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Asian Children Face Hunger and Obesity


Children exercise during a weight-losing summer camp in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China.

Children exercise during a weight-losing summer camp in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China.


Asian children are becoming increasingly under-nourished or obese, a new report says.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) joint report was released Monday.

The two agencies call for better regulation of junk food and a limit on sugary drinks for children.

They also call for action against malnutrition. A lack of food has stunted children — or hurt their development – who live in poverty.

The report says the costs of child malnutrition and obesity in Southeast Asia are great. These problems are seen in the middle-income countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

In Indonesia, the report says, child malnutrition hurts child development and leads to diseases that cost $248 billion a year.

Dorothy Foote is a UNICEF regional nutritional specialist. She said the problems are a “burgeoning crisis”— or one that is growing. It covers both child nutrition and the general population, she said.

“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 found that in most countries, there are equal amounts of overweight and under-nourished children. For example, in Indonesia, 12 percent of children are overweight, the same number as those who are malnourished.

In Thailand, it says numbers are increasing with 7 percent of children malnourished and 11 percent overweight.

Foote said there is still a “tremendous burden,” with lack of nutrition, “both chronic and acute.” That means the problem is ongoing, and severe. The levels of stunting are very serious.

Laos has the highest number of stunted children, with 44 percent. High rates are also reported in Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia.

The report says most of them — 12 million of the 17 million stunted children in Southeast Asia -- live in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Foote said the lack of food affects children’s height and development inside their bodies. But at the same time, the area is facing “skyrocketing” levels of overweight children.

The main reason for the food problems, the report says, is there is more “junk” food available, food that does not provide nutrition. Another problem is drinks with high sugar or high trans-fat, but low nutritional value.

Lack of physical activity is also part of the problem, the report says.

The agencies say these problems exist despite years of economic development. Southeast Asia is seen as a key economic driver for the world economy. But the gap, or distance, between rich and poor has grown.

Foote said this is seen in nutrition across the area. She said people lack knowledge about what is needed and normal for healthy child development.

The economic growth in the area has brought “unhealthy products” to rural areas. Poor and middle-class families buy them and do not make “the right choices to use healthier foods instead.” Poor feeding practices, especially for children younger than two, mean ongoing high levels of malnutrition.

The report says governments need to regulate the marketing of junk food and sugary drinks to children.

It also calls for better feeding practices for infants and young children, and treatment for severely malnourished children. And it says countries should work to reduce poverty and make sure that girls stay in school.

I’m Anne Ball.

Ron Corben reported on this story for VOANews.com. Anne Ball adapted this story for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

malnutrition –n. unhealthy condition due to lack of proper food, nutrition, not eating enough of the right foods

stunted –v. someone or something stopped from growing or developing

burden –n. something or someone very difficult to accept, do or deal with

skyrocketing –idiom. moving up quickly, like a rocket climbs into the sky

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