Childhood Obesity in Malaysia: What You Should Know

The prevalence of childhood obesity has increased at an alarming rate. Awareness starts with parents to help curb this disease at an early age using various Western and TCM practices.

An Asian boy is eating a fried chicken burger with a glass of soda

All parents would want their children to eat well and grow healthily. Some people would say that this is their love language, to constantly tell their children to eat more. However, without proper guidance, overeating and overfeeding can cause childhood obesity, leading to various diseases. 

Malaysia is one of the top three countries with a high percentage of childhood obesity in children between six months to 12 years old. In 2015, a study by the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS) reveals that 11.8% of children below 18 years old are found to be obese. 

Furthermore, an estimated prediction along with the latest accumulated data shows that 1.65 million children are expected to be obese by 2025 if extensive awareness or interventions are not taken in the present time. 

Childhood obesity is not a condition; it’s a disease. Assessment of obesity in children and adolescents is important to prevent the progression of various co-morbidities into adulthood. So, at what point are children considered obese? 

Defining Childhood Obesity 

A toddler is standing on a scale with “high risk” written on the display
Overweight children are at higher risk for life-threatening diseases.

Children and teens of the same age and sex with a body mass index (BMI) of 95% and above are defined as obese. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Physician Tiang Sack Sing from Eu Yan Sang clinic shares a simple formula to calculate a child’s BMI (2-10 years old):  

Weight (kg) = age X 2 +7 (or + 8). For instance, a 6-year-old child’s normal weight will be about 19-20 kg. Any value above this is deemed overweight. 

Implications of Childhood Obesity 

The morbidity and mortality rate among future adults is highly dependent on the progression of childhood obesity. Unfortunately, children often come to seek treatment when their illnesses are at critical stages. 

Parents must be proactive enough to help their children curb this disease at an early age, preferably before the age of 3 years old before things go out of hand.

Sleep disturbances is also an adverse effect of childhood obesity. Obstructive sleep apnea and hypoventilation syndrome in children are some examples. A disruption in sleep causes an imbalance of the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood which overall affects a child’s quality of life. 

Prevention of Obesity in Children 

A young father is eating orange slices with his young daughter
Prevent child obesity at a young age

Physician Tiang says that parents should set a good example in diet and daily life maintenance, such as: 

1. Maintaining three-tenths of hunger  

Avoid overeating as much as possible, leave some room in the stomach for digestion and facilitate nutrient absorption.

2. Eating a balanced diet  

According to the Malaysian Dietary Guidelines published by the Ministry of Health Malaysia, this includes eating adequate amounts of rice, plenty of fruits and vegetables every day. It is also recommended to limit the consumption of food high in fats and sugar, and sweetened beverages. 

3. Practicing exercise habits  

Exercise can promote the metabolic function of the spleen, improve the digestive system, and distract children from their obsession with food. 

Correcting lifestyle 

Prevention is one of the hallmarks of paediatric practice. As a result of the increase in the prevalence of overweight and inactivity amongst children and adolescents, you should focus on preventive efforts in association with medical diseases and their persistence into adulthood.

CHILD AGE  LIFESTYLE TARGETS  
PREGNANCY  1. Advocate good nutrition and maintain appropriate maternal gain.
2. Prevent gestational diabetes.
3. Encourage breastfeeding benefits and plans to stimulate breast milk production.
INFANTS  1. Encourage exclusive breastfeeding for a minimum of 6 months.
2. Solid foods should be introduced only after 6 months of age.
3. Moderate weight gain throughout childhood.
TODDLERS  1. Establish regular meal patterns and timing.
2. Broaden diet with healthy products.
3. Limit sweetened beverages.
4. Portion control of food.
5. Encourage physical playtime.
6. Establish healthy television habits.
7. Positive encouragement to reinforce healthy choices.
8. Parents to be role models for children to follow.
SCHOOLING CHILDREN  All of the above and:
1. Increase school outdoor activities and sports.
2. Family outdoor sporting activities or playtime.
3. Support healthy body images.
ADOLESCENTS  Prevent and discourage:
1. Excessive take-out or restaurant meals.
2. Meal-skipping.
3. Snacking instead of proper meal portions.
4. Quitting sports or physical activity.

Dietary Advice 

According to TCM, children can improve their physique and health through diet therapy or a Chinese medicine regimen. Physician Tiang says that generally obese children have dysfunction of the Spleen-Stomach digestive system, and most of them have qi (vital energy) deficiency and phlegm dampness. 

Herbal soups have multiple beneficial factors. In terms of Chinese patent medicine, Bu Qi Jian Zhong Pills can regulate children’s body constitution. A licenced TCM Physician will have to prescribe these pills and the efficacy of treatments will vary based on each individual.

There is no guarantee of success and all existing medication that the child is on must be carefully examined before consumption. Also, some supplements can complement a child’s diet, such as a high-fibre oat drink.

From the western perspective, food contributes to 70% of the weight loss process. If you’re a parent, you can educate your children from a young age on the benefits of healthy, nutritious food instead of focusing on just the flavour. 

Various food preparations can be introduced to make it look fun and attractive to children. Entice them with colours of real foods, such as papayas, oranges, apples, tomatoes and educate them about the nutritional benefits of these foods.

As a parent, your children’s health and nutrition matter to ensure they grow to live a healthy life. Slowly but surely, you can encourage them to eat healthy foods and stay active during the day. Don’t hesitate to consult with a paediatrician, nutritionist, or your trusted TCM professional for proper guidance.

References

  1. Ministry of Health Malaysia. 2015. National Health & Morbidity Survey. [online] [Accessed on 23 February 2022] 
  2. Ministry of Health Malaysia. 2010. Malaysian Dietary Guidelines. [online] [Accessed on 23 February 2022] 
  3. UM Specialist Centre. N.d. Childhood Obesity A Growing Health Crisis In Malaysia. [online] [Accessed on 23 February 2022] 
  4. International Journal of Obesity. 2019. Understanding childhood obesity in the US: the NIH environmental influences on child health outcomes (ECHO) program. [online] [Accessed on 23 February 2022] 
  5. MASO. N.d. Childhood Obesity. [online] [Accessed on 23 February 2022] 

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