News / Health

As Obesity Rises in Vietnam, Millions Still Underweight

FILE - A Vietnamese boy looks at dairy products at a showroom of the Vietnam Dairy Products Co (Vinamilk) in Hanoi.
FILE - A Vietnamese boy looks at dairy products at a showroom of the Vietnam Dairy Products Co (Vinamilk) in Hanoi.

Vietnam has a nutrition problem that sounds like a contradiction: too many of its children are underweight, but at the same time, more and more children are becoming overweight every year.

This could seem like two separate public health issues, but they are actually connected, because both are the result of poor diets. Historical fears of undernutrition may have pushed Vietnamese to overcompensate in their eating habits, swinging the problem in the opposite direction, to overnutrition.

It’s a phenomenon not unique to Vietnam. Countries across the developing world are juggling a history of food insecurity against a rising availability of meat, milk, fast food, and other junk food.

Today, fewer Vietnamese are going hungry. The country is often touted as a shining example of the success of the eight U.N. Millennium Development Goals, the first of which is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.

“The food poverty rate reduced by more than two-thirds, from 24.9 percent in 1993 to 6.9 percent in 2008” in Vietnam, according to the U.N. website.

And yet, starvation is very much a part of living memory.

Le Thi My Phuong, a mother of two, was born in 1976. She missed the war but lived to see its consequences, including bouts of famine that lasted into the 1980s. The food rationing of that era left psychological effects among many Vietnamese, who then wanted to make sure their children never lacked food. My Phuong said she likes to give her children a cocoa product that’s popular in Vietnam, mixing chocolate powder and milk.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” said My Phuong, who described herself as a merchant. “I want them to develop and be tall, I don’t want them to be too skinny.”

Symbol of wealth

As in other developing countries, having plump children is seen as a symbol of wealth here, because it shows parents can afford to feed their offspring well. This comes at a time when fast food, such McDonald’s which arrived in February, gains popularity, and soft drinks remain cheap after soda lobbies helped kill a proposal to tax fizzy drinks in July.

Along with little public interest in physical exercise, these are part of the reason that UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, estimates that the rate of overweight children in Vietnam increased six-fold since 2000.

But perhaps a more insidious factor is milk. The dairy drink has a special place in the country, because it used to be somewhat rare among mostly lactose-intolerant Vietnamese. But the years of starvation and stunting drove policymakers in search of a dietary solution. One of them was milk, seen as a simple source of nutrients that could be easily distributed nationwide. Officials promoted a milk campaign, especially through Vinamilk, a Forbes-ranked corporation that is partly state-owned and one of the most powerful in the country. Dairy companies bombarded consumers with TV commercials that featured smiling children who drank milk to grow tall and chubby.

As My Phuong demonstrates, the marketing worked and Vietnamese came to see milk as a staple for children alongside the more traditional rice and noodles. Aside from vitamin D and calcium, people weren’t discussing other components of milk, such as hormones, antibiotics, allergens, fat, and sugar - especially lactose, which humans have a hard time digesting.

Roger Mathisen, a nutrition specialist at UNICEF in Hanoi, said part of the problem is that Vietnamese see advertising as a source of facts, “not realizing that it is propaganda.”

In recent years, Vietnam pulled back on its milk campaign, though the government still raised a lot of eyebrows in 2013 when it announced a push to make citizens taller through better nutrition.

The state now bans ads for formula targeting infants under two years old, though other milk marketing is still going strong.

“The government budget to promote healthy living is so minimal compared to the marketing budgets of these companies,” Mathisen said.

Preventive care

He suggested that, while the government can’t compete dollar for dollar against corporate ads, it can use regulatory tools to improve public health. For example, medical practitioners tend to favor treatment and pharmaceuticals because that’s what health insurance reimburses. But Mathisen said that policymakers could revise insurance rules to prioritize preventive care, such as counseling first-time mothers to choose breastfeeding over milk formula.

But consumption is not the only factor affecting obesity rates. Observers say that as Vietnam rapidly urbanizes, citizens are getting much less physical activity in cramped cities than they did in the countryside. Many of them are trading farm labor for stationary office jobs. “The obesity rate in urban areas is three times greater than in rural areas," the country's General Statistics Office wrote in a 2011 report, noting rates of 8 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively.

Michael Waibel, editor of an urban development book “Ho Chi Minh: MEGA City”, said urban planners should create more “green spaces” and encourage residents to exercise in public.

“The city is not very pedestrian-friendly and there are no bicycle lanes to my knowledge,” Waibel said on a recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City.

Two birds

While officials have paid little attention to physical activity, it’s understandable that they remain preoccupied with undernourishment. Vietnam still has a stunting rate of 28 percent among children, according to Unicef. Stunting is especially prevalent among rural populations, while obesity prevails among city dwellers, so government policy has to differ by region.

But Mathisen said that there’s a way to tackle both forms of malnutrition at once. Vietnam has to educate people about eating balanced diets because “food diversity protects against both undernutrition and overweight [problems],” Mathisen said. “You actually have one good solution that’ll address both.”

