In fact, Malaysia is one of several ASEAN countries facing simultaneous crises of over and under-nutrition, with some children overweight while their peers suffering from malnutrition. This ‘double burden of malnutrition’, identified in a recent report from UNICEF, WHO and ASEAN, is also happening in other middle income countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
Both obesity and malnutrition are rising at once
“While there has been much progress in Malaysia over the past few decades in terms of improving children’s lives, the road to high-income nationhood brings up new challenges such as obesity in children and young people due to changing lifestyles and dietary habits,” said Marianne Clark-Hattingh from UNICEF Malaysia. “On the other hand, many children are still growing up without proper nutrition.”
According to the latest statistics from the National Health Morbidity Survey, more than 7% of children in Malaysia under five years of age have been identified as overweight. Studies by the Nutrition Society of Malaysia revealed that almost 30% of children and teenagers aged between 6 and 17 were either overweight or obese.
The study, involving 8,705 primary and secondary school students throughout the country, indicated that 32.9% of male students were overweight compared with female students at 24.7%. It also revealed that one out of four children skipped breakfast, which indicated a lack of concern among parents over their children’s eating habits and diet.
Poor nutrition and inactive lifestyle spreading among Malaysian children
A child whose growth was stunted in early childhood is at greater risk of becoming overweight later in life. The risk for being overweight goes up with increased access to junk food and drinks (especially those with high trans-fat or sugar content and low nutritional value), physical inactivity and increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
All of these are environmental factors which can be curbed at budding point in schools as part of a healthy ritual or eating routine.
In 2013, then Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai, stepped up the battle of obesity in schools with the introduction of a ‘healthy lifestyle with skipping’ initiative to encourage children to become more active with the distribution of skipping ropes to 200 schools nationwide.
The most basic determinant of excess weight is a simple imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. The fact that adults worldwide are struggling to grasp the concept is particularly concerning when their responsibility becomes raising healthy children.
“Malaysian parents should pay greater attention to monitoring the meals of their children. In many families both parents are working and very often this aspect is neglected,” Dr E Siong Tee, president of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia, said.
“Children skip breakfast and the meals which they do consume are high in meat, fat, salt and low in vegetables and fruits”. Sugary drinks including soft drinks, cordials and syrups are all too popular as drink choices for children, as are sweet cakes and local snacks - all of which taste good and are readily available in local school canteens but are extremely low in nutrients.
This is a paradoxical outcomes of a developing nation - too much of something good is never better.
Obesity a Malaysian crisis across all age groups
Additionally, the health minister Dr S. Subramaniam confirmed that Malaysia was officially Asia’s fattest country, with a staggering increase in its obesity rate. The latest statistics show that the overweight and the obese make up nearly half of the country’s 30 million population.
According to the National Health and Morbidity Survey of 2015, obese Malaysians make up 17.7% of the population while those who are categorised as overweight make up 30%.
“If added together, almost half the population of Malaysia is overweight or obese,” he stressed.
This is especially staggering given that the obesity prevalence was merely 4.4% just a decade ago in 1996. In 2014, a study published by The Lancet listed Malaysia as the highest in Asia for obesity followed by South Korea, Pakistan and China. MIMS
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