As the country continues to battle the spread of Covid-19 within communities, a nutritionist has warned of another, more insidious, health problem lurking alongside the virus: a rise in obesity among children who are fed unhealthy meals during the movement control order (MCO) period.
According to a report by the School of Medical Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia, one in five children in Malaysia is overweight – one of the highest rates of obesity in Southeast Asia.
Farah Farhana Hashim, a dietician at a private hospital, said the current problem is partly due to parents feeding their children fried snacks or sweets to help them stay focused during home-based learning sessions.
At school, she said, children are given a 20-minute break to eat. But with online learning or PdPR, snacks can be had at any time to ward off boredom or sleepiness.
“Parents should cut back on frozen food like nuggets and sausages if their kids become addicted to them,” she said.
Snacks like fruits and nuts make a healthy alternative and can help children stay focused on their lessons, she added.
The World Population Survey 2019 states that Malaysia has a higher rate of obesity – 15.6% – than Brunei (14.1%), Thailand (10%) and Indonesia (6.9%).
The National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019 meanwhile shows that 15% of children aged five to 17 are overweight while 14.8% are considered obese.
Farah said obesity is especially a problem among children from the B40 or bottom income group and those living in rural areas.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she said the problem is due to the quantity rather than the quality of food consumed.
The National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019 shows that 15% of children aged five to 17 are overweight while 14.8% are considered obese.
“For example, a child with RM10 might spend it on a single type of food,” she said.
“But children from the B40 group and in rural areas tend to buy cheap food in large quantities.”
She urged parents to keep an eye on their children’s health to prevent them from developing chronic conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol and breathing difficulties at a young age.
“Be aware of physical changes in your children such as dark spots on the neck and on skin folds.
“These dark spots may be itchy – they’re not grime but early signs of chronic diseases like high cholestrol,” she said, adding however that some illnesses can be cured by weight loss.
But children are not the only ones at risk of putting on unwanted weight during the MCO. Adults, too, can pack on the pounds thanks to unhealthy eating habits and a lack of physical activity.
This is a problem as obesity can lead to other non-communicable diseases as well such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, and kidney and liver disease.
Ruzita Abd Talib from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia said people must control their appetites and exercise regularly, adding that weight management depends on individual attitudes.
But she also sees a silver lining in this phase of MCO.
“The current MCO is different from the last time because now people have begun involving themselves in sports and leisure activities,” the health sciences lecturer told MalaysiaNow.