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

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Researcher: Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor at Symposium on Obesity, Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome says problem involves more than calorie intake, warns of worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thoughti
X
George Putic
May 26, 2015 9:26 PM
Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

VOA Blogs