New study reveals ‘hidden hunger’ among Malaysian children

7 November 2012

Results from the largest and most extensive nutrition and health study ever done in Southeast Asia have revealed critical nutritional deficiencies among children under age 12 across the region. The South East Asia Nutrition Survey (SEANUTS) of 16,744 children in four of the largest countries in the region − Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia − was presented at a regional conference co-hosted by the Nutritional Society of Malaysia (NSM) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in Malaysia.

Nutrition and health issue
The recently concluded study, which started more than two years ago, spotlights an important nutrition and health issue in Malaysia known as ‘hidden hunger’. This term is used by researchers to illustrate nutritional deficiencies that cannot be visibly observed. Overall, the local children may appear healthy or even overfed. However, they still suffer from a significant lack of nutrients such as vitamin D and calcium; essential components for the growth and development of these youngsters.

Hidden Hunger
Commenting on the study’s findings, Professor Poh Bee Koon, principal investigator for the SEANUTS in Malaysia and Head of the Nutritional Sciences Programme at UKM’s School of Healthcare Sciences said: “While overweight and obesity are easily observable among local children, results from SEANUTS highlight something deeper: hidden hunger. It is important for us to take a closer look at what our children really need in terms of nutrition, and not just what they seem to need on the surface. Equally important, the results have also brought to our attention that more needs to be done to educate and spread awareness about the ideal nutritional standards that are recommended for our children. After all, this is the next generation, and our future.”

Overweight or obese
SEANUTS, the first-ever study of children’s nutrition done on such a massive scale and depth, showed that almost 1 in 10 children in the urban regions of Malaysia are showing signs of under-nutrition based on their weight to age ratio; the percentage of rural children is only slightly lower. The study also revealed that 1 in 10 children in Malaysia are stunted for their age, a symptom that may be irreversible and is most commonly seen due to a lack of proper nutritional dietary habits. On the other hand, nearly 1 in 5 children are facing the issue of over-nutrition according to the study’s results. These children were found to be either overweight or obese. SEANUTS has demonstrated that in the areas of health and nutrition, there are still gaps to be filled and proper information and education are urgently needed.

Are Malaysian children lacking proper nutrition?
The implications of hidden hunger and a prolonged lack of proper nutrition are serious. Brain development and intellectual capacity are hindered and there is a potential for irreversible stunting effects on physical growth. In Malaysia, almost 1 in 2 children are low in Vitamin D, based on the Recommended Nutrient Intakes (RNI) for Malaysia as stipulated by the Malaysian Ministry of Health. There is also widespread calcium under-nutrition among Malaysia’s children; about half the children are not consuming enough calcium through their daily dietary intake. Calcium and Vitamin D are commonly known to be essential for proper physical development and the healthy formation of bones in children.

A better understanding of the nutritional and health status of children
Royal FrieslandCampina and its local partner UKM have invested a lot of resources in SEANUTS with the aim of better understanding the current nutritional and health status of the region’s children.

Rahul Colaco, Managing Director Dutch Lady Milk Industries Berhad, a subsidiary of Royal FrieslandCampina: “With the knowledge we have gained from SEANUTS, we want to make a difference to the children of Malaysia and the region as a whole. As a company, we will also be looking at how we can use the results of the study to better provide for their nutritional needs.”

Commenting on the conference, NSM president Dr. Tee E Siong said: ”It is important that the results and insights from SEANUTS be shared with healthcare professionals, policymakers and parents in order to make a significant difference in our children’s lives. As such, NSM is very happy to host this conference to kick-start a much needed national dialogue around the nutritional needs of our children with some of the leading experts in nutrition from across the region.”

About SEANUTS
The South East Asia Nutrition Survey (SEANUTS) is a multi-centre study that was simultaneously carried out among 16,744 children aged 6 months to 12 years in four countries − Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Its aim was to comprehensively examine the children’s nutritional status, dietary intake and habits, physical activity, blood biochemistry, as well as to assess bone health and cognitive function. The study was conducted with the involvement of relevant organisations in each country.

SEANUTS was commissioned and sponsored by Royal FrieslandCampina, the company behind Dutch Lady Malaysia, one of the world’s largest dairy multinationals in the world. In Malaysia, SEANUTS was conducted in collaboration with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), in Indonesia with PERSAGI (Persautuan Ahli Gizi Indonesia), in Thailand with Mahidol University (MAHIDOL) and in Vietnam with the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) – Vien Dinh Duong. 

In Malaysia, data were collected from May 2010 to October 2011 in six regions across the country, namely the Northern, Central, Southern and East Coast areas of Peninsular Malaysia, as well as Sabah and Sarawak.

For more information on the institutions involved in SEANUTS:
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (www.ukm.my); Nutritional Society of Malaysia (www.nutriweb.org.my); Persautuan Ahli Gizi Indonesia (www.persagi.org); Mahidol University in Thailand (www.mahidol.ac.th); National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) – Vien Dinh Duong (www.viendinhduong.vn).