30% of Malaysian children stunted due to unhealthy diet
KUALA LUMPUR – Madam Mimi Abdullah is worried about her son’s growth, as he is one of the smallest kids in his class.
“He is nine years old, but some people think he is younger,” said the 45-year-old KL resident, who is not using her real name in this story to protect her son’s identity.
While her son has a healthy appetite, he tends to eat fast food and snacks a lot because of the family’s busy schedule, she said, adding that she tries to give him milk as the paediatrician advised them, but he dislikes the taste.
She works two jobs and often does not cook at home.
Being in the top 20 per cent of households in terms of income – those who earn RM11,820 ($3,386) and above per month – she has a helper at home who cooks.
But she said her son, who is the second of two children, does not like the helper’s cooking.
Almost a third of children up to four years old in Malaysia suffer from stunted growth caused by unhealthy diets, according to data from the Health Ministry revealed on Nov 1 and reported by local media.
Based on the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2022, stunting affected around one in 5 – or 21.2 per cent – of all children in Malaysia.
And the problem affects children on both ends of the financial spectrum. Some cases are due to the busy lifestyles of the children’s parents, while for others, it boils down to poverty.
“I have met families who will just mix water with sugar to feed their babies because they don’t have money to buy milk,” Minister of Youth and Sports Hannah Yeoh told The Straits Times.
Deputy Health Minister Lukanisman Awang Sauni revealed in November that 29.7 per cent of Malaysian children aged up to four years old had or are currently suffering from stunted growth, according to ministry data for the last five years.
He stressed that it is not just lower income groups suffering from this condition.
Kelantan – one of Malaysia’s poorest states – and Putrajaya, the nation’s administrative capital and one of the richest areas, both saw among the highest ratios of children suffering from stunted growth vis-a-vis their respective child populations.
Mr Lukanisman said this showed that it affected both lower income groups and the well-off.
“Those with lower incomes tend to go for cheaper and less nutritional food due to their limited financial resources, which has been made worse by the rising cost of living over the past few years,” he told Parliament on Nov 1.
“(On the other hand), many with higher incomes are more career-focused, which leaves them little time to cook at home,” he explained, adding that this led them to opt for less nutritious meals – like fast food – to feed their families.
Hoping to alleviate the problem, Ms Yeoh launched a one-year free milk programme on Nov 16.
The programme was first rolled out in her Segambut constituency, starting in Kampung Sungai Penchala, with plans to introduce it in other areas.
On Dec 7, the programme was rolled out at a second location in Taman Sejahtera.
The project, organised in collaboration with the Korean Society Malaysia and Farm Fresh Malaysia dairy company, will provide free milk to some 300 children aged six and below from low-income families in order to “foster healthy growth, and ensure that no child goes hungry”.
The programme will work with local mosques to identify families in need who can then redeem the milk products by scanning QR codes at vending machines located in the mosques. Each child will be entitled to three packets of milk a week.
The vending machines will also sell milk at almost cost price, and QR codes on the machines offer free health and mental health check-ups via the Doctor Anywhere app.
Some of the causes of stunting include inadequate dietary intake, disease, an unhealthy household environment, and socio-economic factors, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Professor of Nutrition Poh Bee Koon told ST.
Prof Poh led a recent survey of 2,989 children aged between six months and 12 years that found that Malaysian children face the “triple burden of malnutrition”, including undernutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and obesity.
The study also revealed that the majority did not get the recommended daily intake of vitamin D (95 per cent of participants) and calcium (80 per cent). It found low rates of dairy consumption, a primary source of calcium and protein.
She said the government should revive a free breakfast programme for primary schoolchildren, as many students from all income groups do not have breakfast before school.
“For families with food insecurity issues, having that meal at school will help them a lot,” she said.
Prof Poh expressed hope to see a future where every child in Malaysia has access to nourishing food, which is not only vital for their current health and well-being, but also lays the foundation for a healthier adult population in the long term.