so fewer calories are absorbed.
According to the Centre for Health Protection, 39 per cent of local population is overweight, with almost 21 per cent classified as obese, which means their Body Mass Index has reached 25 or above.
Despite being able to detect the trend, the clinic is unable to pinpoint the reason behind the spike in numbers. Dr Wong said it could be due to environment, heredity and genes in the family. That is why the clinic is collaborating with dieticians, clinical psychologist and physiotherapists to provide patient support.
Speaking of environment and patients getting younger, one may observe the lifestyle of young people on what drives them to obesity.
Schoolchildren may be seen munching on high-calorie food not only because they are cheaper and very accessible, but healthy snacks are not widely available. Parents may also have no time to cook, and resort to bringing the family to dine out with not-so-healthy food choices. Also, children may be overly focused on academic achievements and leaving out physical development; they are driven to spend more time in the library to study and less in the field for physical exertion. Focus on academic excellence among students deprives sleep, which also causes obesity.
While gym memberships may be expensive to some, and others can’t devote time to visit the health clubs and public facilities, simple chores such as those at home can help prevent obesity. This includes making the bed, operating the vacuum cleaner or change in lifestyle such as walking instead of commuting short distances.
A 2009 study published in the Hong Kong Journal of Pediatrics reported that the number of cases of type 2 diabetes among Hong Kong Chinese under the age of 19 increased tenfold from 1997 to 2007. The statistics translate to more expenditure in public health care as obese patients are more at risk of developing diabetes.
Hong Kong does a good job at planning — how many flats to build, which areas need an MTR station or a new hospital — to anticipate growth in population and geographic shifts. But if it fails to arrest the alarming trend of obesity, it might as well spend its money towards healthcare and suffer the consequences of an unhealthy society — importing workers, shifting budget for development towards health and well-being.