The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO), in a new report, warn Southeast Asia faces a child nutrition crisis amid increasing numbers of under nourished and obese children despite decades of economic growth. The agencies are calling for greater regulation of junk food and limiting sugary drinks for children, as well as tackling malnutrition that has resulted in chronic levels of stunted children living in poverty.
The joint UNICEF and WHO report, released Monday, says Southeast Asia is facing mounting health costs as a result of child malnutrition and obesity – a double burden – increasingly apparent in the middle income countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
The report says in Indonesia alone child malnutrition undermines child development, leading to non-communicable diseases at an annual cost of $248 billion a year.
Children's food problems are increasing
Dorothy Foote, a UNICEF regional nutritional specialist, called the problems a “burgeoning crisis” covering both child nutrition and levels of nutrition in general.
“At UNICEF we are particularly concerned about children but in general we do have a crisis. That’s going to affect not only families and communities but also governments and societies, that the costs of the ‘double burden’ are tremendous,” Foote told VOA.
The report’s surveys found an almost equal percentage in most countries of overweight and under nourished children.
In Indonesia, 12 percent of children are overweight, with the same percentage of children malnourished. In Thailand, the report says the trends are increasing with under nutrition affecting seven percent of children while 11 percent of children are overweight.
Foote said there is still “a tremendous burden of under nutrition, both chronic and acute”. Levels of stunting among children are especially serious. Laos faces the highest proportion of stunted children at 44 percent, with high rates also reported in Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia.
The report says that around three quarters, or 12 million of the 17 million stunted children in Southeast Asia, live in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Foote said children are not receiving adequate food and that is affecting both height and internal development. At the same time the region is facing “skyrocketing” levels of overweight children.
Report blames ‘junk food’
The main reason for the food problems, the report says, lies in greater access to ‘junk’ processed foods and drinks with high trans-fat or sugar content and low nutritional value. The report also cites physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles.
The trends come despite years of development, with the region seen as a key economic driver for the world economy. But while overall growth figures have been positive, there has been a growing gap between the rich and poor leading to a widening in income disparities.
Foote said this impact is evident in nutrition across the region. “What we see is that the knowledge about what is needed for healthy child growth and what is normal in healthy child growth is still very low in the general population and even decision makers and leaders,” she said.
Economic growth has led to greater market reach of “unhealthy products” into rural areas, as well as poor and middle class families, able to afford the products but without making the “the right choices to use healthier foods instead”.
“The result is we’re seeing poor feeding practices, particularly for children under two years old, resulting in persisting high levels of malnutrition but also growing levels of obesity and overweight,” Foote said.
Report advocates government regulation of food marketing
The UNICEF/WHO report says governments need to increasingly regulate the marketing of junk food and sugary drinks to children and restricting such foods availability in schools.
Child malnutrition has also been linked to mothers who stop breast feeding and substituting with infant formula, but often in situations where the water used to mix with the powder is unclean.
The report also calls on governments to improve feeding practices for infants and young children, provide treatment for acutely malnourished children, increase agricultural varieties and hygiene practices as well as ensuring girls remain in school. And the report wants governments to continue to take steps to reduce overall poverty levels.