Indonesia Grapples With Obesity Issues 

Depok, Indonesia — They dance side to side and spin in circles with hips swiveling to music from Cardi B and Guns N’ Roses at Slim Fit Studio. The instructor, R Niken Ayu Larasati, shouts “1-2-3” as everyone’s arms move up and down with feet shuffling forward. Exercising is part of a regular routine for these two dozen women, but this has not always been the case for many of them.

Yuliana, 29, who like many Indonesians has a one-word name, is 150 centimeters tall and weighs 110 kilos. “I didn’t get enough exercise and I had an unhealthy diet,” Yuliana said.

Her story is all too common in this country. Almost half of Indonesia’s women are overweight or obese — almost double the rate of men, according to data from the country’s Ministry of Health. March 4 is World Obesity Day, when many health advocacy groups try to raise awareness about this issue.

“We are seeing increasing rates of obesity in all age categories for males and females in Indonesia, which is very concerning, but the trend for adult women is especially troubling,” said Diah Saminarsih, chief executive officer of the Center for Indonesia’s Strategic Development Initiatives, a nongovernment organization focusing on health issues.

“Because of this we’re seeing an increasing number of people with chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and also renal failure and diabetes,” she noted.

Saminarsih and other health advocates say it’s not clear why Indonesian women have significantly higher rates compared to men, but one factor could be that in many Indonesian families, women still play a traditional role.

“They cook, they feed the children, then they stay at home or pick up their kids from school and they work in between. So, they juggle multiple roles in society. Perhaps they socialize more than men, and when you socialize more, you consume more [food],” said Saminarsih, while adding that there needs to be more research to fully clarify the underlying reasons.

Saminarsih said across the country, unhealthy foods have become easier for families to access in recent years, whether it’s at fast food restaurants or sugary drinks on store shelves.

“Unhealthy foods used to be unaffordable for many Indonesians because they were all imported,” Saminarsih said. “But now so many of them are produced locally so prices have come down and now these fatty, sugary, high calorie foods are cheaper than healthy foods.”

David Colozza, a nutrition specialist at UNICEF Indonesia, also pointed out that as many families have moved from rural to urban areas, they often work jobs that require less physical activity.

“More people are working office jobs or manufacturing jobs instead of in the farm fields,” said Colozza, while adding that the easy availability of ultra processed foods full of sugar, fat and salt is a big factor as well.

“In some communities, these ultra processed foods are the most available and easier to access than healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables,” Colozza said. “Additionally high air pollution levels in cities such as Jakarta [Indonesia’s capital] can prevent people from going outside and exercising.”

But health advocates say there are encouraging signs as more fitness centers open and health education improves. “More people seem to understand the benefits of exercise, and we’re seeing committed health advocates take their message to communities across Indonesia,” said Saminarsih.

Also, health advocates are pushing for further steps, including regulations requiring more prominent labeling on packaging that makes it clearer which foods are unhealthy, and a tax on sugary drinks.

“This could reduce the incentive for consumers to buy these products and also encourage the food and beverage companies to reformulate these products to reduce the amount of sugar,” said Colozza. “Plus, the money collected from the tax ideally would be used for health-related initiatives such as obesity prevention.”

At Slim Fit Studio, Yuliana dances across the floor with the rest of the group. She has lost seven kilograms since November. Yuliana says in addition to exercising four times a week, she’s eating healthier food. It’s the type of lifestyle change health advocates hope more overweight and obese Indonesians will take up.

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