South-east Asia grapples with stunting and anaemia: Global report

According to the report, countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Myanmar have significant cases of stunted children and anaemic women. PHOTO: ST FILE

BANGKOK - Most South-east Asian countries are grappling with stunting and anaemia, a report on global nutrition has warned.

According to the Global Nutrition Report released on Thursday (Nov 29), countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar have significant cases of stunted children and anaemic women.

Malaysia, meanwhile, is grappling with those problems as well as that of increasing weights. At least 35 per cent of Malaysian women were overweight, according to its data.

The report is the latest in recent studies warning against global malnutrition even as rising incomes put more balanced and nutrient-rich diets within closer reach.

Countries in the region have been trying to change dietary preferences by, for example, introducing taxes to nudge manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of sweetened drinks. But these efforts are being matched by the proliferation of packaged food, much of which is relatively unhealthy.

The report, produced by an independent expert group, was launched at a malnutrition conference this week organised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United States-headquartered International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Every nation in the world suffers from at least one form of malnutrition, the study finds. In Singapore, for example, at least 20 per cent of women of reproductive age suffer from anaemia, an indicator of diets lacking enough vitamins or minerals like iron, zinc and folate. The most common type of anaemia is iron-deficiency anaemia, which can be caused by blood loss.

"Eating a diversity of iron-rich foods can help alleviate iron-deficiency anaemia, but far too little attention has been paid to comprehensively improving women's diets," Dr Corinna Hawkes, one of the food policy specialists behind the report, told The Straits Times. "Many women in low-income settings exist on diets low in diversity like starchy staples; others fill up on nutrient-poor energy-dense processed foods which do not deliver the iron they need."

Globally, progress in addressing low weights and anaemia among women has been extremely slow while obesity among adults is getting worse, the report noted. The percentage of both overweight and obese people has increased year on year since 2000, with women more likely to be obese than men.

Meanwhile, it continues to be an uphill battle to get mothers to breastfeed babies exclusively up till they are six months old - which is recommended by the World Health Organisation. Latest data on infants' diets also show that while the proportion of babies who are breastfed exclusively up to six months of age has increased moderately from 37 per cent in 2012 to 40.7 per cent last year, sales of infant formula has grown rapidly.

New data analysis also found that people can experience multiple forms of malnutrition at the same time. Over eight million children around the world are both stunted and overweight.

Dr Fan Shenggen, director-general of IFPRI, said many people still do not understand what it takes to eat right, and the larger, longer-term consequences of poor nutrition.

"A country getting richer obviously will help. But it's not really sufficient," he told The Straits Times in Bangkok. "Many rich countries still have child stunting." Social protection policies need to ensure that poor households receive cash transfers that are directly used for to provide quality food for children, for example.

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