KUALA LUMPUR: The second South East Asian Nutrition Survey (Seanuts II) has revealed a "triple burden" of malnutrition prevalent among children between the ages of 0.5 and 12 in the region.
These children faced the coexistence of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight or obesity problems.
The survey, which was commissioned by FrieslandCampina — one of the largest dairy companies in the world — was conducted in 2019 and 2021.
The study involved 14,000 children from urban and rural schools, community health centres and subdistrict administrative organisations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
"These burdens often coexist in the same country and can even occur in the same family," it said.
In citing the findings on micronutrient deficiency and obesity, the study emphasised the urgency to fill nutritional gaps with proper interventions and educational programmes.
"Stunting and anaemia still exist, especially in younger children. Overweight and obesity issues are more common among older children in the four countries.
"Also, most of the children do not meet the average needs for calcium and vitamin D intake and show vitamin D insufficiencies," it said.
Seanuts II principal investigator for Malaysia Professor Dr Poh Bee Koon said more than 70 per cent of the children in all four countries did not meet the average needs for calcium.
More than 84 per cent of the respondents did not meet the average vitamin D requirements.
"Healthy nutrition is about balance, moderation and variety. If children do not get the nutrition they need, they would not grow and develop properly.
"These numbers emphasise an urgent need to improve food security, as well as the availability of food products that meet the children's needs, thus increasing access to healthy nutrition."
Dr Poh, who is a nutrition professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Faculty of Health Sciences, Centre for Community Health Studies (ReaCH), said one in four Malaysian children consumes a portion size of less than 100ml of dairy, fewer than five times a week.
"Dairy is commonly consumed during breakfast, yet, one in three children in Malaysia does not get daily breakfast.
"The Malaysian Dietary Guidelines 2020 recommends that a balanced diet should consist of fruits, vegetables, carbohydrates and protein foods, including two servings of dairy products per day.
"Research shows that stunted children with an unbalanced diet are more likely to suffer from anaemia and iron deficiency.
"Poor nutrition also has a negative impact on children's cognition and potentially on their future lives," she said.
The undernutrition findings are highly alarming as the data is still behind the targets set by the Health Ministry in the National Plan of Action for Nutrition of Malaysia III 2016- 2025.
FrieslandCampina research and development global director Margrethe Jonkman said research was key to getting a better understanding of local nutritional needs.
"The results from this study will help FrieslandCampina develop better and affordable products that meet the nutritional needs of children and set up programmes to promote a well-balanced diet and active lifestyle with local authorities, health workers and schools."