According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), worldwide obesity has tripled from 1975 to 2016.
The scarier fact is that as of 2016, 41 million children under the age of five and 340 million children between the ages of five and 19 were reported to be overweight or obese.
Malaysia has a lot to worry about because according to British medical journal, The Lancet, Malaysia is the most obese nation in South East Asia. And as per the National Health and Morbidity survey 2015, there is a prevalence of 11.9% obesity in children below 18 years.
University of Malaya, department of paediatrics and faculty of medicine Associate Prof Dr Muhammad Yazid Jalaludin warns, “Most children who remain obese in the first decade of their lives go on to become obese adults. It is not easy to lose weight and become fit just like that.
“There are numerous adverse consequences of obesity on health including the risk of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, fatty liver disease that increases manifold.”
Keep them active
So, what can adults do for children?
For starters, the government banned canteen operators in public schools from selling a list of food items. Canteen operators have made it a point to strictly adhere to these guidelines.
Most international schools already follow healthy dietary options in their canteens while upholding a rigid ban on unhealthy food items being sold there.
However, as Dr Yazid rightly points out, “There are unhealthy food stalls right outside of many schools. How do you stop kids from buying and eating from such stalls?”
In fact, Malaysia is famous for its street food and it is not humanly possible to keep children away from these delicious yet unhealthy snacks.
The fact is, although an important cause of obesity, food alone cannot be blamed for the rise of this problem.
Another accompanying factor is the growing inactivity in children, as pointed out by Dr Yazid, who is also the president of the Malaysian Paediatric Association and a paediatric endocrinologist.
“The amount of energy intake must equal the energy output, which is not the case anymore, with children binging on junk food but not getting sufficient exercise,” he says.
While many parents are fully aware of the benefits and importance of promoting physical activity and healthy eating habits in their children, the growing pressure on kids to perform academically and in other co-curricular pursuits can lead to a shift in time allowances away from sports and exercise.
Ng Yee Voon, dietician at a private hospital and council member of the Malaysian Dietitians’ Association believes that this is where schools have an important role to play in ensuring optimum physical activity since children spend a big chunk of their time in schools.
“In most public schools the children get to play and run around for just 30 minutes a day during recess, which is not enough. The major part of the day is spent sitting in classrooms.
“Private and international schools offer more opportunity for playing sports since they are mostly customer driven and most parents today understand the need for these activities,” she opines.
Most private and international schools understand this problem and arrange classes in different rooms such that children are forced to move. They also offer a plethora of sports activities over and above physical exercise lessons and encourage all students to actively participate.
Let them sleep
While it is crucial to educate children about the risks of being overweight, adults need to do their part in ensuring they stay active.
However, it is impossible for schools to tackle this problem alone and parents play an important role in reinforcing this message from an early age.
For instance, parents need to be aware that sleep deprivation is another great risk factor for childhood obesity, just as nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle is.
Studies show that short sleep in infants and children can lead to developing obesity.
Dr Yazid warns, “Sleep deprivation and obesity actually form a vicious cycle since obesity causes sleep apnoea, which can disrupt sleep and if a child regularly sleeps less than the recommended amount of time, the chances of obesity increases.”
Parents need to remember this and ensure children do not lose out on their daily dose of sleep while pursuing academic excellence since there is no greater wealth than health.
This is where the real solution for this problem comes in – education.
Education is the most vital tool adults have in tackling child obesity. All humans are genetically hardwired to desire junk food and children are no exception. They also do not understand the graveness of the situation, they way adults do.
Hence the only way to stop child obesity is to educate children as well as parents about the health repercussions.
While schools are playing their role well in educating children and keeping them active, it is the parents who need to understand this and buck-up too.
SchoolAdvisor.my provides information on private and international schools, extra-curricular activities as well as other education-related topics in Malaysia.