You May Like

Thousands of Ethiopian Israelis Rally Against Racism

PM Netanyahu says he will meet Damas Pakada, the Ethiopia-born Israeli soldier who was filmed being beaten by two policemen More

Multimedia Ten Migrants Drown in Mediterranean, 4,800 Rescued

All of those rescued are being ferried to Italian ports, with some arriving on Italy's southernmost island, Lampedusa, and others taken to Sicily and Calabria More

HRW: Saudis Using US Cluster Bombs in Yemen

Human Rights Watch says photographs, video and other evidence have emerged indicating cluster munitions have been used in 'recent weeks' in airstrikes in Houthi stronghold in northern Yemen More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil Wari
X
Henry Ridgwell
May 03, 2015 1:12 AM
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil War

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video Rural Nepal Suffers Brunt of Quake’s Devastation

Nepal is still coming to grips with the full extent of the devastation and misery caused by last Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some of the hardest-hit communities have been cut off by landslides making it difficult to assess the precise toll. A VOA News crew has been among the first to reach a few of the smaller, remote communities. Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Sindhupolchak district, east of Kathmandu, which suffered greatly in Nepal’s worst quake in more than 80 years.
Video

Video Black Families Use Baltimore Case to Revisit 'Police Talk'

Following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody this month, VOA interviewed black families throughout the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore about how they discuss the case. Over and over, parents pointed to a crucial talk they say every black mother or father has with their children. Victoria Macchi has more on how this conversation is passed down through generations.
Video

Video Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo

In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief. Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online channel that defends the right not to believe. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Nepal Quake Survivors Tell Their Stories

Against all hope, rescuers have found a few more survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last Saturday. Mountain climbers and hikers trapped in remote places also have been airlifted to safety, and aid is finally reaching people in the areas closest to the quake's epicenter. Survivors and rescuers are now recounting their experience. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Lessons for Germany, Europe Remain on Anniversary of WWII's End

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked May 8-9 in all European countries except Germany, which lost the war. How is the war viewed there, and what impact is it still having? From Berlin, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video 'Woman in Gold' Uses Artwork as Symbol of Cultural Identity

Simon Curtis’ legal drama, "Woman in Gold," is based on the true story of an American Jewish refugee from Austria who fights to reclaim a famous Gustav Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II. It's a haunting film that speaks to the hearts of millions who have sought to reclaim their past, stripped from them 70 years ago. VOA's Penelope Poulou reports.
Video

Video Nepal Town Destroyed By Quake Counts Itself Lucky

Foreign search teams on Wednesday began reaching some of the communities outside Kathmandu that suffered worse damage than Nepal’s capital from last Saturday’s massive earthquake. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Sankhu - a town of about 10,000 people - where there is relief the death toll is not higher despite widespread destruction.
Video

Video First Surgical Glue Approved for Use Inside Body

While medical adhesives are becoming more common, none had been approved for use inside the body until now. Earlier this year, the first ever biodegradable surgical glue won that approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on the innovation and its journey from academia to market.
Video

Video Somali Hotel Chain Owner Strives to Make a Difference

Many in the Somali diaspora are returning home to make a new life despite the continuing risks. Since 2011 when a military campaign against Al-Shabab militants began making progress, members of the diaspora community have come back to open hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Abdulaziz Billow in Mogadishu profiles the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants who is helping to bring change to the once-deadly Somali capital.
Video

Video Study: One in Six Species Threatened with Extinction

Climate change is transforming the planet. Unless steps are taken to reduce global warming, scientists predict rising seas, stronger and more frequent storms, drought, fire and floods. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, a new study on species extinction underscores the need to take action to avoid the most catastrophic effects of rising temperatures.
Video

Video Taviani Brothers' 'Wondrous Boccaccio' Offers Tales of Love, Humor

The Italian duo of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have been making movies for half a century: "The Night of the Shooting Stars," "Padre Padrone," "Good Morning, Babylon." Now in their 80s, the brothers have turned to one of the treasures of Italian culture for their latest film. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver reports.
Video

Video Child Migrants Cross Mediterranean Alone, Face Unknown Future

Among the thousands of migrants making the deadly journey by boat to Europe, there are unaccompanied girls and boys. Some have been sent by relatives to earn money; others are orphaned or fleeing war. From a shelter for young migrants in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Baltimore Riots Shed Light on City’s Troubled Past

National Guard troops took up positions Tuesday in Baltimore, Maryland, as authorities tried to restore order after rioting broke out a day earlier. It followed Monday's funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died while in police custody earlier this month. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Challenges Await Aid Organizations on the Ground in Nepal

A major earthquake rocked Nepal on Saturday and killed thousands, injured thousands more and sent countless Nepalese outside to live in makeshift tent villages. The challenges to Nepal are enormous, with some reconstruction estimates at around $5 billion. Aid workers from around the world face challenges getting into Nepal, which likely makes for a difficult recovery. Arash Arabasadi has the story from Washington.

Poll: Baltimore Police Charged

Poll archive

VOA Blogs