Malaysian Children Heavier Than Asean Neighbours, Expert Says

By Boo Su-Lyn |

About 10 per cent and 12 per cent of Malaysian children below 12 are overweight and obese respectively.

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PETALING JAYA, Sept 18 — One in five children below 12 in Malaysia is overweight or obese, with child and adolescent obesity rates here exceeding other Southeast Asian countries, a paediatric expert said.

Dr Muhammad Yazid Jalaludin, a consultant paediatric endocrinologist at Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC), cited a 2013 study by Poh BK et al from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia that found 9.8 per cent and 11.8 per cent of Malaysian children aged six months to 12 years were overweight and obese respectively, totalling 21.6 per cent.

Malaysia’s child obesity rate surpassed Thailand (7.8 per cent), Vietnam (5 per cent), and Indonesia (3.5 per cent).

In Malaysia, childhood obesity in urban areas was greater than in rural areas, with 15.1 per cent of boys and 10.2 per cent of girls respectively in the cities being obese, compared to 9.9 per cent of boys and 6.5 per cent of girls respectively in villages.

Dr Muhammad Yazid also cited Malaysia’s 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) that found about 12 per cent of children below 18 were obese.

According to the 2012 Global School-based Student Health Survey that he cited, about a quarter of teens aged 13 to 15 in Malaysia were overweight, while about 11 per cent of that age group were obese, totalling 36.3 per cent.

For Malaysian teens aged 16 to 17, 23.4 per cent and 11.5 per cent of them were overweight and obese respectively, totalling 34.9 per cent.

The waist circumference of Malaysian children aged six to 16 years was at the 90th percentile, exceeding Britain, Hong Kong, Turkey, and Australia, which Dr Muhammad Yazid said could lead to metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and abdominal fat.

“A lot of Malaysian children don’t take enough of certain food, whether low, middle or high income, it’s almost the same,” Dr Muhammad Yazid told a roundtable discussion organised by the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy here last week on malnutrition.

Malaysian data in the Global School-based Student Health Survey 2012. Graphic by Dr Muhammad Yazid Jalaludin.

According to him, most Malaysian children don’t fulfill the recommended nutrient intake, as they don’t consume enough meat and milk, eating mostly rice instead. Children should drink milk right until they stop growing as it’s a source of calcium and vitamin D, he said, noting that Malaysian parents stop giving their children milk upon turning three to five years old.

He said he used to see only one or two Type 2 diabetes cases a year after UMMC opened an obesity clinic in 2006, but the last two years have seen one to two cases every month.

The Malaysian Paediatric Association president also said a child with at least one overweight parent was four times more likely to grow up as an obese adult, with the probability increasing to a 13-fold risk of adult obesity if both parents were obese.

Prevalence of thinness and obesity by age groups in Malaysia, according to the 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey. Graphic by Dr Muhammad Yazid Jalaludin.

Dr Muhammad Yazid also said Malaysia was the only country in Southeast Asia without its own growth charts, unlike Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea, with Malaysia using the World Health Organization’s (WHO) growth charts instead.

“We have our own growth charts; it was built in 1980 and 1985 under UMMC, but that’s 30, 40 years back. It doesn’t work well anymore because of changes. That’s the reason why 20 years back, we asked to have our own growth charts, but our application was turned down,” he revealed.

He suggested that Malaysia use NHMS data to create the country’s own growth charts, as the national health surveys have data on the weight and height of thousands of children, but said it depended on the NHMS team.

According to Dr Muhammad Yazid, Malaysian women and men fall into the 10th percentile of WHO’s growth charts with an average height of about 156cm and and 168cm respectively, which indicates that Malaysian citizens are shorter than the international average.

He pointed out that South Korean women were short a century ago, but have since gained the highest amount of height in the world just from improving their nutrition, while Japanese men are now taller than Malaysian men with an average height of 175cm, although they were shorter than Malaysians back in 1940.

“A lot of it [has] got to do with how you grow during the first five years of life. During the first 1,000 days up to five years of life, the first five years of life of a child’s height resembles 60 per cent of the total height as an adult. And the first five years of life, all dependent on nutrition.”

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