With incidences of non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) from unhealthy diets on the rise in Asia, governments and food companies are working to find the right balance between regulation and enhanced consumer education. Research, however, continues to show that the most powerful nutrition education starts at home.
A 2014 study of obesity in Asia by British medical journal, The Lancet, found that almost half the population of Malaysia is now considered obese, and that other Asian countries are also gaining weight and witnessing higher rates of weight-related illnesses.
These rates don’t compare with some western countries, such as the USA – where 69 per cent of adults age 20 years and over are overweight or obese – or Australia, where 63 per cent of adults are overweight. However, the challenges in Asia are more complex than in other parts of the world. The region faces a dual burden of over-consumption and under-nutrition; and nutritional literacy is a greater challenge in Asia because the basic level of knowledge and available education resources are much lower.
The influential role that parents can play in addressing this issue by driving nutritional education and fostering health eating habits has been repeatedly highlighted in international research.
A study of 594 children by the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, University College Cork, Ireland found that 89 per cent of all eating occasions for young children (aged 5 to 12 years of age) occurred at home. The report recommended that “the main focus of nutrition policies to improve the diets of Irish children should be the home environment rather than the food service sector”.
An Edinburgh University study also found that children who ate meals with their parents were far more likely to have healthy diets than those who ate alone. By being positive role models for healthy eating, parents were more likely to expose their children to a wider range of foods that are key to a balanced diet.
Locally, a Review in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition titled ‘Nurturing healthy dietary habits among children and youth in Singapore’, cited research showing that most dietary habits are formed at a young age, with many forming below the age of five, and habits becoming more difficult to change after 11-18 years.
Professor Alan Reilly, the Chief Executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, said, “Like many other culturally-driven issues, studies in the area of nutrition education consistently show that the most powerful education happens socially – at home or amongst peers.
He said, “We’ve seen that to make an impact with children and young people, nutrition education must be delivered in fun, engaging and increasingly creative ways. Initiatives such as ‘Cool Food Planet’ offer great examples of the possibilities of these activities in action.”
A recent McKinsey Global Institute report ‘Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis’, found sufficient evidence for empowered and educated parents bringing about behavioural change with regards to childhood obesity.
One of the report’s authors based in Singapore, Fraser Thompson, said “Globally obesity is a complex, systemic issue with no single or simple solution. No individual sector in society can address this problem on its own—not governments, retailers, consumer-goods companies or restaurants. Engagement from as many sectors as possible, in addition to education and personal responsibility, are critical elements of any program aiming to reduce obesity.
“For Asia to successfully tackle this issue it will be important to continue to look to global research and examples of best practice, while also implementing further local research and initiatives that specifically address the challenge here,” he added.
Earlier this year, at the inaugural meeting of the newly formed Asia Roundtable on Food Innovation for Improved Nutrition (ARoFIIN) senior practitioners discussed similar conclusions. A key goal for ARoFIIN will be working to make healthy eating more appealing to children and young people in Asia as a way forward for improving nutritional literacy in the region.
ARoFIIN Member, Professor Walter Wahli, said “The need for greater collaboration between public and private partners to raise the bar on nutritional education in Asia is widely recognised, and we hope to be a key facilitator for this. To address the whole issue one of our other objectives will be looking at how we can make healthy food a popular choice for children and young people through campaign-style activity targeted towards consumers and consumer-facing organisations regionally.”
Malaysia’s premier nutrition education initiative, supported by the Nutrition Division of the Ministry of Health, Malaysia Nutrition Month Malaysia (NMM), is a current example of campaign- style activity in action. Held every April with a different theme each year, the initiative focuses on promoting healthy lifestyles. Past initiatives have included Nutrition Combo Kits that were issued to children and parents containing educational materials such as comic books, activity books, a D-I-Y foldable pyramid and vouchers to redeem Nutrition Month publications.
Singapore’s Health Promotion Board (HPB) also runs initiatives such as the ‘Healthier Child, Brighter Future’ programme, which aims to equip parents-to-be and young parents with information and skills to give their children a healthy head start in life.
Private sector companies in the region also continue to drive a number of successful nutritional campaigns that aim to educate and improve the overall state of nutrition amongst children across Asia. Some of these initiatives include Cargill’s ‘Nourishing India’ programme, Kellogg’s ‘School Breakfast Club’ and Mars’ ‘Save the Children’ campaign.
While government and industry work towards effecting change, research shows that they can only ever go part of the way. In the longer term, if we are to effect healthy diets in the Asia Pacific region, education must also take place at home, with parents leading the fore in building nutrition education from an early age to develop positive nutritional habits for life.