Region faces double-edged nutrition crisis

By: Paul Millar - Posted on: March 28, 2016 | Current Affairs

While levels of obesity are rising, millions of Southeast Asia’s children are suffering from stunted growth caused by malnutrition

A lack of food industry regulation, particularly of junk food and sugary drinks, is partly responsible for a nutrition crisis in Southeast Asia that has left millions of children obese as their peers starve, a joint Unicef, Asean and World Health Organisation (WHO) report warns.

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Poor Cambodian children in Phnom Penh. Photo: EPA/Barbara Walton

The report, released today, states that while there are more than 17 million children under five suffering from stunted growth caused by chronic malnutrition in the region, another 4.5 million were overweight or obese – and that number is rising.

Unicef East Asia and Pacific regional nutrition adviser Christiane Rudert says the findings revealed the darker side of an unprecedented rate of economic growth.

“Many countries in Southeast Asia have seen impressive economic gains in the last decade, lifting millions of children out of poverty,” she says.

“However, at the same time we have seen the rise of conditions like obesity, previously associated with high income countries. Asian children are now at risk of malnutrition from both ends of the spectrum.”

One of the effects of stunted growth – like many symptoms, largely irreversible after a child’s second birthday – is an increased risk of obesity. Coupled with a propensity for women suffering from malnutrition to give birth to stunted infants, it can be a vicious cycle – especially among lower-income families.

In Cambodia, 42% of children in the lowest economic quintile are victims of stunted growth. In the wealthiest quintile, the figure is less than half that.

Of the many causes of obesity, the report singles out increasing access to junk food and sugary drinks as a problem that needs urgent attention.

The report recommends that governments regulate the marketing and sale of high-fat, high sugar food and beverages to children – even suggesting heavy taxes on junk food to dissuade at-risk families.

Unicef cites the vast economic cost of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes brought on by the obesity epidemic as just one of the reasons these countries must take action, estimating the total cost for Indonesia alone at $248 billion a year.

Cambodia and Laos, meanwhile, could lose as much as 2.5% of GDP every year to the effects of malnutrition on struggling healthcare systems.

The report also singles out a lack of education and resources around the benefits of breastfeeding as a leading cause of malnutrition. “An infant who is not breastfed is more than 14 times more likely to die from all causes than an infant exclusively fed breast milk in the first six months of life,” it states.

In some places, the transition from breast to breakfast can be abrupt. In the Javan village of Pandes, Indonesia, 15-month-old Bintang was only two months old when his mother had to return to work. At six months, he was already on solids – and keen to eat his fill. Soon, his weight was far beyond what it should have been for a child his age.

His father, Budianto, doesn’t see his son’s weight gain as a problem, but the sign of a healthy appetite.

“For snacks, Bintang has bread, biscuits, jelly and wafer biscuits,” he explains. “He eats so easily. Sometimes before meal time, he’s already asking for food.”

Village nutritionist Dessy Sandra Dewi says the problem often stems from a tradition that encourages elderly relatives to spoil their grandchildren.

“Often both parents are working so the grandparents are left with the children,” she says. “But many grandparents don’t have the knowledge to feed the children a balanced diet. They are also attracted by the advertising of processed foods that make these foods seem desirable.”