MANILA • A diet heavy on cheap, modern food such as instant noodles that fills bellies but lacks key nutrients has left millions of children unhealthily thin or overweight in South-east Asia, experts have said.
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 children.
In those three countries, an average of 40 per cent of children aged five and below are malnourished, higher than the global average of one in three, according to a report out yesterday from Unicef, the United Nations children's agency.
Unicef said the harm done to children is both a symptom of past deprivation and a predictor of future poverty, while iron deficiency impairs a child's ability to learn.
To give some sense of scale to the problem, Indonesia had 24.4 million children under five last year, while the Philippines had 11 million, and Malaysia 2.6 million, Unicef data showed.
Ms 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 said.
The noodles, which cost as little as 23 US cents (30 Singapore cents) a packet in Manila, are low on essential nutrients and micronutrients such as iron, and are also protein-deficient, while having high fat and salt content, Ms Mutunga added.
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.
Sugar-rich biscuits, beverages and fast food also pose problems in these countries, according to experts.