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

Video Video Claims to Show Shi'ite Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

While not yet independently confirmed, brutal killing already has gotten attention of Islamic State followers on social media More

After Six Years, Little Change for Niger Delta's Former Militants

Nigerians who laid down arms in exchange for government amnesty subsidies fear program may end with upcoming presidential elections More

Vietnam Pushes for More Educated Drivers to Curb Road Deaths

Transportation officials hope that making a greater effort to get drivers to learn the rules of the road will reduce fatal crashes More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planeti
X
George Putic
March 04, 2015 8:51 PM
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planet

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Muslims Radicalized Online

Young Muslims are being radicalized ‘in their bedrooms’ through direct contact with Islamic State or ISIL fighters via the Internet, according to terror experts. There are growing concerns that authorities and Internet providers are not doing enough to counter online extremism - which analysts say is spread by a prolific network of online supporters around the world. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video African Americans Recall 1960's Fight For Voting Rights

U.S. President Barack Obama and thousands of people will gather in the small southern U.S. city of Selma, Alabama, Saturday, March 7th to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic voting rights march that became known as “Bloody Sunday." VOA’s Chris Simkins traveled to Alabama and introduces us to some of the foot soldiers of the voting rights struggles of the 1960’s.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More