Children in Southeast Asia face ‘double burden’ of obesity, undernutrition – UN report

UNITED NATIONS — Some countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are facing simultaneous crises of over and undernutrition, with some children overweight while their peers suffer from stunting and wasting, said a joint report released Monday by UN agencies and their partners.

The report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has shed new light on the nutrition situation of children across the region.

This “double burden of malnutrition” is happening in middle income countries such Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, said the report.

“Many countries in Southeast Asia have seen impressive economic gains in the last decade, lifting millions of children out of poverty,” said Christiane Rudert, regional nutrition adviser for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific, in a press release.

“However, at the same time we have seen the rise of conditions like obesity, previously associated with high income countries. Asian children are now at risk of malnutrition from both ends of the spectrum,” she said.

In Indonesia, the proportions are reportedly exactly the same: 12 percent of children are overweight and 12 percent are wasted. In Thailand, child wasting and overweight are both on the rise: between 2006 and 2012, wasting increased from five percent to seven percent, and overweight from eight percent to 11 percent.

According to the findings, the causes of overweight and undernutrition are intertwined. A child whose growth was stunted in early childhood is at greater risk of becoming overweight later in life.

The risk for being overweight goes up with increased access to junk food and drinks (those with high trans-fat or sugar content and low nutritional value), physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles.

This is an increasing trend in many countries in the region, and contributes significantly to the growing prevalence of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart conditions, according to the report.

In addition to poverty, other contributing factors include traditional diets that lack nutritious foods, poor infant feeding practices, inadequate clean water and sanitation, and farming a limited variety of crops. If children are stunted, this impacts their development in other areas including health and education, affecting their chances in life.

Meanwhile, the report also found that stunting prevalence is highest in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, as well as in parts of Indonesia and the Philippines.

Child malnutrition also has a significant impact on countries’ economies, the report said. It reduces parents’ productivity and creates a burden on health care systems. It can lead to non-communicable diseases, disability and even death, reducing the potential workforce.

The economic cost of non-communicable diseases in Indonesia, much of which is diet-related, is estimated at USD248 billion per year, it said.

On the other hand, UNICEF and the European Union recently completed a five-year partnership to tackle nutrition issues in five Asian countries, including Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines.

“The objective of the partnership was to help governments develop a holistic approach to nutrition, looking beyond just the health sector,” Rudert said. “For example, we worked to improve maternity leave for mothers, which is a labor issue, and families’ access to nutritious food sources — an agriculture issue.” PNA/Xinhua/