PETALING JAYA (AFP): A diet heavy on cheap, modern food like instant noodles that fills bellies but lacks key nutrients has left millions of children unhealthily thin or overweight in Southeast Asia, experts say.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have booming economies and rising standards of living, yet many working parents do not have the time, money or awareness to steer clear of food hurting their kids.
In those three nations, an average of 40 percent of children aged 5 and below are malnourished, higher than the global average of one-in-three, according to a report out Tuesday from Unicef, the UN children’s agency.
“If children eat poorly, they live poorly, ” said Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore, unveiling the fund’s first State of the World’s Children report since 1999. “We are losing ground in the fight for healthy diets.
Adequate intake of nutrients
“Parents believe that filling their children’s stomach is the most important thing. They don’t really think about an adequate intake of protein, calcium or fiber, ” Hasbullah Thabrany, a public health expert in Indonesia, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The harm done to children, according to Unicef, is both a symptom of past deprivation and a predictor of future poverty, while iron deficiency impairs a child’s ability to learn and raises a woman’s risk of death during or shortly after childbirth.
To give some sense of scale to the problem, Indonesia had 24.4 million children under 5 last year, while the Philippines had 11 million and Malaysia 2.6 million, Unicef data show.
Mueni Mutunga, Unicef Asia nutrition specialist, traced the trend back to families ditching traditional diets for affordable, accessible and easy-to-prepare “modern” meals.
“Noodles are easy. Noodles are cheap. Noodles are quick and an easy substitute for what should have been a balanced diet, ” she told AFP.
‘Poverty is key’
The noodles, which cost as little as P12 a packet in Manila, are low on essential nutrients and micronutrients like iron and are also protein-deficient while having high fat and salt content, Mutunga added.
Indonesia was the world’s second-biggest consumer of instant noodles, behind China, with 12.5 billion servings in 2018, according to the World Instant Noodles Association.
The figure is more than the total consumed by India and Japan put together.
Nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy, fish and meat are disappearing from diets as the rural population moves to the cities in search of jobs, the Unicef report said.
Though the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia are all considered middle-income countries by World Bank measures, tens of millions of their people struggle to make enough money to live.
“Poverty is the key issue, ” said T. Jayabalan, a public health expert in Malaysia, adding that households where both parents work need quickly made meals.
Low-income households in Malaysia depend largely on ready-made noodles, sweet potatoes and soya-based products as their major meals, he said.
Sugar-rich biscuits, beverages and fast food also pose problems in these countries, according to experts.
Rolling back the influence instant noodles have on the daily lives, and health, of people in Southeast Asia will likely require government intervention, they said.
“Promotion and advertising is extremely aggressive, ” said Thabrany, the Indonesian public health expert.
“There is massive distribution. They (instant noodles) are available everywhere, even in the most remote places.”
The Unicef report also showed that despite a nearly 40 percent drop from 1990 to 2015 of stunting in poor countries, 149 million children 4 or younger are today still too short for their age, a clinical condition that impairs both brain and body development.
Another 50 million are afflicted by wasting, a chronic and debilitating thinness also born of poverty.
At the same time, half of youngsters across the globe under 5 are not getting essential vitamins and minerals, a long-standing problem Unicef has dubbed “hidden hunger.”
Over the last three decades, however, another form of child malnutrition has surged across the developing world: excess weight.
“This triple burden—undernutrition, a lack of crucial nutrients, obesity—is increasingly found in the same country, sometimes in the same neighborhood, and often in the same household, ” Victor Aguayo, head of Unicef’s nutrition program, told AFP. “A mother who is overweight or obese can have children who are stunted or wasted.”
Across all age groups, more than 800 million people in the world are constantly hungry and another 2 billion are eating too much of the wrong foods, driving epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Making sure every child has access to a healthy diet must become a “political priority” if widespread malnutrition is to be conquered, especially in developing countries, the report said.
Taxes on sugary foods and beverages; clear, front-of-the-package labeling; regulating the sale of ‘junk food’ near schools — these and other measures could make a difference, it concluded. - AFP
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