KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 15 — The usual and cheapest meal for poor children from low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur consists of fried eggs, rice and soy sauce, Unicef found, even as Malaysia bears a double burden of malnutrition.
According to the United Nations (UN) agency’s State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, Food and Nutrition report, while 20.7 per cent of children under five in Malaysia suffer from stunting and 11.5 per cent from wasting, 12.7 per cent of children (aged five to 19 years) are obese.
Malnutrition rates in poor urban areas in Malaysia tend to be higher than the national average.
Unicef — which interviewed three mothers called Rohana, Noor, and Siti Fatimah who live in low-cost flats in the capital city — found that affordability was a common problem, with the trio saying that cost determined what they could feed their children, regardless of its nutritional value. Hence, fried eggs, rice, and soy sauce was a typical meal.
“I do not think about that thing [healthy and balanced food)]. Others are eating fish, but I am able to provide only rice. I know it’s not good, but that’s all I can provide,” Noor, a mother of four, was quoted saying.
One mother told Unicef she might have the chance to serve chicken only once a year, while another acknowledged that although eggs were easily obtained, one of her children was allergic to them. A third mother said her child attempted self-harm because the child couldn’t eat at a popular fast-food chain.
Meal frequency was also a major concern, Unicef found, with the KL mothers sometimes buying groceries on credit at a nearby shop.
Noor and Siti Fatimah even said they rationed food among their children throughout the day as the food would be finished too quickly otherwise.
Noor is also forced to take her baby with her to work, unlike the other two mothers who enjoy flexible work policies, which affects her work performance and ultimately her income.
Rohana told Unicef that policies supporting single mothers would help her develop her business, while Noor and Siti Fatimah said they too would like to open their own businesses with access to start-up capital.
Unicef’s report found that at least one in three children under five worldwide, or over 200 million, were malnourished, either undernourished or overweight. Two in three children under two years old lived on poor diets.
“Despite all the technological, cultural and social advances of the last few decades, we have lost sight of this most basic fact: If children eat poorly, they live poorly,” Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said in a statement today.
“Millions of children subsist on an unhealthy diet because they simply do not have a better choice.
“The way we understand and respond to malnutrition needs to change: It is not just about getting children enough to eat; it is above all about getting them the right food to eat.”Henrietta Fore, Unicef executive director
“That is our common challenge today,” Fore said.
The Unicef report described a triple burden of malnutrition: undernutrition, hidden hunger caused by a lack of essential nutrients, and overweight among children under the age of five.
Around the world, 149 million children are stunted, or too short for their age; 50 million children are wasted, or too thin for their height; 340 million children – or one in two – suffer from deficiencies in essential vitamins and nutrients such as vitamin A and iron; and 40 million children are overweight or obese.
Only 42 per cent of children under six months are exclusively breastfed, Unicef noted.
As children begin transitioning to soft or solid foods around the six-month mark, too many are introduced to the wrong kind of diet, according to the report. Worldwide, close to 45 per cent of children between six months and two years of age are not fed any fruits or vegetables. Nearly 60 per cent do not eat any eggs, dairy, fish or meat.
The Unicef report also found that 42 per cent of school-going adolescents in low- and middle-income countries consumed carbonated sugary soft drinks at least once a day and 46 per cent ate fast food at least once a week. Those rates go up to 62 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively, for adolescents in high-income countries.
As a result, overweight and obesity levels in childhood and adolescence are increasing worldwide.
From 2000 to 2016, the proportion of overweight children between five and 19 years of age doubled from one in 10 to almost one in five.“State of the World’s Children 2019: Children, Food and Nutrition” by Unicef
Ten times more girls and 12 times more boys in this age group suffer from obesity today than in 1975.
The greatest burden of malnutrition in all its forms was shouldered by children and adolescents from the poorest and most marginalised communities, the report noted. Only one in five children aged six months to two years from the poorest households ate a sufficiently diverse diet for healthy growth.
Climate-related disasters could cause severe food crises, the Unicef report noted, pointing out that drought was responsible for 80 per cent of damage and losses in agriculture, dramatically altering what food is available to children and families, as well as the quality and price of that food.
Unicef called for sugar taxes to reduce demand for unhealthy food and incentives for food suppliers to provide healthy, convenient and affordable food.
Unicef urged the use of accurate and understandable food labeling and stronger controls on the marketing of unhealthy food, besides improving health, water and sanitation, education and social protection to boost nutrition results for all children. Good-quality data and evidence is also necessary to guide action and track progress.
“We are losing ground in the fight for healthy diets,” said Fore.
“This is not a battle we can win on our own. We need governments, the private sector and civil society to prioritise child nutrition and work together to address the causes of unhealthy eating in all its forms.”