What is real, fresh food anymore? In world and in cities where chicken comes in pieces, deep fried; Fruit is what you drink from the box; Vegetable is a fried potato we eat with fried chicken. Have we lost touch of what real, fresh food is and how important it is for the health of our children and health of society?
Even the sights of unhealthy, junk food are designed carefully to make you feel hungry. Junk food industries, advertisers and marketers work hard to develop just the right recipe to make junk food not attractive, appealing, and appetizing. In the end, people eat food not always because they want to feel full, but also to have pleasure in eating them.
Twenty years ago when we had the first fried chicken restaurant chain in Indonesia, I remember vividly that it was such a big revolution. To go there and eat fried chicken with fried potatoes instead of rice! How absurd, but how fresh!
Unhealthy food problem 1: Cheaper
These days, unhealthy food is becoming more affordable for the masses. Most of the fried chicken restaurants can sell you a complete set for less than two US dollars. Sometimes there will be toys included for the kids’ meal related to the movie promo. Parents know that this is a tough battle, as children fall in love with the toys first, not so much with the meals. Soft drinks are sold in big bottles offering big deals for sharing. Some people think of junk food as “good value for the money” because it’s cheap, such as for company’s outing or school trips. Nowadays they provide fifty cent meals and distribute discount vouchers in the markets, making it more affordable to the majority of people in Asia.
When junk food is more affordable than nutritious food, it leads to cheap snacking options for kids
Photo ©Chetra Ten/World Vision
Rural areas in Asia also experience the change of dietary habits due to modernization and rapid growth of the small towns. Soft drinks and chips can be found even on top of a remote hill in Nepal. Children in rural Cambodia are snacking on little packages of “cakes” which is actually chips with no nutritional value. The rural communities are hardworking people and most of them are made of busy parents who have to work in the field all day. In the past, women cooked the meals early and children ate whatever the parents prepared for them. Most communities in Asia used to give hearty and nutritious local snacks to their children. However, now junk food is the cheap and quick option for parents who have little money as it is. It is a common sight now to see children snacking heavily on chips, candies, and soft drinks – “empty calories” as they have no nutritional values besides the calorie from fat or sugar.
Unhealthy food problem 2: Easier than cooking
In Asia's cities there are so many food stalls and junk food restaurants available. Sometimes opting for unhealthier foods is also a due to having lack of space for cooking, as experienced by families living in urban slums in Jakarta and Manila. Why bother cooking when you can get your food in three minutes from an instant noodle package?
In communities where World Vision works, many parents have lost touch with home cooking of nutritional meals. Nutrition education and cooking demonstration have been found to be one of the effective approaches in promoting good nutrition. During these demonstrations, mothers are encouraged to bring their own ingredients to ensure the recipes they are learning to cook are possible to replicate at home, locally available and affordable. The main goal is to build parents’ confidence and skills in cooking again, and to increase their knowledge of the importance of nutrition for their children. The first 1000 days of a child's life, and with each stage of development, adequate nutrition from food and exercise is critical to a child's ability to mentally and physically develop properly.
World Vision Nutrition clubs in Cambodia. Photo ©Laura Reinhardt/World Vision
Unhealthy food problem 3: The new normal
The “attack” of junk food is happening in the schools, both in urban and rural areas. The schools in Asia seldom have healthy options in their canteen, and it is easy to find cheap snacks rich in preservatives, coloring, additives and sugar. Most of the times, they are prepared with poor food hygiene. Usually when there are cases of food poisoning or diarrhea outbreak then the school authority will investigate and scrutinize the food vendors at schools. However, the massive amount of junk food rich in preservatives, sometimes using textile coloring, and sugar sold to children go on unnoticed. The environments where children grow nowadays teach them that unhealthy food is normal.
Unhealthy food problem 4: It's not just more unhealthy eating, it's more sitting
There is a worrying trend of children becoming more and more sedentary. I remember I grew up knowing that to play is to run, move and jump. These days, children’s play time is to sit down in front of the television or gadget and they can sit for hours. Who can deny that today’s magic formula for parents in today is to give their active children gadget and internet connection, a proven method to make children stay at home for a very long time?
Recently there was a debate in social media on whether we can be healthy if we exercise but continue eating junk food and soft drinks. As a healthy and nutrition advisor, I do not think so. Healthy eating and exercise need to go hand in hand. In order to grow well, to excel in school and in sports, children need good nutrition, and as much as possible from fresh produce because that’s where we will get the needed vitamins, minerals and enzymes needed for our body to function well. But children also need physical activity, exercise and access to and encouragement to participate in sports that can motivate them to stay healthy and active as young people and as adults.
So how can parents, schools, and community teach children to love healthy food and to exercise?
We need to pay closer attention to the problems of unhealthy food consumption and lack of exercise for children in Asia. Asia region is facing a serious burden of undernutrition and at the same time we see rising rates of overweight and obesity.
- There are a total of 165 million children stunted in the world (26% or 1 in 4 children)  but based on UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2014 report, 106 million stunted children live in Asia alone.
- Approximately 78 million stunted children live in South Asia and 28 million from East Asia-Pacific. On the other hand, according the Global Nutrition Report 2014 there were 5.9 million children under five who are overweight in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Philippines – the same countries reporting high undernutrition.
- The Pacific Islands also have serious health problems related to processed food replacing the traditional foods .
One of the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals is “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture”. Malnutrition is an underlying cause in nearly half of all child deaths. We understand more now that malnutrition is a complex issue related to lack of food intake, diseases, caring and feeding practices. So, food is a very important component in reducing malnutrition, but what kind of food? It’s certainly not junk food, but real, fresh, healthy food.
One Goal believes global goals such as this present possibility of a much brighter future for the next generation, where Asia’s children have the chance to enjoy the benefits of good nutrition and to participate in grassroots sports like football that can teach life skills and health. As a partner of One Goal, World Vision International aims to create opportunities for children to fall in love again with real, fresh food, and with exercise. I hope, too, adults also learn to fall in love again with healthy food and exercise and set good examples for our children.
Photos from the Barclays Asia Trophy 2015 Premier Skills camp for kids.
This post was contributed by Esther Indriani, Regional Health & Nutrition Advisor for World Vision South Asia and Pacific Region.
 Lancer Paper 1 (Black et al 2013)
 UNICEF 2014, State of the World’s Children
 WHO Bulletin Volume 88, Number 7, July 2010, 481-560