Get active: More children are getting overweight and lack vitamin D because they are not playing outside. — AFP

The South East Asian Nutrition Surveys (Seanuts) found that sedentary lifestyle is a worrying trend resulting in overnutrition and vitamin D deficiency.

ECONOMIC prosperity has enabled Malaysians to feed their children more, but it does not always result in healthier children.

“Food is now available everywhere, 24 hours a day, especially in densely populated regions. At the same time, the population is becoming less active, especially in large cities where children are often not allowed to play outside due to parental safety concerns,” says Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s head of Nutritional Sciences Programme and Principal Investigator of Seanuts Malaysia Prof Dr Poh Bee Koon.

Dr Poh was partipating in a discussion organised by Dutch Lady on the health status of Malaysian children based on the findings of Seanuts, a nutritional study done on 16,744 children aged six months to 12 years in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

In Malaysia, the survey was done 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.

According to Seanuts’ findings, one in five children is overweight or obese, and one in 20 children underweight in South East Asia.

“Children in urban areas, especially boys, are also more likely to be obese than those in rural areas. More children are exceeding the 75 percentile in their Body Mass Index (BMI) figures,” added consultant paediatrician Dr Yong Junina Fadzil who was also at the discussion.

All the panelists concurred that inactivity is one of the leading contributors to overweight children.

“Children these days are less exposed to physical activities even when it comes to play time. Kids prefer digital devices and other electronics to running around on a field or playing catch in the park,” said Dr Yong, adding that families in Kuala Lumpur find it hard to engage in outdoor activities due to work commitments.

One of the effects of our children not playing outside is a deficiency in Vitamin D. Seanuts findings reveal Vitamin D deficiency in half of Malaysian children in urban and rural areas, particularly urban girls.

“In Malaysia where we have so much of sunlight that helps our body to naturally absorb vitamin D, it is amazing that many children studied suffered from a Vitamin D deficiency,” said Dr Poh, adding that 15-20 minutes a day of sunlight is enough to meet our daily vitamin D requirement.

Dr Yong pointed out that Vitamin D is an essential nutrient needed for healthy bones and to control the amount of calcium in the blood.

“Children need Vitamin D for bone growth and development as it helps to absorb calcium. Most people get little Vitamin D in their diet; only a few natural foods such as oily fish and eggs contain significant amounts of the vitamin.

“Sunshine is the main source of Vitamin D; however, it can only be made in our skin by exposure to sunlight,” she said.

Institute of Teachers Education Deputy Director Dr Mehander Singh said it is worrying that our children are leading sedentary lifestyles with less outdoor activities.

He encouraged parents and teachers to promote and encourage a more active lifestyle among children because apart from improving overall health and fitness, it’d also reduce the risk of chronic illness caused by being overweight and obese.

“In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity daily.

“As parents, we should encourage and guide our kids by showing them good examples. Encourage your children’s participation in after school sporting activities to achieve continuous and long-lasting health right into their adulthood,” said Dr Mehander.

Also present at the discussion was father-of-two Johnny Lak who wanted to know how to monitor his children’s weight.

Creating a chart and measuring a child’s growth spurt is a good method to monitor your child’s progression, suggested Dr Yong.

“You can weigh and measure your children from time to time and monitor their growth. If there is a significant spike in their weight over a short period of time, take that as a warning sign.

Feeding children balanced meals is crucial in their growing years, but she also said there is nothing wrong in offering children food they enjoy.

“The most important thing is to offer your kids variation that is balanced and according to their recommended nutrient intake. This way, they are unlikely to suffer from malnutrition or over nutrition,” advised Dr Yong.

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