Overweight, obesity threaten future of kids in Vietnam

September 14, 2022 | 04:30 pm PT
Caroline Spurr Dietitian
Overweight, obesity threaten future of kids in Vietnam
Consumption of fast food among Vietnamese children is increasing. Illustration photo by FAO
I chose to work as a teacher to gain experience with children and live abroad.

But despite the career switch, I retain an interest in diets. With my background in food and nutrition, it is hard to overlook health and behaviors in Vietnam, particularly kids'.

I notice that, like in the west, Vietnamese children are overweight and even obese. I also notice their snack choices during break time. They include lots of highly processed snack foods. Sugary drinks like soda, milk tea and juice are favored. Soda and milk tea are obvious sugar offenders, but you may be curious why juice is too.

Juice, even the freshly squeezed kind, is a form of concentrated sugar. I have seen adverts about getting "16 oranges in one glass of juice," which sounds fantastic! Imagine all that vitamin C!

Unfortunately, it is simply unnatural to consume the equivalent of 16 oranges in one sitting, not to mention your body will expel the extra vitamin C beyond your needs.

More than that, when fruits are processed into juice, all of the fiber is removed, leaving the vitamins – yes – but also the sugars. Without that fiber, your blood gets a quick infusion of sugar, like a surge of motorbikes in rush hour traffic.

It appears that the health of younger generations is worsening – but why? Vietnam is known to have a relatively healthy diet.

A traditional Vietnamese diet is balanced and includes protein, carbohydrates and vegetables. Typically, it is low in fat and high in nutrients. It will include a little meat or fish, but not too much. There is an abundance of fresh fruits available, and it is not uncommon to receive a side of soup with each meal. Finally, every Vietnamese meal contains an essential component: rice.

Unfortunately, consumption of animal-based products is increasing. Animal products contain high levels of saturated fats – the type of fats responsible for cardiovascular (heart) diseases. It is not surprising to hear then that the top two causes of death in Vietnam are cardiovascular diseases – stroke and ischemic heart disease.

It is clear there have been changes in the traditional Vietnamese diet, but how is this impacting our youngest humans growing up in the midst of these changes?

In 2020 Vietnam considered 19% of children overweight and 8.1% obese.

If these children grow into overweight and obese adults, we can expect nearly 3 in 4 to die of preventable (non-communicable) diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, according to a landscape analysis by UNICEF Viet Nam and the Hanoi University of Public Health.

Knowing these statistics, it is time to take action now.

Kids in Vietnam are being exposed to increasingly obesogenic environments laden with convenience snacks and foods and lead sedentary lives.

These troubling statistics may help explain why: Between 2014 and 2019 sales of carbonated drinks increased by 39%, sweet snacks by 34% and savory snacks by 28%.

Some 41% of secondary and high schools do not have a sports ground.

The latter statistic is unfortunate, but considering the tight urban landscapes in Vietnam, particularly in the cities, it becomes difficult to add these sporting spaces for children. Childhood overweight and obesity is only now becoming noticed as an issue, and so it makes sense that the city had not accommodated playgrounds when building the schools. Besides, there were probably more pressing needs for the space.

Unlike western countries, Vietnam has few policies in place to combat childhood overweight and obesity.

But yet, in 2017 some 30% of Canadian children were considered overweight or obese.

Vietnam has begun to implement some school nutrition policies like the milk program, but with the inclusion of flavored or sweetened milks. Again, this brings in the potential issue of kids consuming high-calorie, high-sugar beverages, adding to their overall energy intake and putting them at risk of weight gain.

Liquid calories are the sneakiest as they are consumed without the feeling of fullness.

The impacts of the western diet cannot be ignored: It is clear that it is negatively affecting the health of our children. Canada has many measures in place to try to combat the negative effects of the western diet, but still sees staggering levels of childhood overweight and obesity.

As these foods make their way into Vietnam, Vietnamese children are especially vulnerable to the health implications as there are fewer restrictions in place to help combat their negative effects.

Who is the first line of defense for our vulnerable youth?

The answer is many: parents, teachers, food companies, restaurants, the government, and dietitians. While we cannot control external factors, we can control our own internal decisions. Education and awareness is the first step toward positive behavior change.

Some priority actions recommended by UNICEF Viet Nam and the Hanoi University of Public Health were:

- Introduce government policies such as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, restricting marketing of highly processed, unhealthy foods to kids and adding front-of-pack labels

- Expand knowledge and use of nutrition guidelines

- Educate pregnant women on the effects of overweight and obesity and ideal feeding practices for infants and young children

- Educate health professionals on overweight and obesity

- Introduce a school nutrition program

- Provide free drinking water at schools and other places children gather

- Improve access to and affordability of healthy foods, focusing on local markets

Vietnam, like any other country, has barriers to change. I leave you with a quote from Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh: "You are not an observer, you are a participant."

You have the power to start making changes.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
go to top