Here's my latest column in Doanh Nhan Saigon Cuoi Tuan.
Get educated for nutrition
I have a friend who works at a school in the city. Over dinner recently he told me some tales of the children he deals with, or more accurately, the parents. He told me of one little girl who weighs 25kg at age two. She can’t go out and play with the other children. I have a daughter nearly the same age, and she is just overs 10 kgs. For some reason, Vietnamese people including my wife’s family have commented that she is ‘skinny’. No, she is perfectly normal, and very healthy. Why is there an association with overweight children and wealth and prosperity in Vietnam? I understand that Vietnam has in very recent history become developed and therefore a lot of people have ‘new money’, and this is one way to show it. A poor, sad excuse when the result is the increase by many times in the chance of the child suffering a kaleidoscope of diseases. This 25kg 2 year old will have a increased risk by many times of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Not to mention cancer which is largely a diet and lifestyle related illness as well. Why would you do that to your baby? The parents, when summoned to the school, were defiant. According to the father, she’s perfectly healthy - despite the Internet guide shown to him on childhood obesity declaring the opposite. The poor girl will be lucky to live until 40.
Of course, this is not an exclusively Vietnamese problem, it is a disease of western society now spreading to the east. How can we solve this problem? In my opinion, education is the only answer.
We need to foster an environment that moves away from the false marketing of the food companies. In the UK we have regulation of the advertising industry with regards to what can be targeted at children, and also false advertising. I am unsure of what regulations may be in place in Vietnam and it is doubly frustrating to see when Vietnam is a country supplied with endless fruit and vegetables on every street corner. For example, I recently saw a game show with young children on TV which was clearly sponsored in-studio by a well known brand that makes sugary drinks - far from educating our children about health we are exposing them to brand names and logos that will stick in their mind, and unless anyone else tells them otherwise, why would they consider these products anything bad? We have to plant that seed in their minds. Chocolate cereals may be tasty and attractive to children, especially when they see their logos everyday with fun cartoon characters associated with the product, but they contain zero nutrition for building a healthy body and a sharp, active mind. They do however include ingredients that will contribute to obesity, diseases and cognitive problems in the future. Children need real food with real vitamins and minerals, not ‘empty’ foods packaged in a colourful box or a tin.
I’ve also never understood the obsession with forumla milk in Vietnam. It is widely acknowledged around the world that breast feeding should occur for six months minimum, a year if possible. Of course, breast milk is full of all the most natural, brain building ingredients that an infant needs in their delicate first year of life. A recent report came out in the British press that formula milk has up to 40 times the aluminium of breast milk. Babies can not get rid of this heavy metal as well as adults and a build up in the body has been associated with many auto immune diseases. This is no way to start your child’s life.
We need to build a proper understanding of what good nutrition is - and for that the adults must take responsibility first. It means researching things for ourselves and not trusting ‘what it says on the box’. However, I fear that many adults in Vietnam also need educating on even the most basic dietary facts. For example, I was shocked when some Vietnamese friends of mine, recent university graduates, didn’t seem to understand that sugar is bad for them. A family member of mine is diabetic and it is obviously diet related, but she won’t change what she eats and drinks.
A lot of my teenage students chew gum at lunch times. I tell them to go and research the sweetener contained in sugar-free gum and sugar free drinks called aspartame. If you’ve never heard of it, I suggest you find out so you can start educating your kids about nutrition properly. It starts from birth you see, by supplying the breast milk that nature so obviously provides, to eating the right things when solid foods begin and refusing all those crisps and sweets that relatives and friends constantly want to give your child. For a treat, don’t take them to the burger bar, make it a fruit juice or a coconut. Education, in this respect, really does begin at home.