24 May 2011

ONE out of four children in the country is either overweight or obese. One out of three teenagers is overweight, while one out of six is obese.

It’s no wonder Malaysia has earned a spot in the “World Map of Obesity”.

Childhood obesity levels in Malaysia are higher than in most Asian countries as well as developed nations such as Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany.

And the problem is getting worse, says Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia professor of human nutrition Dr Mohd Ismail Noor and Universiti Malaya Medical Centre paediatric endocrinologist Dr Muhammad Yazid Jalaludin.

Dr Ismail says obesity is on the rise among all demographic groups. However, prevalence rates differed across gender and ethnic groups.

His studies in 2002 and 2008, which were funded by Nestle, were conducted among children aged between 7 and 12 in Peninsular Malaysia. The survey data was calculated based on the World Health Organisations’ 2007 criteria.

A total of 11,242 schoolchildren from 58 schools were surveyed in 2002, and 10,009 students from 69 schools in 2008.

The 2002 study found one out of every five children to be overweight or obese.

Dr Ismail says boys had a higher obesity and overweight rate with an increase of 7.1 per cent, while the rate for girls increased by 4.4 per cent.

There was an alarming increase in the number of overweight and obese Indian children, followed by Malay and Chinese.

“Indian schoolchildren had the highest overweight and obese rates. The increase was rather significant at 9.9 per cent from 16.9 per cent to 26.1 per cent. Among Malay children, the increase was 7.1 per cent from 19.1 per cent to 26.1 per cent.

“The Chinese must be doing something right as there was only a two per cent increase from 25.6 per cent to 27.6 per cent.”

Another startling finding, he says, was that the increase in the overall prevalence of obese and overweight children was in rural areas.

“The prevalence in both urban and rural areas increased from 2002 to 2008. While the urban setting saw an increase of 5.7 per cent, the increase was higher in the rural areas at 7.6 per cent.”

Overweight and obesity levels were also high among preschoolers, he says, as indicated by another survey.

“A recently concluded study involving 992 preschoolers aged 5 to 6 years, randomly selected from 72 privately-owned kindergartens in the Klang Valley, reported that the prevalence of overweight and obese boys and girls were 9.7 per cent and 9.2 per cent respectively,” says Dr Ismail, who is also the president of the Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity.

Based on the survey by Dr Yazid’s group, the Malaysian Paediatric Obesity Working Group Research, at a secondary school in Petaling Jaya among 1,200 students between 12 and 17 years in 2005/2006, about one-third (28 per cent) of the students were overweight and, among them, 16 per cent were obese.

Of this number, says Dr Yazid, 19 per cent of Malays were obese, followed by Indians (14.5 per cent) and Chinese (13 per cent).

He says that 70 per cent of overweight students were at high risk of contracting diabetes.

Another surprising finding, says Dr Yazid, was that 14 per cent of the students were underweight.

“So in addition to the problem of Malaysians being overweight, there is also the problem of underweight Malaysian adolescents.

“The overweight and the underweight adolescents made up almost half of the study population in that school.

“We have to do something to address both problems.”

This article was published in www.nst.com.my on 6 February 2011.